Salome Tanuvasa talks to Louise Garrett about the close connection between her surroundings and her art.
Salome Tanuvasa’s work can loosely be located in the expanded field of drawing – a space of reflection and action somewhere between drawing, painting, sculpture and spatial design. Immersed in her immediate environment, she often re-purposes materials that are ‘to hand’.
Striving to be present and open to contingencies, her drawing practice is a means of thinking as well as an attempt to articulate the process of this thought. She aims to achieve a “state of flow” in her work – a space of intensely focused contemplation as a crucible for creative ideas and actions. Rather than treating a drawing as a plan for a future purpose, in Tanuvasa’s work the gesture of mark-making is a purposeful activity in and of itself. It is made in a provisional, unfinished space. To borrow a phrase from American post-minimalist artist Robert Morris, it is an “interrogative space” in which the art is “coated or infected with a kind of question-like aspect.” Each question signifies a way station, a point of departure and return, a momentary pause, an anxious delay – the circulation of meaning is fragile and unsettled.
Throughout her creative process, Tanuvasa asks: “How did I get to this point? What does it mean if I stop here? What will happen if I continue? Where am I going?” The shifting questions intimate a desire to “stay true to a moment that’s always moving” and, she says, to “work intuitively within the space I’m creating. The artworks are the representation of these moments.”
Her upbringing in east Auckland as a child of Tongan and Samoan parents has had a deep influence on her creative practice and trajectory as an artist. She recalls taro, chilli bushes, and orange trees growing in her childhood garden – an environment that recalled her parents’ island homes and also provided sustenance for the family.
This combination of memory and utility was to influence her growing identity as an artist. Her burgeoning interest in art was nurtured during her education at a local Catholic primary school. Her home environment was full of the tools and activities of her parents’ respective trades – her father was a mechanic and her mother a seamstress. Her love of materiality and her habit of using whatever is to hand, including the mundane and overlooked, stemmed from immersion in a household of industrial making and repair. This atmosphere, imbued with a DIY principle of “make do and mend,” finds an echo in a strand of contemporary art-making concerned with appropriating and transforming everyday materials and things. As a child, Salome remembers constructing pieces from offcuts of her mother’s fabrics and growing up to the sound of a sewing machine. Given this background, it is not surprising that Salome’s brother John became a fashion designer.
After taking foundation courses at Manukau Institute of Technology in her 20s and with the responsibility of a growing family, she took a leap of faith to enrol in the undergraduate programme at Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland, graduating with a Master of Fine Arts in 2014. She went on to gain her teaching certificate, and currently works full-time as an art and technology teacher at a high school for boys in Māngere. Her teaching reflects her own art practice: “When I’m teaching, I’m letting students find their inner voice and listen to their gut feeling in the artworks that they create.”
Her work has always responded to the conditions of her environment, including the pressures of work and family responsibilities. She typically works at night at her studio in Mt Wellington, habitually starting by cleaning up the space and writing a plan that often includes bullet points and questions prompted by the site and situation of her next exhibition. This ritual allows her to clear the way to begin to explore marks, forms, shapes and colours using a range of media and materials, including acrylic and marker pen on paper and card, paint, fabric, wall drawing, photography, video, and site-specific installation.
The graphic quality of the distinctive lines, swirls and shapes in Salome’s work suggests a form of writing – a set of gestures and articulations that intimate a proto-language. They appear as a visual language of floating signifiers, untethered to any definitive meaning. On these experiments with the idea of language, the artist has said that: “I draw from the rhythmic action of writing, and from the phenomenology of direct experiences that allows me to play in the area of how meaning is formed.” This sense of openness is an invitation for viewers to encounter and pay attention to a space of contemplation and playful experimentation, through a language that lies just beyond (re)cognition.
In 2021, Tanuvasa was commissioned by the Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland to produce a site-responsive work for the group exhibition From our Beautiful Square, created in response to the experience of restricted movement and social distancing in lockdowns during the covid pandemic. Tanuvasa has stated that a touchstone for her work is “always always my surroundings” and this project allowed her to experiment in a space beyond the scale of her immediate domestic environment or studio. In response to the Art Deco interior of the Gus Fisher’s Dome Gallery, the artist translated her typical idiom of marks and strokes into brightly coloured cut-out fabric forms, hand-stitched onto big swathes of unstretched canvas floating in the gallery space. She also painted marks and forms, based on the subtle pastel colours and shapes coming through the gallery’s stained-glass dome, directly onto the gallery walls. The richly colourful and joyful work signalled an expansive new direction in the artist’s practice as well as a positive recalibration and liberation from the strictures of lockdown.
In 2022, she spent a week at the Earthskin Waygood Foundation in Piha, which allowed her to reconnect with nature and natural forms, which she said “renewed her respect for nature and its grounding influence.” During the residency she produced a series of works on paper, which were shown as part of her exhibition A Study at the Tim Melville Gallery.
She is currently working towards an exhibition at the Fresh Gallery in Otara in April 2023. In an extension of her habitual absorption of her surroundings, and inspired by the colourful two-dollar shops near the gallery, she intends to speak to local shop owners and use these conversations and the stories she uncovers as a basis for new work. The orbit of Tanuvasa’s creative universe continues to expand.
Salome Tanuvasa is represented by Tim Melville Gallery and featured at Page Galleries. She has exhibited her work in solo and group exhibitions in New Zealand, Sydney, and Shanghai.
First published in Art Zone #94