Ocean of Whispers
Etanah Falagā Talapā
A grandmother’s sweet hymn carries keynotes of prayers in a grandchild’s memory, stacking plastic chairs are dragged back into storage, dented from the joy and grieving of mass family gatherings. Paternal and maternal kinship ties deepen through time-honoured iTaukei ceremonies with masi, a kala-noa calls ‘autalavou laiti (youth) to fall in love with their stories marked on tapa.
In 2009 Sāmoa’s Head of State Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi addressed the Parliament of the World’s Religions, speaking on “…a culture of whispers surrounding our indigenous Samoan religion.”1 Reading this essay later, his descriptions of whispered knowledge within Samoan oratory and teasing out of 'tala tu'umusumusu (a healthy, sustainable passing on of precious knowledge) from'tala taumusumusu' (fleeting and selfish hearsay) prompted foundational questions within myself. How do I lead a good life? Where would my life of selfishness lead me to? How do I authentically be myself in different spaces? When to speak up versus when to hush up and listen?
How does an art practitioner work with their own family histories and knowledge? The tools, and skills, and ways of doing-and-being transmitted generation to generation? I turned to artists and creatives I admire to find out their answers. What roots and routes navigate their sense of belonging?
Ocean of Whispers includes recent and new art works by Elsie Andrewes, Jasmine Tuiā, Jimmy Ma'ia'i, Kasi Valu and Natasha Ratuva, measina enfolding conversations that happen privately and publicly, within the self and between family and community. A Samoan word for treasured and precious things ‘measina’ is usually linked to the culture and language of Samoa, however the word can also include all treasures that Moana-nui-kiwa holds. Thinking of young New Zealand born/based Moana audiences (our former selves? my baby daughter?) Ocean of Whispers carves entry points into five artists’ perceptions of belonging through place and time.
Travelling back and forth between her homes in Sāmoa and West Auckland, Jasmine Tuiā creates in response to memories of places, people and objects. Her ability to collaborate and build relationships with people is evident in Si’uomatautu, where the oceans and lands meet, a 10 metre tapa draped from the gallery ceiling to the concrete floor. The unmarked tapa was gifted to Jasmine by a Tongan family. On it she mapped her grandmother’s memories of bodies of water that used to exist around Matautu Lefaga. Jasmine then extended the artwork by inviting the Tāmaki Makaurau arts community to touch, feel and mark the tapa with their own stories relating to vai/water.
Tala starts with a cup of Koko Sāmoa recreates listening to tala from her great-grandmother and grandparents over a hot cup of koko Sāmoa. Images of plants, kilikiti bats, domestic objects, weaving baskets and materials and tapa tools are worked onto tapa with natural paint, highlighted with hand-stitching. In these both works Jasmine presents her own tala manatu/memories, ones shared with her, and ones shared by others, reinforcing the importance of collective practices.
Inspired by the fantastical and elusive qualities of science fiction art Elsie Andrewes depicts half formed bodies and faces in the colorful hues of digital paint. Edges of these vibrant silhouettes smudge into disappearance. Layers of texture and form suggest possible narratives and constructions pulling themselves together. In the push and pull of different family histories and interpretations, the fragility of memory holds intimate stories that inform her identity “delicately…strung together by generations of whispers.”2
Jimmy Ma'ia'i works with a range of media: glass, resin, wood and repurposed plastic materials, playfully mixing readymade objects and replicas. Small sculptures, looking like casts of a taro and lu'au parcels wrapped in tin foil are surprisingly dense and heavy. In Sunday best plastic stacking chairs are resprayed with shiny primary colours. The legs buckle at the unseen weight adding uncertainty to the chairs’ welcome and joy. There’s a lot to unwrap - drawing upon mixed-heritage experiences, cultural dislocation and the impact of colonisation.
For Kasi Valu “Nena is the colour of my world.”3 In the video installation Lop@ Kasi shares a loving portrait of his Nena (grandmother), expressing the unshakable bond they have. Moments of an ordinary day—driving through Mangere, hanging out with children and family members, hands making and holding—are in black and white showing his Nena’s absence from the places in Aotearoa where she once lived. Then a switch up to colour as soon as his Nena is on screen. She speaks directly to her grandkids, telling them not to catch COVID, bossing gently with a smile and hand kiss. Bouncy trumpets play and male voices sing her favourite love song ‘touch me gently’ as the video projects on to a mat handed down through Kasi’s community and family.
Natasha Ratuva is a multidisciplinary talent, a skillful hand seems to come easily to her. VEIVUETI || Retrieve is the first series of masi Natasha has made and might be the last. It was not undertaken lightly. Understanding the weight and deep connections her people have with masi, Natasha has collaborated closely with her mother to guide her through the process, reinterpreting specific motifs and their composition to reflect the complex and diverse ways iTaukei knowledge moves and shifts intergenerationally. The role of a daughter, a niece and an aunty holds deeper ground to accesses family oral histories. Go read the information Natasha shares in her artwork description.
Learning from these artists' musumusu (whispering) highlights the need for active listening. Deep and multi-layered channels map Moana people and continues to shape, affirm and build our sense of belonging.
Etanah Falagā Talapā - Ocean of Whispers curator
Etanah is an emerging multi-disciplinary artist who is of Afega and Sa'anapu heritage from Samoa.
After interning at Tauranga Art Gallery through Tautai Pacific Arts Trust she returned to her home in the Hutt Valley working as an artist mentor at Taita and Naenae Clubhouse, before becoming curator (exhibitions & public programmes) at Enjoy 2021-22.
Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi, “Whispers and Vanities in Samoan Indigenous Religious Culture.” In Whispers and Vanities: Samoan Indigenous Knowledge and Religion, edited by Tamasailau M Suaalii-Sauni et al. (Wellington:Huia Publishers, 2014), 11.
Elsie Andrewes, artist statement for Mnemonic Landscape, 2022.
Kasi Valu, in conversation with the author , Thursday 17 November, 2022.