23 May 2012

The Kermadec Exhibition comes to Tonga

Contemplating a John Pule painting
As the local press release said, over one thousand primary school students - as well as a huge number of secondary school students - are starting to visit the New Zealand High Commission this week. I came down from my desk on Tuesday to see the first group filing through, a scattering collection of uniformed, bright-faced primary students, ready to see the Kermadec Exhibition on display for the first time in Tonga.

For me, this is an amazing second experience with the Kermadec Project. Last year, I was lucky enough to perform with On the Spot, a local arts group, at a reception night held for the artists as they came through Tonga. This year, I got to work on it from the other side, helping to organize the exhibition and related events out of the NZ High Commission.

A panorama shot of two exhibition walls

It all came about last year when the Pew Environment Group invited nine highly-acclaimed artists to go on a sea voyage from New Zealand to Tonga in an effort to raise awareness for the Kermadec trench and surrounding reigion. The trench itself is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, and connects New Zealand and Tonga in a volcanic range. In the Pew Environment Group Director Bronwen Golder's words, if you were a giant, you could hop from undersea mountaintop to mountaintop, all the way from New Zealand to Tonga.

Artist Gregory O'Brien shows guest of honour HRH Princess Angelika Tuku'aho (daughter of the current King) around at the exhibition opening
The ending point of the journey last year was here, Tonga, and each of the artists returned home to New Zealand to produce work in response to the voyage. The full exhibitions opened late last year, and have shown in Auckland and Tauranga.

Artist Dame Robin White shows Salote Austin her work on tapa
To our absolute delight, a smaller version of the exhibition and four of the nine artists have come back to Tonga - Gregory O'Brien, Elizabeth Thomson, John Pule, and Dame Robin White. It has been hugely fun to organize as well; this sort of thing usually just doesn't happen in Tonga. The last time an international Pacific arts exhibition was shown here in my memory was two years ago, and the excitement of the kids and general public is proof of success.

A large group of women from the suburb of Havelu worked on several other huge tapa paintings with Dame Robin White. Unfortunately the work was too large to exhibit here - they travel with the larger show in New Zealand instead. Here the Havelu group of women watch the documentary of themselves making the tapa with Robin. Exclamations of "listen, there you are singing!" and "oh, look you're so fat!" are joked around in Tongan as they watch.
The exhibition will run at the NZ High Commission all of this week and next, open to the public as well as hosted school groups from most of the primary, secondary, and teritiary schools on Tongatapu. The artists are currently here this week, and have been hosting and participating in all sorts of workshops we've organized for them - from telling their life stories to poetry readings. And the fun's not over yet.

Artist John Pule talks with Leilani Tamu and Meletonga Fakaua
Artist Elizabeth Thomson talks about her intricate metalwork sculptures at the exhibition opening


  1. Your post reminds me of when I took my Kalasi Ono children on a field trip to the Convention Center to view the exhibit you mentioned (the one that occurred a couple of years ago--can't remember the name). Then we responded to the traditional art we had seen by creating clay sculptures, which we then exhibited in the school library. I'm sure that many of the children remember this event as well.

    1. I remembered: Kava Kuo Heka!! That was the name of the exhibit. Translated means something like "we are making kava now and forever more." (teehee)

  2. Definitely! I remember you telling us about their sculptures after the exhibition. Such a good opportunity for the kids to see something different and learn outside of school.


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