Waving a flag is often an expression of cultural pride. For artist ‘Ahota’e’iloa Toetu’u, the new flags on Te Ara Tahuhu are a way to meld different artistic traditions
Traditional markings on tapa cloth were the first point of inspiration for the suite of seven flags artist ‘Ahota’e’iloa Toetu’u created to fly along Te Ara Tahuhu and other parts of Britomart. Then he melded those repetitive patterns with a bright palette referencing pop art and abstraction from a much more recent artistic tradition. Here, ‘Ahota’e’iloa, who is also an art teacher at Otara’s Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate, talks about his work, his students, and the creation of Fuka ‘oe Ikuna/Flags of Victory, his project for Britomart.
How would you describe the artwork you create? I still think – in a sense of being Tongan and Polynesian – we still haven’t scratched the surface in terms of sharing our stories with the world. We’re finding new things about our culture every day. I think my artistic approach is about really looking into myself. I’m really interested in in using historical imagery – for example lines and repetitive simple shapes – but adding colour just from my own experience and interests. I just try to create a new dialogue, new imagery to express myself, I guess.
What got you interested in art? When I was young, I remember when I started primary school and I had a special teacher, Mr. Rai, who used to sit us down on the carpet and read beautiful stories of legends of where he was from. I think he was from Nepal or India. I think the imagery, the colourful images in the legends and the amazing stories captured my attention. And cartoons caught my attention and taught me to draw. And that’s the earliest memory, and from there it gradually grew as I got older.
Now you’re an art teacher yourself at Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate in Otara. What do you enjoy about your job? It’s great being a teacher because number one, I can relate to the students. This is my own backyard. I grew up here [in Otara] like the students. I relate to them. I’m able to transfer to them exactly what I wanted to learn when I was their age. Not learning just about history in Europe or America, but also the Pacific history and the amazing navigators.
My students use art as a subject where they can come and not so much relax, but just really use their creative sides. Like you’ve got other subjects that they say are really quite intense, and this is like tapping into another part of the brain where they’re creative.
And I truly believe that my students, although they don’t think they are, they’re very, very talented. It’s just a matter of being persistent, and the creativity and the talent evolves from there. It’s just a matter of just hanging in there and not giving up. Whether my students take up art or not, they’ve got the skill for the rest of their lives.
What did you want to create for the Britomart flag project? I was able to really express my art practice in a place where a lot of people will witness it. I’m sharing it with everyone in a space that in some ways is quite unusual – it’s not an exhibition space in a building but it’s out there in the open, and getting multicultural people walking through and experiencing it.
The design of the flags really goes back to one of my first inspirations when I was studying at visual arts school – the tapa designs, not so much the visual imagery such as the birds and plants, more of the geometric shapes. I just find it interesting why our ancestors used simple lines and shapes and, with the process of repetition, they created some amazing new designs or meanings. I wanted to express that in this project. I’m also thinking about nationalism, and about the Mate Ma’a Tonga success in rugby league, how the Tongans are so proud just to back their little country by buying every single flag out there. These flags in Britomart are my expression of myself being Tongan and being an artist and a New Zealander. I think it’s like a fusion of everything in one.
Photographs by Joe Hockley