Lana Lopesi – 19 June, 2014
The exclusion of the face above the lips admits the protective nature of the photographer. 20th century ethnographic practices include looming sympathetic eyes revealing disengagement. One would assume the conscious decision to exclude eyes would omit information, yet in these highly detailed prints the opposite is true. Knowing their names through the titles, we become friends.
30 May - 28 June, 2014
Grills by Ane Tonga is a photographic series of the artist’s family members. Therefore, due to the sensitivity of this material, no images will be displayed on EyeContact - at the request of the artist.
My childhood consisted of refusing to acknowledge my grandmother’s gold. It was snug between her two front teeth and in my young mind the thought of it was repulsive. At that age gold seemed unattainable especially as a dental material. However, this changed when a teenage friend went on a family holiday to Tonga. When she came back half of her front right tooth was covered in gold melted from a family heirloom. She had a nifo koula (1). My grandmother’s dental choices now made sense.
Grills by Ane Tonga at Gus Fisher Gallery has an instant feeling of familiarity. Associate Professor Leonard Bell (The University of Auckland) introduces us to her work via wall text, establishing historical and cultural pretext. In the space we are greeted by six large metallic photographic prints mounted on Di-bond aluminum board featuring the bottom half of six female faces. Their mouths open revealing their grills or nifo koula. L-O-V-E is spelt in gold across ‘Ofa’s smile. These are accompanied by a film of friendly Pacific voices telling personal experiences of tooth adornment. Installing her relationship with the sitters and ethnographic encounter in the space, Tonga makes a gesture of transparency and accountability.
Historically, cultural practices of the Pacific have been recorded in the means of the Other. Meaning research, writing and photography is taken from a position external to the culture itself. The fantasies of the ‘noble savage’, ‘dusky maiden’ and even Mark Adams photographs of tatau come from perspectives of preexisting/historized conditions. As Linda Tuhiwai-Smith writes in Decolonising Methodologies, “It appalls us that the West can desire, extract and claim ownership of our ways of knowing, our imagery and the things we create and produce,….” It is this ownership of prescribed histories which is claimed to be harmful to indigenous communities. Research needs to be re-conceptualized as a duty, one endowed with the responsibilities needed to create a whole understanding.
Nifo koula is a fairly young cultural practice among Tongan people. This cosmetic trend is growing in popularity. Sharing the European signifier of gold as wealth, nifo koula is also tied to the wearer’s genealogy as the gold used often comes from family heirlooms. Grills is the first photographic archive of this cultural practice making it an essential ethnographic resource. Additionally a publication is to be released alongside this photographic series later in the year. Including more writing by Leonard Bell and curator and sister Nina Tonga. The accompanying publication and moving image suggest that for Tonga the photos are just the first point of access to a culture requiring further engagement on our part.
The thoughtfulness of the artist has lead to Ane Tonga’s successful decolonising of the lens. Restricting her choice of sitters to female family members leads to a visually preexisting trust. Photographing the face can often gift the viewer a position of power, yet these sitters are far from vulnerable. It is a stark contrast from Anne Noble’s Ruby’s room which is a sensual photographic series focusing on her daughter’s mouth. The sitters in Grills have complete control over the image, exuding pride of their adornment. The laughing and casual nature of conversation heard from the moving image work also hints at the close relationships between artist and sitter.
The exclusion of the face above the lips admits the protective nature of the photographer. 20th century ethnographic practices include looming sympathetic eyes revealing disengagement. One would assume the conscious decision to exclude eyes would omit information, yet in these highly detailed prints the opposite is true. Knowing their names through the titles, we become friends. The faces are animated, personable and possessing authority. This shared sense of power between artist, sitter and audience is most compelling in ‘Nan’. Nan sits in her living room completely out of focus wearing what could possibly be a tartan patterned outfit. In the foreground is a small table with a pink floral table cloth, on top of that her dentures sit in a small glass of water. Her two nifo koula on full display. The image sits at eye level. Nan has invited you into her house, to tell her story. Tonga in her conduct as a conscientious ethnographer, imbues the works with a sense of ease.
Regaining control of the documentation of her family and further more an entire cultural practice, Tonga’s photographs go further than the generosity of the beautiful image. Remaining empathetic to her sitters Tonga has transformed her white cube into a living document of nifo koula or Grills. A notion of the Other is very much replaced with a prideful representation of Tongan culture. Thoughtfulness has turned an ethnographic project into an intimate archive of cultural norms.
(1) Nifo koula is a Tongan term for gold teeth.
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