Hamilton-based Tongan artist Visesio Siasau scoops six-month residency in New York.

A huge tapa bark cloth depicting traditional Tongan figures of divinity within a contemporary Christian context has won this year's Wallace Arts Trust Paramount Award.

The award was presented last night at Pah Homestead in Auckland to Hamilton-based Visesio Siasau for his Tongan Tapa Cloth, which measures 4.4m by 18m. Siasau receives a six-month residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Programme in New York, plus a stipend and a trophy created by sculptor Terry Stringer.

Tongan-born Siasau graduated last year with the first master's degree in the applied indigenous knowledge programme in the Pacific, after studying at Te Wananga o Aotearoa in New Zealand.

A former electrician in the Tongan Navy, he moved to New Zealand 20 years ago and became inspired to take up art as a career while living with his uncle, a carver, in Otara.

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As part of his research for his master's, he spent some time in his home village of Haveluloto in Tonga with his family of tapa makers, painters and carvers.

Siasau said last night that he was "so appreciative" of winning the award. "I haven't had any time to think about it, to be honest.

"It's about thanking people to begin with."

He wanted to acknowledge his people - "all those who came before me and who will come after me" - his fellow artists, Sir James Wallace and the arts trust, his wife and his family.

Siasau looked forward to the chance to "be a purist" and focus on the art. "What I create isn't giving me money all the time, but to have an opportunity like this is totally different. It is a taonga [treasure] that I plan to share with others upon my return."

A detail from Visesio Siasau's tapa cloth.
A detail from Visesio Siasau's tapa cloth.

Awards director Sir James Wallace said he was delighted to again have a paramount winner "from one of the many ethnic backgrounds that make New Zealand such a culturally diverse and rich country".

Other winners last night include artist-musician Phil Dadson, who receives the Fulbright-Wallace Arts Trust Award, a three-month residency at the Headlands Centre for the Arts in San Francisco; Elam School of Fine Arts student Hugo Lyndsay, who takes the Kaipara Wallace Arts Trust Award, a three-month residency at the Altes Spital in Solothurn, Switzerland; and photographer Russ Flatt, who receives the three-month Wallace Arts Trust Vermont Award in Vermont in the United States.

Cash awards of $2500 also went to Rose Meyer and Virginia Were, and a non-monetary jury award to Andrea du Chatenier.

The works by the winners and finalists are on show at Pah Homestead in Hillsborough until November 8. The awards have run for 24 years.