Taking the Long Way Home

Artist Michel Tuffery reflects on his legacy of asking questions, from where he sits now – on the other side.

Posted on
14.10.21

We’re collaborating with Creative New Zealand to bring you the groundbreaking Pacific Arts Legacy Project. Curated by Lana Lopesi as project Editor-in-Chief, it’s a foundational history of Pacific arts in Aotearoa as told from the perspective of the artists who were there.

I remember very clearly coming up to Auckland in the mid-80s with Lyle Penisula to have our first exhibition. I went into Gow Langsford Gallery, and they said, ‘Go back to art school.’

We were looking for a space to exhibit in, and we were questioning our identity, where we stand, because we were studying down in Dunedin, of all places. I was at Otago, and there were only three of us Islanders – Lyle, Janice Krause (Leafa Wilson) and me. 

Having that first exhibition at Maota Samoa on K’ Road was transformative. Lyle and I were quite wet behind the ears, and we were pretty overwhelmed by the Poly-ness and Māori-ness up in Auckland. There was the Tautai group, with Fatu Feu‘u; and the lovely Jim Viviaeare. I remember Lily Laita making fun of me, and Ioane Ioane saying, “You guys aren’t Islanders, you don’t dress like Islanders, and you don’t talk like Islanders.” And we laughed it off, but at the same time, I thought, “We must be really pālagi, but we’re talking about our identity in this exhibition.” That’s why we called it Fa‘a Samoa, Fa‘a Palagi (1988), because we were in these two worlds. 

I had one print in the show that became famous because I spelt it wrong. It was supposed to be called Tangi (crying), but I wrote ‘Tigiani’. Reverend Mua came to bless the exhibition, and the first thing he noticed was that on that print, Christ’s penis wasn’t circumcised. I said, “Oh, it’s good that you noticed because I actually wanted to make a statement.” Little things like that were important. 

Tianigi (tagi) Michel Tuffery ©1988

The next time I came up to Auckland was for a Tautai conference, and I stayed with Uncle Jim. I met Brett Graham and we got on really well intellectually. Every time I came up to Auckland after that, Jim would make tea and cakes for us, and Brett and I would sit down together like young kids and talk philosophically about art. Jim had a way of opening space for that sort of thing. 

Jim left a powerful gift with me, a lesson in keeping an open mind, not being too safe, stepping outside your own culture. He showed me how to get outside myself and explore different ways of thinking. There are so many ways of seeing the world, and that’s exciting: not sticking to the same game, not being too complacent, and at the same time not getting into conflict or tension but always trying to find a solution or come up with a question. 

The book Speaking in Colour: Conversations with Artists of Pacific Island Heritage (Sean Mallon and Fuli Pereira, 1997) is another marker in time for me. I’d just come back from the islands. I’d left New Zealand because I was struggling here; I was over it. I was so curious about all the cultures in Moana nui a Kiwa. I took time to interview older people in Tokelau and the Cook Islands. They really motivated me. I was out to prove that Pacific art exists because, at art school, they were teaching Eurocentric art. It was important for me to learn that side, but I was also interested in challenging it. Garry Nicholas gave me some money from the QEII Arts Council to conduct research on tatau and siapo up in Sāmoa, Tokelau and the Cook Islands. So I put a proposal to my art school. I said, “Look, I’m struggling with my art history here, but I could contribute value to the school by going up to the islands and doing research, and bringing back ideas and concepts about our arts.” And that launched everything; that first conversation with Garry Nicholas, a Māori artist, and my relationship with Jim. I also met Cliff Whiting around the same time. I was able to play around with concepts with these other artists, not all of whom were necessarily Pacific artists. I had been so isolated in Dunedin, but that also gave me a chance to look at other ways of thinking, a kind of self-assessment. It’s exciting for me to think about being part of that history, at the beginning, because it didn’t exist before these people. I’m really clear on that.

I took time to interview older people in Tokelau and the Cook Islands. They really motivated me. I was out to prove that Pacific art exists because, at art school, they were teaching Eurocentric art.

