Adornment as Re-Appropriation
The Art of Sofia Tekela-Smith


From rather tentative beginnings a decade ago, Sofia Tekela-Smith - maker of jewellery and/or objects of body adornment - has blossomed in the past few years in terms both of the frequency and geographical spread of her exhibitions and the boldness and conceptual reach of her art. She has also extended boundaries in terms of the presentation and display of her work, which increasingly and appropriately has been shown within the context of 'art' rather than 'craft' institutions, including both dealer and public galleries.

Sofia Tekela-Smith, Auckland 2005, photographed by Marti Friedlander

While her recognition has been thoroughly deserved, Tekela-Smith's choice of medium and fortuitous timing has also played a part in her success. Starting out in the mid-1990s, she caught two waves that were beginning to swell and which she has ridden with considerable verve and skill. I am referring both to the remarkable efflorescence across many media of art made by New Zealanders of Pacific Islands origin - born in this country of mixed parentage (Rotuman on her mother's side, Scots on her father's), Tekela-Smith spent her childhood on the island of Rotuma before returning to Auckland as a 12-year-old in the mid-1980s - and to the contemporaneous flourishing of the arts of body adornment - jewellery in a word - a phenomenon that is not confined to any single ethnic group.

Historians of these two movements - jewellery on the one hand, Pacific arts on the other - often cite two ground-breaking exhibitions as seminal: Bone, Stone, Shell: New Jewellery New Zealand (1988), curated by John Edgar, and Te Moemoea No Iotefa (The Dream of Joseph): A Celebration of Pacific Art and Taonga (1991), curated by Rangihana Panaho.

Sofia Tekela-Smith's Melodies of Their Honey-Coloured Skin at te tuhi the mark, Pakuranga 2003

The significance of the first was in documenting the turning of New Zealand artists away from the precious stones and metals of more traditional jewellery towards indigenous materials, a turn which inevitably involved the recognition (and to some degree appropriation) of the remarkable objects that had been made from these often humble materials - bone, stone, and shell - by indigenous makers from Aotearoa and the Pacific. To Moemoea No Iotefa, on the other hand, juxtaposed traditional Pacific arts and craft with the non-traditional products of island immigrants and New Zealanders of Pacific heritage. As Nicholas Thomas has written: 'it put old museum works and new pieces together, islanders and settler artist, craft and art . . . What was happening did not simply reaffirm traditions, nor merely revitalise them in a diasporic setting; it was rather a broad based cultural and critical movement . . . that paradoxically at once paraded and challenged the idea of Polynesian culture'.1

Tekela-Smith was too young to have participated in either of these exhibitions, but well placed to take advantage of the possibilities they suggested for someone of her background and inclinations. Born in 1970, she first exhibited in 1993 in Tufa'atasi, a fashion extravaganza at the International Festival of the Arts in Wellington. Her career really got traction a few years later when in 1996 she first performed with Pacific Sisters at the Seventh South Pacific Festival of the Arts in Apia, Samoa; her work also appeared in a couple of group shows in Auckland that year. Since then her level of activity has been extraordinary; she has participated in more than 40 shows, including at least six solo exhibitions. In 1998 her work was included in Turangawaewae, the third biennial of New Zealand jewellery, shown in Lower Hutt, Dunedin and Auckland.

SOFIA TEKELA-SMITH You Are All Things I See Complete 2003
Engraved gold lip mother of pearl shell & red ink, 62 x 100 mm

Her first solo exhibition, Tefui, was in 1999; also that year she exhibited with her partner - painter and print-maker John Pule - in Christchurch, and with Chris Charteris and Niki Hastings-McFall as 1 Noble Savage and 2 Dusky Maidens in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Brisbane. The pointed irony of the title of this exhibition is characteristic of the light touch which marks her engagement with identity politics, an unavoidable issue for an artist in her situation. As well as showing regularly throughout New Zealand, Tekela-Smith has exhibited abroad every year since 1998: Fiji (Suva) in 1998, Australia (Sydney) in 1999, New Caledonia (Noumea) in 2000, Australia (Brisbane) in 2001, Australia (Sydney) in 2002, United Kingdom (London), Germany (Berlin), and Australia (Brisbane) in 2003, and Belau and USA (New York) in 2004. I don't imagine there are many artists in their mid-thirties who could point to such an impressive track record.

Having only seen a small part of her total output in (or on) the flesh, I will largely confine my focus here to what has been seen in Auckland in the last couple of years, and in particular to her solo shows at the John Leech Gallery, I Would Take You to my Mama's Country (2003) and Brown Eyes Blue (2004), and to Melodies of their Honey Coloured Skin, a solo show held at Pakuranga's te tuhi the mark in 2003.

