When Visesio Siasau (Sio) travelled to New York last year, the Paramount Award Winner in the 2015 Wallace Art Awards acknowledges some people he met expected to see weaving and craft-based work from him.

It played into cliched ideas about Pacific Island art, but Sio, the first Tongan artist to receive the prestigious Wallace Art Award, moves well beyond such stereotypical notions. Though he draws on his heritage, his work is abstract, minimalist and reflects a long-held fascination with "the void".

He describes this as a place of mystery where time and human connections are meaningless but part of a larger whole. A series of striking black on black paintings feature in Sio's first solo exhibition since returning from a six-month residency with the International Studio and Curatorial Program in New York. They are inky, yet with a surprising sheen; look at them for long enough and it's like gazing into a mirror and thinking you see something twitch from within the glass.

He wants them to prompt questions about ancient knowledge and creativity, the various manifestations of this, and the place of vava tapu or sacred space. As such, Sio has worked hard - paint-splattered arms and hands are testament to that - to create patterns that fill his variously-sized canvases and emphasise its flatness but also provide an illusion of depth.

Visesio Siasau's art is abstract, minimalist and reflects a long-held fascination with the void.
Visesio Siasau's art is abstract, minimalist and reflects a long-held fascination with the void.

Sio says his most recent work has been inspired by modernist artists such as Rothko, Anish Kapoor, Piet Mondrian and Marcel Duchamp.

But how much of New York is now in the paintings?

He says being in a city as big and eclectic as New York - filled with galleries, museums and people from all over the world - can't help but introduce you to new ideas, prompt reflection and, perhaps, develop a greater self-awareness.

He didn't travel alone to New York, but was accompanied by his wife, artist Serene Tay, and their daughter Sei. The couple met 11 years ago at Mangere's Buck Nin School of Fine Arts at Te Wananga o Aotearoa where both obtained masters degrees.

In 2015, Sio and Tay, who is Chinese-Maori, travelled to Tonga and worked together on the vast tapa bark work, Onotu'ofe'uli - Onotu'ofekula, which won him the Wallace Art Award. It was a complex process that involved making stencils to create 23 different designs, making the tapa cloth then dying it and then using the stencils to print onto the cloth.

But it was the transportation back to New Zealand that taught Sio a most pragmatic lesson: never produce anything too big to fit on an aeroplane home. The 4.4m by 18m tapa cloth and exceeded the 23kg weight limit and was so heavy, it had to be cut in half at Tonga Airport. Airline staff let him take the two halves and it was re-pasted in New Zealand.

Sio ensured the paintings he produced in New York were small enough to travel home easily; bigger works were produced from his Hamilton studio.

Dunedin artist Ana Teofilo with Fiafia (Joy), one of her works which features her trademark dot markings.
Dunedin artist Ana Teofilo with Fiafia (Joy), one of her works which features her trademark dot markings.

Nearly 4000km from Samoa, Ana Teofilo works from her Dunedin studio making art unlike any other traditionally produced by a Samoan woman.


Teofilo carves and paints on board using dots made from glue to form eye-catching patterns which, she says, can symbolise pathways and journeys or even musical notation. While Samoan women paint tapa cloth or make upeti, tapa printing blocks, they don't, as a rule, carve.

The glue dots, carving and painted colour - which could reflect the russet colours of Dunedin's brick buildings or the greens and blues of its surrounding countryside and sea - make her work unique.

She describes these dots as her trademark and acknowledges, from her days as a student at Auckland's Unitec, being drawn to the repetitive and colourful dot markings found in the work of indigenous Australian artist Emily Kngwarreye.

Had she listened to one of her tutors, Teofilo may not have pursued the glue dots. During her final year, a lecturer told her they looked "tacky" and she shouldn't make more. But Teofilo stuck to what she wanted and, knowing she didn't want to use paint brushes or thick pens to produce dots, perfected her art using a glue gun. She admits to also being partially inspired by bubble wrap.

She acknowledges it can be tough on the hands and, these past few months, on her pregnant body. Making work, mixed media on carved and painted board, for her first solo exhibition has meant pushing through morning sickness and fatigue.

Inspired by her Samoan heritage - the music, the dancing and fa'a Samoa (the Samoan way in general) - as well as her husband's Tongan ancestry, Teofilo says Dunedin is the other major component in her work.


Although visiting Samoa inspires and uplifts, she likes to be in Dunedin - the place of her birth - to truly feel "at home". She says while the rest of New Zealand might not see Dunedin as having a significant Samoan population, it's a tight-knit and encompassing one which has always given a strong sense of identity and belonging.

Teofilo is active in this community, mentoring young Pacific students, including the Pacific Island Club at Otago Girls' High School where she's teaching cultural dancing.

What: Visesio Siasau
'Uli 'I he 'Uli - Black on Black
Where and when: Orexart, until July 1

What: Ana Teofilo
Return to Paradise and Peace
Where and when: Warwick Henderson Gallery, until July 1