Later, I moved very purposefully over to the islands. I got about halfway through a master’s degree in Hawai‘i, then moved to Tahiti before spending time traveling further. When I returned home, I met Jayne [now Tuffery], and she drew me into the International Festival of the Arts. Saatchi and Saatchi wanted a poster, and I proposed to base it on Taputapuātea, the marae on Ra‘iātea Island, the idea that you’re living art every day – singing, cooking, eating. They said, “But it’s the International Festival of the Arts,”and I said,“Yes, but we’re in the middle of the Pacific, and this is international.” I presented them with tatau designs, trees, the marae – and they were blown away. 

Fa'a Matai, Michel Tufferu ©1988

It was also the start of the corned-beef-cow carry-on. I needed sponsors for the festival. I remember flying up to Auckland to meet a guy, and he said, “Look, we’ve got no money,” and I said, ‘I don’t care about your money, I just need food.” So we did a deal for product – for food, clothing, Vailima beer – which gave me a way to me‘a ofa to the communities.

I was supposed to build a corned-beef cow during the festival but I didn’t have time. I made it after, as a joke, for Jim Viviaeare’s exhibition Bottled Ocean (1994). Jim said, “Look, we won’t tell anyone,” and we just snuck it into the gallery.

It started a necessary conversation about diabetes and environmental issues. In Tahiti I saw huge issues with sugar and imported foods; people my age with no teeth, diabetes, black feet. And when I sailed out to the Leeward Islands, I saw rubbish on the way out there, rubbish in the bush. I saw an opportunity to use imported foods as a vehicle to address these issues, to open the conversation from a visual angle. My mechanical turtles began after a beautiful leatherback turtle washed up dead on a beach after eating plastic. I’d just come off a boat from the Solomon Islands and I cried in front of it. I wrote to a fishing company and asked if they’d sponsor me with tins so I could build something.

I got on a roll with the corned-beef cows, which went on for a few years. People still bring them up; they want to know why I’m not still making them. There are other conversations to be had. 

It started a necessary conversation about diabetes and environmental issues... I saw an opportunity to use imported foods as a vehicle to address these issues
Pisupo Lua Afe Mk II, Michel Tuffery ©1996

I was born in Wellington, in Seatoun. Mum had been a teacher in Sāmoa, but she didn’t work as a teacher here. She met my father when she was working at the milkshake bar at Victoria University. Our house became like a hotel for our island family. That was my introduction to Sāmoa – the language around the house, the fa‘a Sāmoa. Sāmoa came to me, to my house. I spoke Sāmoan with my nanny, but I couldn’t understand why we were practising the culture in the house. I constantly challenged it because I thought it was odd – my mates didn’t have to go to church, but we did, that sort of thing. I was also putting up with dyslexia; I couldn’t read or write. 

I went to a special school in town because I was having trouble talking, reading and writing. The first thing I did was draw on my pages instead of writing. So the teachers would tempt me with a blank page. I had to write a sentence before I could get the blank page, and I just about cried over having to do that. But then I would get to it, and I could draw what I was thinking. It’s just another form of communication. Sport became necessary as a balance. I wasn’t very good at it, but it was a way to get rid of anxiety and build my confidence.

I had some excellent art teachers. Even my speech teacher and my reading teacher backed me up the whole time with my art. They encouraged me to go to a practical art school. When I went to Otago, to the Polytech, I was in paradise. If I had to do it over, I’d do it exactly the same way. I had some fantastic tutors, people like Marilynn Webb, Chris de Jong and Tom Fields. Sure, there was racism down there, but I had rugby as a way to legally vent some of my frustration for 80 minutes. I had amazing friends, and I took up dance, drama, tramping and surfing.

The first thing I did was draw on my pages instead of writing. So the teachers would tempt me with a blank page. I had to write a sentence before I could get the blank page, and I just about cried over having to do that.
Vaka, Michel Tuffery ©1992

I stayed in a flat where I could see the surf. My classmates would ring to ask if the surf was up, and if it was, I’d put my board under my arm and ride my bike down to meet them. The tutors knew where we were and we weren’t really wagging – if the surf’s up, the surf’s up. I saw yellow-eyed penguins, fur seals and sea lions, and we explored further down the coast, as far as Invercargill.