SOFIA TEKELA-SMITH Untitled Head (Sofia) 2003
Fibreglass, acrylic, mother of pearl & waxed thread, dimensions variable

I Would Take You to My Mama's Country was made up of 20 breastplates carved from pearl shells suspended on multiple strands of red, black or white waxed thread. Each of the pendants was etched either with simple design motifs or with words taken from poems by John Pule. The title, also from Pule, alludes to one of the central circumstances of Tekela-Smith's life, her childhood spent in her 'mama's country', Rotuma - a tiny speck of an island 18kms long with a population of about 2,500, located more than 400 kms north of Fiji (her mother also has family connections with the islands of Uvea and Futuna). Rotuma is administered by Fiji, though its inhabitants are not Melanesian, like most Fijians, but Polynesian. Born in Auckland, Tekela-Smith was taken to Rotuma by her mother when she was still an infant and left there to be brought up by her grandmother, Mue Tekela, a crucial figure in her life. Tekela-Smith has frequently acknowledged her grandmother's importance to her artistic practice, partly because many of the materials and techniques she uses were introduced to her by her grandmother: 'I create work which gratefully acknowledges and represents my connections with her.'.2 When her grandmother died in 1983, Sofia was reunited with her parents in Auckland, though her mother soon took off again. Much later she returned to Rotuma to renew connection with her childhood home and, as it were, to replicate her mother's journey: 'I sailed to Rotuma with my two-year-old son on the same cargo boat, the Bulou Ni Ceva heading for the same island to do the same thing. The one thing I was sure of was that my baby would be returning home with me at the end of the adventure'.3

SOFIA TEKELA-SMITH Untitled Head (Buckwheat) 2003
Fibreglass, acrylic, mother of pearl & waxed thread, dimensions variable

The pearl shell neckpieces in this show carry etchings of verses by John Pule, often from poems which reflect on his partner's traumatic experiences of voyaging, abandonment, relocation etc. An example is The Hibiscus Tree Outside your Window whose text reads:
Other titles are Behind Your Neck, I Compare You To My Island, You Were Young. This was not the first or last time Tekela-Smith has used Pule's verses. Her contribution to 2 Dusky Maidens included pieces such as 'Prosperous Fragrances' that used verses from his poem The Bond of Time (1985, 1998), a long poem whose second edition has a cowrie shell and diradamu bead design by her on its cover. Such exchange and interplay between the two artists' work is continuous and ongoing. As well as providing verses Pule has also contributed images for etching on her pieces, as for the pounamu disks shown at Belau in 2003.

SOFIA TEKELA-SMITH Untitled (disc) 2004
Mother of pearl, waxed thread, ink & 23 carat gold leaf, dimensions variable

Melodies of their Honey Coloured Skin at te tuhi, 2003 featured eleven 'black heads' or relief silhouettes of the artist, her friends, and members of her family. Made of fibreglass, hand finished and painted black, the relief heads are inspired by the kitsch objects depicting Polynesian, African and Aboriginal heads that were items of popular domestic decor in the 1950s and 1960s. Each head was adorned with a piece of Tekela-Smith's jewellery - mostly neck-pieces made from pearl shell or pounamu - that may either be seen as part of a sculptural artwork or removed and worn as body adornment by the owner.

To assist with the manufacture of these heads Tekela-Smith sought out a fabricator in his seventies who had made a career of making mannequins for fashion display. Clay heads were sculpted from photographs and modified in consultation with the artist; from these plaster moulds were fabricated from which the fibre-glass heads were cast, then painted black, ready to be bedecked with her jewellery. The attitude behind these pieces is quite complex, involving a process of re-appropriating and redignifying objects which had exploited indigenous peoples for popular western consumption. The degree of self-consciousness and cultural critique involved in this process is evident from Tekela-Smith's own remarks:
The silhouettes . . . explore the love affair between popular culture and Pacific Island man/woman and this image of Polynesia/Polynesians as perpetuated and choreographed by tourist strategies of the colonial past i.e. stereotyping, eroticising, objectification of Polynesian women/men (still prevalent today) . . . My aim is to be the one to take control of my own image making. I've chosen my own 'noble savages' and 'dusky maidens'. At the same time I want to link adornment to the body even if the work is presented as art in a gallery context.4

SOFIA TEKELA-SMITH Enhanced by the fragrances of your presence 2004
Photograph, 1600 x 1260 mm.

By the ingenious device of adopting these heads for the display of her pieces, Tekela-Smith not only resolved the problem of how to present small items of jewellery within the large spaces of a public art gallery, but also introduced a multi-layered conceptual element that unequivocally transformed the objects into the realm of art works.

