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What it means ‘to be at home’, on this island

Salome exhibition

Salome Tanuvasa's exhibition, To Be at Home, at Te Whare Toi o Heretaunga - Hastings Art Gallery, in 2023.

What is home? And where is home? These are the questions Tāmaki Makaurau-based artist Salome Tanuvasa explores regularly in her work.

They are questions which, for many of us who live in Aotearoa New Zealand, are at once both physical and philosophical, migratory and meaningful. 

These are not simple questions with simple answers. They are intergenerational, steeped in both place and identity. They’re questions which reach to the very heart of what it means to be human, to be present within your environment, your whānau and your community.

For Tanuvasa, they’re the most important questions to explore.

“My work is intrinsically connected with my environment which leads into my whakapapa. This is a reflection on the current spaces that I occupy, both physically and mentally. I’m working on being present all the time, this state of mind is something I’m learning in becoming,” she says.

Tanuvasa identifies as a New Zealand-born Pacific Islander, an identity shared by many and loaded with significance.

After all, the experiences of Pacific Islanders in New Zealand haven’t always been positive - whether it’s the deeply traumatic experience of immigration officials banging on your door in the middle of the night, an experience which has been revealed this week as not just relegated to the history books, or spending months in physical labour picking fruit at orchards across the country as part of the Government’s Recognised Seasonal Employees scheme. 

Despite the challenges faced by many from Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa in building a life here, Tanuvasa remains inspired and dedicated to honouring the hard work of her family, both then and now.

“My parents are my inspiration. My father is from Samoa and my mother is from Tonga, both migrated to New Zealand in the ‘70s. They are strong individuals who left their homes and families, to seek a better life in Aotearoa.”

As an island nation, everyone who lives here has travelled across expansive oceans to reach New Zealand at some point in their family history.

Tanuvasa’s familial sense of landing in New Zealand in search of a better life is clear in her most recent exhibition at Te Whare Toi o Heretaunga – Hastings City Art Gallery, a series of large, appliqued abstract banners collectively titled ‘To be at home’.

“This work is a reflection on migration and the journey of people from the past and the resources produced. It’s an opportunity to reflect on how human connection is formed.” 

One work in particular, A New Life, speaks directly to migration with its deep blues and sense of movement. As a first generation pākehā New Zealander, whose parents ended up here because they were searching for a better life for their kids, I see my own story reflected alongside Tanuvasa’s. A New Life is somehow both quiet and deeply powerful, ebbing and flowing like the ocean itself, reminding me of where I’ve come from and how important that is.

Tanuvasa’s artistic practice also includes themes of work, in particular her mother’s work as a seamstress in Tāmaki’s factories in the 1970s. “My mother is a hard worker, a very strong, kind and caring mum,” Tanuvasa says. 

“She worked as a seamstress, at Line 7, and I grew up with industrial sewing machines and piles of garments in large yellow plastic containers at home. My mum said for extra pocket money she would agree to complete orders at home, after-hours and weekends, after finishing her weekday shift. I remember waiting to pick her up from work and going into her job and seeing the rows of sewing machines.”

Tanuvasa’s textile works honour her mother’s sacrifices, through the language of recycled fabric offcuts and hard work – hand-stitched in the stolen minutes and hours between her full time job as a secondary school art teacher and being a mother, herself.

“To be honest, the real artists are people who create opportunities for their families and loved ones. Learning a skill, like sewing, and providing for your family is love, and to highlight this within a gallery context sits equally within the realm of fine arts [as other, more traditional, artforms].”

Tanuvasa says her story isn’t uncommon for the children of immigrants, but it’s a privilege to tell that story nonetheless. “My parents, like many migrants, are the definition of strong-hearted, hard working people. They are the people I admire to become.”

With environmental motifs drawn from her parents’ Panmure, East Auckland garden, which overflows with plants and food which remind them of the islands, Tanuvasa’s work gently whispers to its viewers about the comforts of home and connection - whether that’s the ubiquitous citrus fruits of the Pacific, seen in the work ‘Moli’, or the sense of being grounded in the earth here, a seed awaiting full fruition, as in ‘Regrowing’. 

Tanuvasa says she doesn’t set out to make quiet work, instead working instinctively. “I use my intuition in creating my pieces and making quick decisions determines the outcome. For me, working intuitively makes my soul happy and this allows me to play.”

That sense of play, joy and gratitude is evident in the work Tanuvasa produces, whether it’s the textile banners in To be at home, or her drawings, paintings and other mediums.

The other theme most evident in Tanuvasa’s work, particularly her recycled works, is hope. After all, what drives a family to travel the oceans and start again? What keeps them here, gathering what resources they have to build a community, to build a home?

“I don’t like wasting materials, and I love challenging myself and seeking potential in mundane objects and offcuts. This gives me a new sense of hope every time.”

While our experiences may differ, we’ve all come to this land in search of a better life – from Sāmoa, from Tonga, from Britain, from Hawaiiki and beyond. And what keeps us here, what makes this land home, is the hope that together, we can build a better life, for everyone.

To Be At Home was exhibited at Te Whare Toi o Heretaunga - Hastings Art Gallery from February 18 - May 7, 2023. This essay was written by Rosie Dawson-Hewes and first published by Ensemble.


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