My sense of adventure had been nurtured at college. I wouldn’t tell my Mum, but I’d look at the New Zealand map, and I’d go hitching by myself or with my cousins. We used to watch the old black and white movies and think, hey, that looks cool! So we’d get a bag of porridge oats or something like that and take off. And we’d go eeling, or we’d nick bread from the Tip-Top dairy, we knew where the raspberry buns were dropped off, so we’d go and raid them. 

We also had adventures with our cousins on their farm up in Taranaki. There were five of us brothers, and we couldn’t sit in the car together because we’d brawl. So I’d be put on the bus, which was an adventure in itself. It was such a privilege to go to the homestead. My grandfather grew veggies and flowers, and kept chickens. He really influenced me in terms of being open-minded. My nana was terrific as well, Nana Tuffery. And then when my Sāmoan nanny turned up, that was when I started learning about the other side of myself.

I always thought I was Māori. I remember going to play rugby one day, and someone turned around and called me a ‘bunga’. I was probably only six or seven. And they were laughing at me. My pālagi father was the coach, and I asked him, “What’s a bunga?” And he was quite taken aback, so I learnt something from that. But I still thought I was Māori right up until I went to Thorndon School. 

I remember going to play rugby one day, and someone turned around and called me a ‘bunga’. I was probably only six or seven. And they were laughing at me.

I didn’t really know where Sāmoa was until my parents took us all there. It was the most extraordinary culture shock. Everything made sense. I remember thinking, “Wow, we come from an amazing place.” There was no power, but I saw performance art that, to this day, is influencing my work. I remember the candles and tin cans lined up; going to see a performance in complete darkness in the back of Lotofaga, and the performers emrging towards us... I was awestruck. I was only ten years old. 

Povi Tau Vaga (The Challenge) Performance Artwork Stills Storyboard, City Gallery Wellington, Michel Tuffery ©1996 (Photographer: Sarah Hunter.)

I’m so grateful to my parents. I know they struggled because I had issues with my reading, writing and talking. But they completely backed me up with my art. I used to cry my eyes out before exams and try to avoid them. I’d have anxiety attacks in the weeks leading up to exams, and the only way I could deal with them was to draw or go cycling or surfing to calm myself down. 

I still jump on the bike, and I take the long way instead of the shortcut. I started that when I was trying to get out of doing the dishes at home. I had to do all the cooking because I was the oldest. I was responsible for folding the nappies, looking after the kids and my cousins. I couldn’t wait to leave home.

We can carry on with life and just go from A to B, but actually to slow down and have a look... That’s an interesting journey: just not knowing.
Malu, Michel Tuffery ©1992

 Taking the long way home, you see more. I think, “I haven’t been down that street; I’ll try it.” Even driving Wellington to Auckland, Jayne and I always take the backroads. It’s an excellent way to get to know the unfamiliar. I’ve always liked that scenario, the “I don’t know.” We can carry on with life and just go from A to B, but actually to slow down and have a look... That’s an interesting journey: just not knowing. It’s the same when I free-dive. I don’t go to catch anything; I go to hang out in my library and just chill and take my time. I talked to a school group the other day, and I told them that I haven’t stopped learning just because I left art school or college. Your whole life’s an education, and you shouldn’t stop learning until it’s over.

Your whole life’s an education, and you shouldn’t stop learning until it’s over.
O le Vasa Loloto ma le Laloa (The Wide and Deep Ocean) _Performance Artwork Stills Storyboard, CoCA, Michel Tuffery © 1997

I remember when I was going to Tokelau, I wanted to talk with the craftspeople. I wanted to speak with the old guys about how they weaved the boats together, to find out about the materials and techniques. They take a mathematical approach and a scientific approach to their fishing or planting. There is a synergy with the arts when you look at it from that perspective, which I can talk about maturely now, but as a young man, it didn’t make sense. I’m so glad to be at a stage in my life where I’ve already asked questions or looked at places and spaces and questioned people. Now I see it from the other side.

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This piece is published in collaboration with Creative New Zealand as part of the Pacific Arts Legacy Project, an initiative under Creative New Zealand’s Pacific Arts Strategy. Lana Lopesi is Editor-in-Chief of the project.

Series design by Shaun Naufahu, Alt group.

Header photograph by Pati Solomona Tyrell