In 2020 Tongan/Christchurch artist, Stone Kulimoe’anga Stone Maka was selected to participate in the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, one of 97 artists in a list of international names and part of a group of five based in Aotearoa invited that year, alongside FAFSWAG, Emily Karaka, John Miller and Elisapeta Heta, and Lisa Reihana . The Biennale’s curator for 2020, Brook Andrew was the first indigenous Australian curator to take up the position. He titled the Biennale of Sydney, NIRIN, and (meaning edge) and dedicated its exhibition and installation spaces to a first nations’ programme of work from indigenous artists in the Pacific, Europe, Africa and America.
Andrew visited Kulimoe’anga Stone Maka in Ōtautahi Christchurch early in 2020 and selected two contemporary ngatu'uli (blackened tapa cloth) paintings each over 11 metres in length: Toga mo Bolata’ane (Tonga and Britain), 2008 – 2010 and Kuini Haati 2 (Two Queen Heart), 2008. Stone Maka’s paintings gained attention and acclaim almost immediately, Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Melbourne, Charles Green writing in Artforum and singling out Kulimoe’anga Stone Maka’s smoke-on-canvas pieces as a focal point for the Biennale. Both are paintings, conceived and realised in oil, clay and dye on black tapa, which is distinct to Tonga.
Curator at the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, Melanie Oliver has now provided the opportunity for residents in Ōtautahi to experience Stone Maka’s biennale works, Toga mo Bolata’ane (Tonga and Britain) and Kuini Haati 2 (Two Queen Heart) in an exhibition that is an immersive experience about the splendour of the artist’s materials and arts practice, and a story about the many layered responses about the nature of the relationship between Tonga and Great Britain - in particular, between Queen Sālote Tupou III of Tonga and Queen Elizabeth II.
Oliver observes that Toga mo Bolata’ane (Tonga and Britain) and Kuini Haati 2 (Two Queen Heart) ‘reinterpret the meeting of these two queens in Tonga in 1953, and reflects on the relationship between these two women and between the nations they represented.’ Stone Maka’s ‘paintings’ represent a form of black tapa (a barkcloth made in the Pacific region) that in Tonga is traditionally used to create works for royal occasions: ‘Drawing on the traditions of ngatu tā’uli, usually made for royalty, Stone Maka innovates and adapts the common designs, symbols and narratives, presenting his own perspective as part of a lived, material connection to his homeland and experience of migration to Aotearoa’.
Both Toga mo Bolata’ane (Tonga and Britain) and Kuini Haati 2 (Two Queen Heart) are from a series of works by Stone Maka that he had initially exhibited in Ōtautahi in 2010. How did they become a part of the Biennale of Sydney in 2020? Stone Maka maintains that it was a surprise to hear of curator Brook Andrew’s’ interest: ‘I received an email from Te Papa, from Nina Tonga, curator of Pacific Art at and she mentioned Andrew. I had never heard of him. I was told that he was going to be in Christchurch to see one of the artists that he was thinking about for the Sydney Biennale, but she said; ‘Andrew wants to drop by and see you. Before he arrived I Googled his name and I was shocked when his profile came up. He had lived everywhere around the world’.
‘He came and wanted to look at my work. I was excited to show my latest work to him but he wasn’t interested. So I went into my bedroom and pulled out the tapa works that I had exhibited at CoCA Gallery, Tohinoa 'o' Manatu (Journal of My Memories) in 2010.’
‘After that exhibition I put them under the bed and never put them out until Andrew arrived. He asked if he could have a look at them. He looked at me. He wanted them in the Biennale’.
‘I had never been in an international exhibition and the Biennale of Sydney is rated number three in the world. I went and I met more than 100 artists from all over the world. It felt different being there. You could see just how many artists had come to the Biennale with ideas about indigenous people. I have never been in a show with such a powerful message, delivered by all of the artists’.
