An Interview with John Vea

March 21 2017, by Dilohana Lekamge

Auckland-based artist John Vea’s practice is rooted in the simple act of storytelling—spending time with migrant workers and the cultural minorities of Aotearoa New Zealand, talking through their experiences and what is involved in their daily lives. The research Vea collects is almost solely conducted through talanoa: an experience of sharing ideas, stories and conversation that is almost always face-to-face. Vea translates these verbal accounts into performance art, video and sculptural installations. 

Presenting his work in a variety of different spaces, Vea highlights narratives that are insufficiently discussed in New Zealand’s mainstream media and communities and stories that are often overlooked. His practice creates opportunities for more substantial discussions about migrant labour in New Zealand.

John Vea, Tribute to Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga, 2013. Video still.

John Vea, Tribute to Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga, 2013. Video still.

Dilohana Lekamge: How do you approach presenting your work for particular audiences and particular spaces? 

John Vea: I’m very selective when it comes to presenting works for specific audiences. I often use the term selective spectatorship, where artists can depend on a particular social perspective to give a certain response to a work. For example, Luke Willis Thompson’s inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam 1 worked better with a certain social group who experienced the work. It was the group who had never lived in that situation, in the kind of conditions of the house they travelled to. That work confronted groups that have a higher income and forced them to look at the issues that are common for the lower socio-economic community in New Zealand, which was what Thompson alluded to by incorporating that house and the space it was situated in. Another example of selective spectatorship and another Walter’s Prize nominee is Kalisolaite 'Uhila, who lived homeless for a couple of weeks outside Te Tuhi. The work was better suited for that area because you rarely see homelessness there. It confronted the local community.

If this work was situated in areas such as Māngere or Ōtara it would have had a different reading, since there is already a lot of homelessness there and it would have not had the same effect. The audience, those communities, are used to seeing homelessness.

Being selective about spectatorship is important especially when you’re approaching work that is dealing with social issues and the imbalances between different social communities. I think it’s important to situate an artwork in a specific space for a specific community because it can raise awareness and wake people up.

DL: Do you see your work functioning as a tool for social awareness? 

JV: Yes—and a specific strategy I use to create social awareness through my artwork is humour. I use humor as the Trojan horse and the real issue is hidden within, like the comedian Trevor Noah, who uses humour to bring to light issues that are occurring in this world. There is also an Olympic weightlifter from Kiribati who uses humour through dance and he highlights the issues of rising sea levels on his island. Similarly, I use performance as a tool to enter people’s minds and I use humour to bring in discussions around greater issues. I use an absurd kind of humour, using mundane movements and objects. I drag these objects for a long period of time as an exercise of endurance. Audiences find it comical when they first experience the works, but the longer they view them, the more intense their reactions become and their responses become more heart-felt.

DL: How do you approach your role as a mediator or translator in the discussions between the storyteller and your audience? 

JV: I see myself as anonymous—performing the role as a door opener or a gatekeeper, I bring the stories I’ve collected to an outside audience. I ask the storyteller if they would like to take part in the work and the majority of them say no because of potential repercussions, so I end up re-enacting their stories using movement and objects. I then take on the role of the storyteller, but it’s not my story and I try not to exploit them by mentioning their names. I hang out with them and I experience their work—their mahi. Sometimes the stories that I’ve collected have come after I’ve been working with people in their work environments, so these conversations can manifest without the initial intention of becoming an artwork. So, instead of being the mediator, I guess I’m more the guy that shines a light on certain issues.

DL: So, would you then describe yourself as a kind of narrator?

JV:  Yeah, maybe the best way to describe it is narrating.

DL: What function does collaboration have in your practice and how do you approach it?

JV: Collaboration is initiated by talanoa. Talanoa is an old-school conversing method, it’s the physical experience of talking face-to-face. As a kid I collected information through conversations with elders. That was a type of pedagogy that I grew up with and it was my entertainment—we didn’t have radio or T.V. Talanoa is the whole sense of exchanging dialogue and not just in words, but through actions, movements and objects. The 3D experience of habitual movements and hand gestures are a means of learning and gathering information and I start to experience that through all of the senses. 

I let the storyteller direct and give me an understanding of their work. I experience their day-to-day for a couple of weeks and through talanoa as a method of research I collect information.

