The line always gets a laugh – even from people who don’t necessarily understand the strong connection between gold teeth and Tongan culture. But Ane Tonga’s Seta, is much more than just a punchline.
It’s a bold statement, as bold as the bright red lipstick worn by the young Tongan woman in the photograph.
White Gaze, RIP: here’s the Brown Gaze in full effect, where we get to see a Tongan woman through a Tongan lens: those telltale gold teeth; that mischievous tongue; those leopard-print earrings. Who else but a Tongan could have shot this?
The woman in the photo is getting ready to hit the club, perhaps. You can imagine the soundtrack to the photograph. Something anthemic by Beyoncé, possibly, or maybe Rihanna. And you can imagine the night that follows: lots of mocking and laughter. Plenty of selfies and shots. Maybe even some heavy-duty flirting until finally that mouth full of gold smiles at a big-biceped hunk and those bright red lips end up pressed against his.
Part of the reason I respond so strongly to Seta is that I feel something that I very rarely feel when I wander through art galleries: like I’ve known variations of this woman throughout my entire adult life. I feel like we danced together, sweat drenched, in the heat of Daniel’s nightclub on St Asaph Street in the nineties; that we had our eye on the same guy at Auckland’s Bass Bar in the oughties; mocked each other mercilessly at the infamous Supper Club on Pitt Street.
I imagine that this photograph is on a Saturday, before she takes off those earrings and wipes off that lipstick and morphs back into the good girl belting out a hymn at church wearing her ta’ovala, praying to God that all that Listerine she gargled this morning is masking the smell of those Jägerbombs she threw back last night.
When you search Seta online on the Gallery’s website, the tags are: earrings, gold, lips, people, red, teeth, women.
And while they’re all certainly there, present and accounted for, Seta is so undeniably Tongan that its omission from the tags is glaring.
The Devil’s Blind Spot: Recent Strategies in New Zealand Photography
Recent photography by an emerging generation of New Zealand artists.
This photograph shows the nifo koula (gold tooth) worn by a female member of Ane Tonga’s family in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s from a series of work exploring the role of nifo koula in understanding Tongan concepts of gender. For Tongan communities living outside Tonga, nifo koula is a way of remaining connected in memory to the islands. Many of Ane Tonga’s New Zealand-based family members received their nifo koula in Tonga as a way of commemorating their trip. The gold used for the dental procedure is often sourced from old family jewellery, lending further layers of ancestral connection for the wearer. While it’s become a contemporary Tongan ‘tradition’, nifo koula is also part of transnational visual culture through its relationship to the metal grills, or tooth jewellery, of US hip-hop culture.Ane Tonga’s work is the first time that nifo koula has been explored in photography as an aspect of contemporary Tongan thought. She says, “As an indigenous photographer, placing Tongans in front of my lens became a tool to challenge the historical misrepresentation of Pacific peoples.”
(We do this, 12 May 2018 - 26 May 2019)
The Devil’s Blind Spot
Te Puna o Waiwhetū Christchurch Art Gallery has a long-standing tradition of curating exhibitions of emerging and early-career artists. We do this in order to contribute to the ecology of the local art world, as well as because – quite straightforwardly – we’re interested in the practices of artists at all stages of their careers, and would like to bring the work of outstanding younger artists to wider public attention. The Devil’s Blind Spot is the latest in this ongoing series, but unlike earlier exhibitions, it’s concerned with a single medium – photography.
Three artists featured in our new exhibition We Do This describe how they get it done and what motivates them to do it in the first place. This talk the first in a two-part series.