Francis McWhannell Writer and exhibition-maker

Fitting the pieces together

A Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience by Andy Leleisiʻuao

Kia orana. Welcome everyone to Andy Leleisiʻuao’s A Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience, his twentieth show with Ben Bergman. I would like to begin by extending warm congratulations and thanks to Andy and the team at Bergman Gallery. I feel honoured to speak here, both because Andy is one of the most highly respected painters practising in Aotearoa New Zealand, and because I have personally admired his work for some time. Until last year, I was responsible for looking after an art collection that included two earlier paintings from the same Diaspora series to which the works in this show belong, and they held a profound and manifold wonder.

Such wonder is characteristic of Andy’s art. It possesses great beauty and wit but is never about superficial prettiness or one-liners. His paintings are dense with memorable detail. Spend even a short time looking at the works in this show, and the figures, objects, and scenes Andy has made will lodge themselves in your mind’s eye. They will travel with you as you leave the gallery later tonight and move about the everyday world. Even after many views, new details will emerge, sneak up on you. As such, repeated visits are recommended. I suspect this is a reason that the present show runs for several months. The gallery knows, from experience, that one look will not be enough.

Andy Leleisiʻuao, A Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience (installation view), 2019. Image courtesy of the artist and Bergman Gallery, Rarotonga.

The works you see here are travellers, and not only from Aotearoa. The twelve largest were made last year in New York City, during a five-month residency Andy received when he won the prestigious Wallace Arts Trust Paramount Award in 2017. The visit to New York was not Andy’s first. He had already shown there several times, and so was returning to a place to some extent familiar. Traces of that bustling, migrant city, and the experience of being there, may be found in these paintings (some of you might like to try tracking down the key to his residency studio or his lunchtime banana). But the most important impact was no doubt the time and space to think and make, pushing his Diaspora works in new directions.

The series is immediately recognisable for its forms in silhouette, created by brush and hand (Andy likes to speak of his fingerprints being all over his works). The majority are in black and bordered by a misty halo reminiscent of charcoal smudges, a feature that lends the works a certain ethereality or other-worldliness, even before their specific content is considered. The images are made up of compartments mostly populated by human (or human-like) figures. This pictorial system relates to a host of image-making traditions from round the world. Comic books, which Andy has enjoyed since his youth, are one reference point. I think, too, of friezes on Greek temples, tomb paintings from Egypt, sculptures on South-East Asian buildings, and carvings on elephant tusks from West Africa.

Andy Leleisiʻuao, A Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience Part XI (detail), 2018. Image courtesy of the artist and Bergman Gallery, Rarotonga.

The use of silhouettes and compartments points to two key and related concepts underpinning Andy’s work: the fundamental unity of human experience, and the importance of acceptance. The identities of the figures he paints are not clear. They might be of any colour, creed, or sexual orientation. They not only occupy the same spaces but do so in relative peace. These are not conflict-ridden pictures. That is not to say that the figures, which the artist terms ‘imaginary friends’, are free of trials. Certainly, there are moments of pathos, even melancholy. A passage that consistently attracts my attention shows an ominous horned creature placing or removing an orb from one bowl of a set of scales. Slung in the other bowl is a small figure. The scene recalls Christian depictions of Saint Michael weighing souls—perhaps questioning the judgmental aspect of organised religion, perhaps suggesting that morality remains independent of the same.

Morals undoubtedly figure in Andy’s thinking. During breakfast this morning, I noticed that he was checking out a 1980s comic book on an auction website. He explained that he was attracted to comics of that era due their downplaying of violence (he also pointed out the excellence of their artwork). Back then, the mission to do the right thing was at the centre of the narrative. I was reminded of my visit to Andy’s Māngere home and studio last week. While he made coffee, I poked around. Hanging on the walls were similar comics in protective sleeves featuring African-American as well as white heroes. There were also action figurines, Moana/Pacific sculptures, a poster of Muhammad Ali. I spied books by seminal writers of colour, such as Maya Angelou, and several editions of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the first book Andy read cover to cover. He noted, with a grin, that he’d imagined the upstanding Atticus Finch to be Samoan, like him.

Andy Leleisiʻuao, A Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience (installation view), 2019. Image courtesy of the artist and Bergman Gallery, Rarotonga.

I’m wary of making grand statements about precisely how real-world entities and environments relate to Andy’s invented situations. But perhaps it will suffice to observe that while these paintings are filled with specific references to the artist’s personal life and cultural background, they appeal to visitor-viewers from everywhere, inviting all of us to project ourselves on to them, as Andy projected on to Atticus Finch. As you roam round the artist’s worlds (there’s no itinerary; all pathways are equally valid), you will find that they include beings of all kinds, regardless of the number, placement, and shape of their body parts, and whether they travel by vaka or flying saucer.

‘Diaspora’ as a term is often tinged with pain, evoking the leaving of a homeland under pressure, rather than by pure choice, and consequent feelings of disconnection, unmooring. The works in this show do not necessarily negate these connotations. As I mentioned before, aspects of pathos can be detected. I for one cannot look at a painted panda without recalling the fragility of the natural world and the threat we humans pose. But there is also great optimism at play. Gazing at forms that dance between jellyfish and vaporous heads, I think of how much we still do not know about ourselves, our planet, and the immense cosmos to which we are all connected. Finding our place is a very great puzzle. So many pieces to try to fit together. So many tricky questions to answer. But there’s no need to wallow in a sense of futility, provided we are tolerant, operate in good faith, and have patience.

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Welcome speech presented at the opening of A Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience at Bergman Gallery.


A Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience
Andy Leleisiʻuao

4 November 2019 to 14 February 2020
Bergman Gallery
Rarotonga, Kūki ʻĀirani Cook Islands

By Francis McWhannell
Francis McWhannell Writer and exhibition-maker

About

Francis McWhannell (b. 1985, Aotearoa New Zealand) is a writer and exhibition-maker based in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. He is curator of the Fletcher Trust Collection, a major private collection of Aotearoa art founded in 1962.