Niutuiatua Lemalu: “There’s a kind of absurdity that goes hand in hand with trying to make painting go along with an idea”
I love painting, and I love collecting paintings. Niutuiatua Lemalu’s works in my personal collection give me life everyday, and often scare visiting children, but I love them a lot. Know what I mean, jellybean? is the final show in the inaugural PIMPI Winter Series and the exhibition’s themes inspired the South Auckland-based painter to make three brand new oil paintings…
Niu! It has been a while! You had a solo painting exhibition at Fresh Gallery Otara almost exactly five years ago – what have you been up to?
Yeah it’s scary to think that exactly five years ago Alias was opening, must be a sign. I’ve been mostly working. I seriously considered making a go at having another show but decided to put those on hold, primarily for economic reasons. The struggle is real.
Your Alias (2010) body of work investigated masking and the layers that make up identity, the acts of revealing, hiding, being exposed. The premise of Know what I mean, jellybean? for the PIMPI Winter Series, made me think of you straight away; I’m so happy that you’ve been inspired to make three beautiful new paintings. Tell me about them!
Yes and thanks Ema for this opportunity, I was very excited when you approached me about the show particularly because I felt like “Know what I mean jellybean?” struck a personal chord. I mean, that phrase for one has probably popped up in a LOT of conversations so to me it offered a possibility of discourse, a starting and departure point; about gangs, fitting in, not quite fitting in, nostalgia, popular culture, success, failure, youth, marginalisation, politics, the ghetto, religion, family etc… Talking about my recent works is kind of difficult mainly because my first instinct is to rely on memory to describe the experience of making these works and also because painting has a way of flipping the script on you. Looking at them as they are now there’s somewhat of a departure from the original thoughts I had when I initially found out about the exhibition.
Initially I’d find some images that were direct and in your face. But there’s a kind of absurdity that goes hand in hand with trying to make painting go along with an idea. I mean the material is so crass and dumb and then it always becomes like a physical thing to make a painting submit to an idea – it refuses to lie down or be invisible and in the end no matter how fast your ideas are or even if you’re painting from an image and you don’t have to worry about something basic like, composition you still find yourself watching and waiting. So yeah, there’s some frustration in there, failure, a little bit of awkwardness and humour or not quite fitting in, a kind of longing to find the zeitgeist and not quite attaining it.
This exhibition is an attempt to visualise the interface and negotiation of difference in the spaces between cultures, class, gender. Your work is in excellent company alongside new and recent work by Leilani Kake, Waiora Palalagi and Pati Solomona Tyrell. I’ve worked with you in a traditional gallery context, deeply embedded South Auckland kaupapa; what did you think when I pitched the idea of being part of a Pacific art exhibition in a barber and tattoo studio in Mt Eden, central Auckland?
My first thought was “cool”, besides I don’t know of many people who wake up and think “hhhmmmm, I think I’ll go visit my local gallery today” and I’m an artist! Barber shops/tattoo studios on the other hand…… Seriously though, I like the idea that this could potentially be a lot more accessible to the public. I know that art galleries and museums are always heading this way too but I’ve always felt that they targeted a specific audience and the pre- requisites to enter a gallery would be a degree in art history or something! By the way this is not necessarily how it is everywhere, just a personal observation.
You’ve got mad skills, and I remember your family taking the opportunity at your artist talk at Fresh to call you out on the paintings they wanted you to give to them!! I loved that! I’m interested in the prolific practice of banner painting, key making and memorial t-shirt design; a creative economy which happens every day in the Pacific community. To me, this is contemporary Pacific art in practice; art that speaks to Pacific people, values lived experience, love, family, history. I know you’ve done your fair share of banners; what’s your views on banners, on painting for exhibitions, and the difference in audience and value, meaning and purpose?
I know my family’s pretty hardcore when it comes to supporting anyone in the family. Speaking of family my mum and dad would volunteer me to do banners towards the end of high school for church and other family members. I’d been painting since 5th form so I guess they had to find out whether I was any good or not (LOL). Banners feel like what I would imagine doing a commissioned piece would be like, only with probably a lot less creative freedom, give or take. Doing banners can be physically exhausting because of the sheer size of some and also because you’re having to negotiate around time constraints, skill limitations, whether or not the people you’re doing it for have a clear idea of what they want. Most times it’s; here’s the theme, here’s the materials and away you go. On very rare occasions you get someone who is very specific, like my aunty; which is good because someone else is calling the shots and making the decisions so it’s easier. You instantly know whether it’s a success or not based on whether someone likes it, or not. Most times the target audience are just hella grateful. I don’t think there’s ever been a time I’ve received a bad comment or where my banners have been received poorly, even in instances where I am not too happy about the end product or where I felt that I could have done better but there’s a perceived priceless exchange, almost sentimental to whoever you’re doing it for.
Painting outside of this is a lot more anxious, no one really knows what’s good. I mean painting has so much baggage, it’s been pronounced dead and revived so many times, yet people are still finding stuff to do. Maybe I chose to paint because of this possibility of resistance.
Know what I mean, jellybean?
27 August – 12 September
Featuring Leilani Kake, Niutuiatua Lemalu, Waiora Palalagi, Pati Solomona Tyrell
Big Willie Legacy Barber & Tattoo Studio is located at 159 Mt Eden Road, Mt Eden, Auckland. Open Mondays from 9am-6pm, Tuesday-Saturday from 9am-7pm. Barber and tattoo appointments and enquiries: / firstname.lastname@example.org
Exhibition and Artwork Enquiries