I also use talanoa as a means to spread my art practice—I don’t have a website. It starts really natural and organic, but I can’t control the secondary output, just like I can’t control your output. It’s initiated by talanoa but it spreads out towards others and then someone else will then spread it further by their own means—it’s almost like a meme. 

DL: How does the act of talanoa then affect your research and the outcomes of your practice, especially in comparison to Western approaches to art research?

JV: I see it as a more honourable way of research. A more reliable way to source information is to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. I try my best to find the original source and experience their story through talanoa. When I approach these conversations, I don’t record them and often they’re not planned.

Sometimes they’re at bus stops or with taxi drivers. The majority of people who have jobs as bus and taxi drivers, and a lot of people waiting at bus stops, are migrants who have moved to New Zealand with their families or as a result of second generation migration. Since I don’t use a recording device it’s just me and the other person having a conversation.  

DL: What do you think is missing in the discussion about migrant labour in New Zealand, especially since you’ve had so many conversations with migrant labourers working here? 

JV: What I think is missing is the exchange. What New Zealand does is more of a one-way thing, especially with the orchard workers, and it almost mimics slave labour. It seems evil bringing over migrant workers and then getting rid of them—it’s as if we’re using them. 

We need to somehow create an exchange and a learning environment between New Zealand and the countries that migrant labourers come from. We need to create an exchange of their services and we need to offer services to them as well. They leave without gaining anything apart from financial currency and I don’t even know if they get they’re getting the correct amount they worked for. We are lacking a relationship.

There was an example of creating an exchange in Cromwell—this individual ran night classes for Vanuatuans that taught them how to build in their environment in Vanuatu. He went over there and created an emic viewpoint, learning how to build in that environment. He gave them the knowledge of how to build using resources they could find in Vanuatu. They could then go back home develop their living areas.

DL: How do the forms of performance, video and sculpture contribute to a wider discussion in your socially-driven practice? 

JV: Performance has a specific language, like the humour that comes from enacting such obscure movements with the body. So does video, which has that similar visual language as cinema and television. 

The best way I can describe it is bringing two space into one heterotopia. For example, I use video as a visual portal for audiences to see into a specific area. The objects do the same thing—it’s a visual access way to see where that object came from. I use these visual methods to bring two separate spaces into one area.

DL: Is it almost like being able to bring together the language and discourse that occurs in the art world and those invisible, migrant stories? Then having your work be a point of discussion between both of those parties and finding a middle ground?

JV: It’s a visual point of access for the spectator to experience those stories. I use the outlets of sculpture, video and performance to get the spectator to understand the stories within the work through visualising it. 

DL: I see that occurring with the urban taros; your plaster sculptures that simultaneously resembled taro and road cones, referring to the great contribution of Pacific Island migrants in New Zealand towards the construction and agriculture industries—labour they don't receive much recognition for.

JV: With the urban taros you could see the labour that was involved in making all of those objects and I tried to give the audience the sense of labour.

DL: Is the act of presenting your own body in your performances and performance-based videos a key part of your practice?

JV: I’ve never thought about that! I thought the movement was more important than the body. 

DL: This is one I get asked a lot about my own practice, so I thought I’d flip it around and ask you. 

JV: I originally intended to highlight the movements and tracking the changes the happened in my body after performing laborious acts for a long period of time. Now that I think about being a brown male, it definitely adds to the spectator's response when they see this particular person performing these mundane movements and wondering why he’s doing this futile task. It then reflects the nature of movement in all laborious jobs, where the movement becomes repetitive and redundant.

You’ve been asked this question, but I haven’t yet. Do you think you get asked that question because of your gender?

DL: I feel as if it’s a question that’s asked in order to bait a particular response. There is a stereotype that exists of narcissistic female performance artists and it’s like I’m being asked “are you putting your own body on display because you like to look at yourself?” I think there is a level of exhibitionism in all performance, but it’s not all to the same extent and it’s incorporated for different reasons. Those assumptions are frustrating because I feel as if there’s a bigger discussion to be had because my body, like yours, is not a body that’s regularly represented in performance art. If we’re going to present these stories that are specific to our cultures I think it’s useful to incorporate my body in my work because it represents my culture.

Since you display your body in your works it makes the audience aware that these are issues that affect your community and it’s a direct way of referring to your community because your body is identifiably rooted in your ethnicity.

