Ane Tonga

Gasav Ne Fäeag Rotuḁm Ta – Rotuman Language Week: Sofia Tekela-Smith

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Noa‘ia ‘e mḁuri gagaj ‘atakoa! Hello, everyone!

We’re very excited to celebrate Pacific Language Weeks 2023 at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. We see them as a great opportunity to share treasures from our collection, tok stori (storying), and to engage directly with our Pacific communities. 

This week we’re celebrating Gasav Ne Fäeag Rotuḁm Ta – Rotuman Language Week (7–13 May), for which the theme is Vetḁkia ‘os Fäega ma Ag fak hanua – Sustaining Our Language and Culture.

Rotuman artist Sofia Tekela Smith’s practice embodies this theme in its use of adornment.  Across the Pacific, adornments such as neck garlands are ever present at gatherings as a sign of celebration, mana (power, authority), mourning and are a way of retaining and demonstrating genealogical connections.

Born in Aoteaora New Zealand and raised in her ancestral home of Rotuma, Tekela-Smith emerged on the Aotearoa art scene in the early 1990s. Originally trained as a jeweller, Tekela-Smith’s practice is largely influenced by her relationship with her ma‘piag hani (grandmother), to whom she attributes her knowledge of traditional materials and making processes. Over time, she has worked across a number of media and has experimented with different modes of display to explore adornment as a way to reclaim and strengthen cultural ties and create a visual language of harmony, beauty, strength and spirit.

Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki holds five works by Tekela-Smith in its collection, four of which are from the exhibition Melodies of their Honey Coloured Skin, held at Te Tuhi in 2003. I first saw this series of works in a slideshow presented in a Pacific art history class taught by Dr Caroline Vercoe and was delighted to learn that the Gallery was the kaitiaki (guardian) of these works. The series comprises 11 relief silhouettes of the artist, her friends and members of her family. Made from fibreglass hand-finished and painted black, each relief re-appropriates the kitsch black silhouettes used to depict Polynesian, African and Aboriginal heads that were popular in domestic décor in the 1950s and 1960s. Modelled on individual people and adorned with her personal jewellery, Tekela-Smith reclaims and re-dignifies this imagery.

Amongst the relief silhouettes, Tekela-Smith includes a self-portrait, titled Sofia. In this silhouette she addresses the stereotype of the dusky maiden by placing a large red hibiscus in her hair. The artist has carved this material into three diamond-like shapes that could resemble the hea hea flower, a primrose willow in Rotuma that is used to make tēfui (flower garlands) and as a dye for painting.

Another silhouette – Buckwheat – is of the renonwned fa‘afafine entertainer and community worker Lealailepule ‘Buckwheat’ Edward Cowley, a close friend of the artist. Here, Cowley is memorialised in stoic form with an ear adornment made from mother of pearl, gold, feathers and waxed thread. Tekela-Smith’s work both pays homage to Cowley and reminds us to see beyond stereotypes to appreciate the multidimensionality and humanity of those depicted.

You can find out more about Gasav Ne Fäeag Rotuḁm Ta – Rotuman Language Week and resources to learn Fäeag Rotuạm (Rotuman language) here. We’ll be sharing more artworks and stories for each Pacific Language Week throughout the year. Watch this space!