In her most recent exhibition, Brown Eyes Blue (2004) - the title comes from a song by country singer Crystal Gayle ('You've found someone new/and don't it make my brown eyes blue') - Tekela-Smith has hit upon an alternative but related method of achieving a similar effect to the black heads. There are two distinct elements in the exhibition, neckpieces and photographs.

The neckpieces made from pearl shell; there are 18 of these, of varying size; some are crescent-shaped, some are circular disks, each attached by a waxed thread. Their edges are either plain or notched in a variety of patterns. The images of birds, flowers, vines or 'dusky maidens' etched on each piece are coloured either black or gold, or a combination of both. For example, one notched disk depicts a typical image of a south seas dancing girl in black, bare breasted, with a gold lei around her neck. In another the disk is unnotched, while the figure of the woman is in gold accompanied by a bird on a black vine. Most of the crescents are notched on their lower but not their upper edge, and because the surfaces are larger the designs are more elaborate.

SOFIA TEKELA-SMITH You are like a mountain . . . 2004
Photograph, 1600 x 1260 mm.

The second element in Brown Eyes Blue is provided by four large coloured photographs (1600 x 1260mm) depicting women (three Polynesian, one Pakeha), naked above the waist, but each festooned with enormous leis or breast-plates made of multiple double-sided pearl-shell disks linked by waxed thread. A striking feature of the photographs is that the hands and forearms of each woman are stained bright red. Like the relief heads, the photographs were produced by collaboration between the artist, and in this case, Studio La Gonda, who made the photographs under the artist's direction. The photographs have titles again taken from poems by John Pule. Photographs as a means of exhibiting jewellery were first used by Tekela-Smith at the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in 2003, and again in her contribution to Paradise Now? Contemporary Art from the Pacific at the Asia Society Museum, New York in 2004; in those cases the photographs were of Pule holding pieces of her work in his mouth.

The women in the photographs (all friends of the artist), are posed against black backgrounds. As well as having scarlet hands and forearms, the women all wear bright red lipstick and have red hibiscus flowers in their hair. Red connotes passion, danger, violence, blood, sacredness etc. - all these connotations are probably of relevance. The women, while beautiful, do not present themselves seductively. In all but one instance, they face the viewer directly and somewhat challengingly. Their hand gestures vary; they may suggest actions in a dance, or gestures of encouragement, warning or protectiveness.

Sofia Tekela-Smith's Brown Eyes Blue at John Leech Gallery, November-December 2004

In Your hand is a portrait of a landscape coming into my heart the woman faces the viewer directly, her hands reaching out in a somewhat ambiguous gesture that might seem welcoming were it not for the startlingly scarlet staining; her expression is unsmiling but not hostile. In this case the dozens of disks (each about the size of a 20 cent piece) form a kind of breast-plate which extends from the neck to below the waist.

Your face contains matters of pure aesthetics is similar except for the disposition of the hands, which are fisted and placed one above the other, as (I am told) in a gesture within a dance. The necklace in this instance is somewhat smaller, more lei-like, ending above the waist and with fewer disks.

In You are like a mountain capable of building palaces open-handed, again the woman is viewed frontally, with hands by her side, palm-outwards, a seemingly 'open-handed' gesture; again the expression is serious but warm, confident and, so to speak, 'staunch'. The disks in this case form a kind of breast shield from neck to waist. The stance of the Pakeha woman in Enhanced by the fragrances of your presence differs from the others - half-profile rather than full faced, with one hand raised to the ear behind which the flower sits, as if listening, while the other hangs by her side. Her gaze does not engage the viewer directly and is thus less confrontational, more inward-directed. The necklace in this instance is a simple lei, consisting of a double strand of disks hanging to just above the waist.

A possible difficulty with Brown Eyes Blue is the disjunction in scale between the photographs and the neckpieces. The photographs are so startling in their size and imagery that they immediately attract the viewer's attention and are liable to somewhat overshadow the more intimate scale of the neckpieces. Nevertheless, the exhibition succeeds in asserting the essential connection of Tekela-Smith's art with bodily adornment while at the same time, through the medium of the photographs - as with the black heads in the earlier show - asserting her cultural commitment to 'a visual language of harmony, beauty, strength and spirit'.5

1. Nicholas Thomas, 'Meetings with Pacific Jewellery', in 1 Noble Savage 2 Dusky Maidens: Niki Hastings-McFall, Sofia Tekela-Smith, Chris Charteris (1999), , p. 23.
2. ibid., p. 31.
3. Sofia Tekela-Smith, artist's statement, John Leech Gallery, 2003.
4. ibid.
5. ibid.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 114 Autumn 2005