Tiny statues – big statement

Tongan-born artist Visesio Siasau’s new pieces are a powerful reminder that small doesn’t mean simple.

In his first solo exhibition at Fresh Gallery Otara Mr Siasau presents a series of squat, luminous figures that could be mistaken for sports trophies.

But the statues – shaped in the image of deity Tangaroa or Tangaloa – represent the impact of contemporary life on traditional cultures, he says.

As conceptual as that may sound Mr Siasau says the pieces are based on things he saw as a child growing up in Tonga and then New Zealand.

The issues the statues deal with – such as religion, consumerism and politics – have been “don’t go” areas but he thinks Pacific people are more willing to talk about them now.

“I think they’re waiting for people to bring it up,” he says.

But getting people talking is “not the point behind the work”, he says – that’s simply to reflect the things people grapple with in the modern world.

The former electrician in the Tongan navy has spent the past six years focusing on establishing himself an as artist.

And while he’s from a family of carvers, painters and tapa makers, he never thought art would generate an income his family could live on.

“I used to draw in school but I thought: ‘I can’t make a living out of this’,” says Mr Siasau.

He changed his mind when he moved to New Zealand 13 years ago and stayed with his uncle, an Otara-based carver.

“I went back to the family arts,” he says.

The statues in the Ahoeitu – Dawn Break exhibition are crafted from blocks of perspex and corian – a plastic commonly used in kitchen bench tops – using a band saw, an angle grinder, sanders and a hand dremel.

To smooth off their rough surfaces the statues are heated then cooled, a process that is repeated until the plastic becomes translucent.

It’s a time-consuming process.

Mr Siasau’s partner Serne Tay estimates the pieces in the exhibition took two months of 80-hour weeks to create.

She says the exhibition wouldn’t have happened without the support of Don and Heather Campbell, the owners of an online art company that sell Mr Siasau’s intricate “bread and butter” bone carvings.

The Ahoeitu – Dawn Break exhibition is at Fresh Gallery Otara until August 29.

Imogen Neale
Manukau Courier (21 August 2009)