Salome Tanuvasa's works are full of joy and energy, created using materials from her own busy home. A New Zealand-born artist of Tongan and Sāmoan heritage, she works in multiple disciplines, as well as teaching art to the next generation. As a celebration of summer, we've used two of Salome's works – large-scale banners titled Wonder and Soul – as flags around the precinct and on the heritage Hayman Kronfeld Building. We spoke to her about the inspiration behind her works. 

MELINDA WILLIAMS Hi Salome! The flags we have up now at Britomart are based on banners originally created for an exhibition. Could you tell us a bit about that?

SALOME TANUVASA Those two works were part of my exhibition in Hastings Art Gallery. They were site-specific and the series of banners was kind of looking upon how humans travelled through different places in time to come to a place – particularly that specific place in Hastings – to create new life, to create families, cultures and stories and histories and all of that and trying to make a home out of it.

That made me think about my parents’ journeys. They came from the Pacific Islands and came here wanting to find opportunities in New Zealand to build their families and start a new life and call this place their home. That’s where I made the series of banners and played with a lot of recycled offcuts, using fabric that my brother had discarded. He’s a fashion designer [John Tanuvasa, founder of OHN] so he’s got a lot of colourful fabrics lying around. That’s also my little window into the realm of where, when my mother came to New Zealand, she had a lot of sewing skills and she worked for Line 7. So I grew up surrounded by industrial machines and piles of fabrics and my brother picked that up. I’m slowly trying to learn the basic skills. I really appreciate people who know how to sew. I’m learning a lot about how the different sides of creativity and materials can come into the works I create. 

MELINDA The two works at Britomart are called ‘Wonder’ and ‘Soul’. Could you talk a little about each of them?

SALOME With ‘Wonder’ [pictured below], it’s kind of a reflection on how creativity is discovered in humans and how they discover new materials. ‘Wonder’ was right across from the learning and education room at the gallery, where the schools come in, and I kind of like that play around where kids, who are naturals at using their imaginations. That’s how I came to using the colours and shapes for Wonder. And ‘Soul’ [pictured bottom] is more the root of that whole series of banners. The things that are possible within oneself and outside. I enjoyed creating that work. 

When the banners were outside my mum’s house, with all the greenery, I had my boys with me and was discussing them. I don’t have a big studio, so I’d say to my mum, “Oh, I’m going out to the back yard.” She’s got all these banana trees with overgrown grass and makeshift washing lines. I put my banners up there to take a photo and said to my son, “Oh, I need titles for these banners”. I was giving him my thoughts about them and he was like, “Oh, Soul” and “Wonder is good for this one”. It was nice having my family involved in the process, because they do see me making works and trying to be a practicing artist and a mum and support the family at the same time. 

MELINDA It’ll be interesting to see them in such a different context, having been created at home and made for a specific place, and now being presented in an urban, outdoor context. 

SALOME I know! I think it’s like unwrapping a present, wondering what they’re going to look like in the new spaces and how they’ll be hung. It’s like a new journey. I’m excited for them to be presented in that light. 

MELINDA The flags will be up over the holiday period alongside an exhibition of images of items from Auckland Museum’s new Māori and Pasifika textile and fibre knowledge centre, Te Ahu Mutunga Kore. Do you feel any kind of connection or between your work and the work it will be sitting alongside?

SALOME Oh wow. I really admire the whole realm of natural making and utilising whatever’s at hand. My grandmother made tapa and I had aunties who wove mats and it’s really exciting to have my work alongside an exhibition of indigenous weaving. I can’t believe that! 

MELINDA With your banner works, they contrast to a lot of your other works, which seem quick and gestural and expressive. The banners have the same visual energy but are obviously very laborious to make. Did you finding changing gears like that challenging?

SALOME Yeah, I think that in my painting and drawing practice, it’s really instinctual and I just kind of produce off the flow. But working with fabrics and textiles, I have to slow down but also find the balance where I’d like to make quick decisions. I thnk that’s where colours come into play. It’s the same thing with cutting fabrics; I think ‘Oh, I’d like this shape’, and go instinctual in the moment and cut whatever size and shape I want, but also keeping in mind that I’ve got to hand-stitch all of it together. There’s a lot of pins that thrown across the studio! Working with my brother, he suggested getting backgrounds done first to save time. Having his feedback technically has helped me as well. It’s a learning process. Hard labour, but I love it. 

MELINDA You’re a high school art teacher alongside being a working artist and mum – with the high school year wrapping up, will you get a decent break over summer? 

SALOME Yes. For me, the perks are the holidays, and even though we work pretty intensely within the school calendar, the holidays are the reward for me. It works well for me. I enjoy it and spending time with family helps re-energise me for going back into the next school year. 

MELINDA Do you find it’s a productive time for your art practice, to have a little bit more space for creative thinking and production? 

SALOME Yeah, definitely. It allows me to think more clearly about what I want to produce in those down times. It’s quite hard to do that when I’m on the go at work. It’s my making time. Sometimes I don’t feel like I don’t have a holiday, but for me, that also is my holiday. 

MELINDA Do you have any other exhibitions coming up in the future, so people can see your work in places other than Britomart? 

SALOME I will have a show in Christchurch coming up, and I also have some sculptures that I’ve been working on for the Boon Sculpture Festival in Hamilton. I’m still researching that right now. That’ll be coming up in February. A different field, but I like being challenged. It’s more about trying to make 3D forms of the things that I draw in 2D. That’s a new journey for me. 

Salome Tanuvasa's works appear at Britomart courtesy of the artist, Tim Melville Gallery (Auckland) and Page Galleries (Wellington). Flag photo by Geoffery Matautia. Portrait of Salome and artwork photos by Sam Hartnett.