JV: Imagine changing it up and having a female performing the actions that I do. I wonder if it would get the same response.


John Vea, Concrete is as Concrete Doesn't, 2017, digital video, 32:00 duration. Video still.

John Vea, Concrete is as Concrete Doesn't, 2017, digital video, 32:00 duration. Video still.

DL: This year, you’re an artist-in-residence at the Honolulu Biennial, curated by Ngahiraka Mason. What was it about Hawaii that drew you to create work there?

JV: It was the result of talanoa—they invited me to put work into the Honolulu Biennial and I asked if I could talanoa there and research for two weeks. It was my first experience in an overseas residency and it was weird because when I first met the people there they made me feel like an outsider and I questioned the point of artist residencies. It was similar to the orchard labourers coming here to work and leaving without creating relationships, but instead, in this case it was possible that I could potentially exploit their culture. Every day I had to remind myself that I wasn’t from this place and that I should not criticise it. I felt like I was invading someone else’s space, criticising it, making work about it and then leaving. There was a lack of exchange and I felt like we needed to create a pedagogy through living and learning, so that we could apply that knowledge in our respective homes.

I used the strategy of collecting information through talanoa, highlighted the key points in those conversations and reflected those points onto myself, but from the place where I live instead of theirs. There is a term in Hawaii called Aloha ʻĀina which means ‘love of the land’ and I looked at that way of life and reflected it onto myself. I recognised that the land that I love is this land, here, in New Zealand and the land in Tonga. Applying their cultural concepts to was a strategy I used to not annoy the locals. 

DL: Did it feel like the form of the residency initially went against the research method that you use of talanoa?

JV: Initially the locals were quite hostile, but then I explained that I wasn’t there to evaluate them. Instead, I was there to listen to their storytelling and conversations. I told them that the exchange was two ways and that we could share stories too, so they started to warm-up to it once they understood my philosophy about exchanging conversation. They recognised that I didn’t want to criticise their space, but learn their ways and reflect them onto myself.

DL: What kind of work did you make there? 

JV: I’m still editing it, but they’re two video works that reflect Aloha ʻĀina onto myself. One talks about the constitutional law in Tonga that my mother is facing, which states that a female cannot own her own land. I’ve made a video work featuring my first cousin, who is the eldest female in our family. In the video she’s playing a game called ‘eggs in a basket’, where the player tries to steal ‘eggs’ or rocks from each player in the game. That game highlights the issue that women in Tonga are able to cultivate the land, and yet they cannot inherit it, as it’s handed down to the eldest male in the family. If there isn’t a male in the family it’s given to somebody else. My mother side-stepped that law and put her land under my name. 

DL: So does your mother live in Tonga?

JV: She lives here now and also owns land here. We situated the game in her backyard, so that also plays a part in the video work because she owns this foreign land in New Zealand, but she isn’t able to own her land back home.

DL: How do you hope the story teller and their communities can benefit from sharing their stories to an audience outside of their communities? 

JV: It gives knowledge and an understanding to others, and by others I mean the outsiders. People who’ve never personally experienced the issues that they are being faced with within the work. Outsiders need to open their minds to the migrant situation and learn how to cater to that. Its hegemony—migrants are coming from an outside world into another world and having to reconfigure themselves and adapt using the resources around them. I’m trying to give them a voice through the works that I make.


John Vea's, with the work She Sows This ‘Āina With Her Younger Siblings, Yet She Cannot Inherit That Same ‘Āina, 2016–2017, is one of 33 artists included in the 2017 Honolulu Biennial, Hawai‘i’, March 8 – May 8, 2017. 


The Honolulu Biennial showcases the diversity of ideas, art, and culture from the people who live today throughout the places connected by the Pacific Ocean. Entitled Middle of Now | Here, the 2017 Biennial includes contemporary art from Hawaiʻi, the Pacific Islands, Asia, North America, Australia, and New Zealand.


  • 1.

    Luke Willis Thompson was awarded the Walter’s Prize in 2014 for his work, inthisholeonthislandwhereiam—a project which physically took its audience from an empty gallery to a suburban home in Epsom via taxi ride. The audience were not told where they were going, but once the taxi arrived, they were invited to wander inside the property without opening any of the closed doors and it was only after looking at the contents that it was known to be the artist’s family home.