Yet, Stone Maka also notes that he felt that his works were a little different from the other works selected for the Biennale: ‘Mine was less about colonisation, it was about the way the two cultures, Tonga and Britain were linked to one another and still are. Stone Maka’s Kuini Haati 2 (Two Queen Heart) and Toga mo Bolata’ane (Tonga and Britain), those two works are based on my memories as an eight year old boy. The first time that I met a white Englishman was when a cruise ship came to Tonga’. He describes the two works as being about his father, asking him as a young boy to go and sell little seashells to the tourists. His father telling him exactly what words to say. The tourists rode in mini cars without the top. They were the English people who came on those cruise ships, the Queen Elizabeth. I look at those English people, riding on horses and, as they went past me, I held up whatever I was selling to them’.
‘I also have memories have of my neighbour, an old Silika (old women), walking to the beach and watching the English cruise ships leaving and I saw the old ladies crying. I ran back to my dad and asked him: “Why are they crying?” It was 1953 and they were crying for Queen Sālote and Queen Elizabeth, (Sālote Tupou III, Queen of Tonga, 1918 – 1965)’. Queen Elizabeth had been invited to come to Tonga and when she arrived it felt like the people already accept her as the Tongan Queen, because of this association that they made with Queen Sālote. When she left she got on board and the people were standing on the coast and the beach, waving and crying. They loved Queen Elizabeth’.
The second part of this background of Maka’s memories is about the distinct and immediate impact of British colonial settlements in Tonga. ‘There is a piece of land called Bolata’ane. When I was young, a lot of things that I experienced about Tonga were not traditional, even the arts. The designs of some of the traditional art on tapa are not really Tongan designs. The dove and olive leaf is taken from the bible for tapa. It came from the missionaries and has become very traditional of Tongan tapa, and the eagle in tapa, taken from the symbol of the American eagle. The English also introduced those ideas of the lion and whales and the old English flag [in red and white] is in the tapa works in Toga mo Bolataʻane’.
The treaty between England and Tonga was signed by the King of Tonga, Tupou II and King Edward VII in 1900 and Stone Maka has also included the dates on Toga mo Bolataane (Tonga and Britain), noting that he was pleased to acknowledge this relationship on his work when he attended the Biennale of Sydney.
He also comments that when he moved to New Zealand and to Auckland, studying and graduating at the Manukau School of Visual Art as Bachelor of Visual Arts in 2005, he moved to Christchurch and recognised associations with his life as a child in Tonga. ‘I love Christchurch and the scenery and topography. Auckland reminded me more of Tonga but I love the scenery of Diamond Harbour and Governors Bay and I have time for my family and to create works ’.
‘Toga mo Bolataʻane’ is an exhibition about Tonga and positive childhood memories of that time, all from an eight year old boy and it is important to me to hold onto and freeze that moment’.
Melanie OIiver says: “It’s a real honour for the Gallery to exhibit Stone Maka’s works. With their scale, visual impact and personal narrative they are one of the most important projects that Stone has produced. We’re keen to highlight how, as a local artist, he has consistently worked in a unique way, gaining a significant place in the art history of Aotearoa and an international reputation. I love how his knowledge of traditional Tongan art practices and distinct perspective on Western art history exposes the subjectivity of that, and prompts us to consider other ways of looking at our past. It’s powerful, insightful and revolutionary’.
Kulimoe’anga Stone Maka: Toga mo Bolata ‘ane
Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, corner Worcester Boulevard and Montreal Street,
21 August – 19 September
Activities: September 11, 2.30pm: Taste some delicious food from Le Tautua Atunuu,
3pm. Toga moBolata'ane: Hear from local Tongan artist Kulimoe'anga Stone Maka and curator Melanie Oliver as they introduce this new exhibition of monumental contemporary ngatutā'uli.
2pm-4pm: Try your hand at Tongan art and language at our activity tables.
- Kulimoe'anga Stone Maka, Kuini Haati 2 (Two Queen Heart) and Toga mo Bolata’ane (Tonga and Britain), 2008–10. Oil, clay, dye on tapa cloth. Installation view, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū. Courtesy of the artist. Photograph: John Collie
- Kulimoe'anga Stone Maka, Toga mo Bolata’ane (Tonga and Britain), 2008–10, detail