Island Queerness in the Diaspora: Sione Monū and Christopher Ulutupu in Conversation with Robbie Handcock

The Inner Lives of Islands is currently on view at Te Tuhi in Tāmaki Makaurau. Here, curator Robbie Handcock discusses Pacific Futurism and queer joy with exhibiting artists Sione Monū and Christopher Ulutupu.

Date 17 August 2021 Interview Robbie Handcock Photography Sam Hartnett

The Inner Lives of Islands [artworks by Sione Monū and Christopher Ulutupu]. Installation view, Te Tuhi, Tāmaki Makaurau, July 2021.

Robbie Handcock: Chris and Sione, both of you are part of The Inner Lives of Islands, an exhibition curated by me and currently on at Te Tuhi. It explores storytelling instincts of five artists from the Asia-Pacific region, and how these might reflect ideas of nationhood and diasporic identity. Sione, can we talk about your floral, beaded cloud forms in ‘Ao kakala. You’ve been working with these forms for a while, can you tell us how they came about?

Sione Monū: ‘Ao is clouds and kakala is flowers in Tongan, so ‘Ao kakala translates to “floral clouds.” It’s an exploration of the Tongan fine art of flower designing, called nimamea’a tuikakala. I’ve been experimenting with this art form for six years now. I started with these kahoa, or garlands, using sticky contact paper and florals from the environment of each person I was making them for. I exhibited a collection of photographs of my friends and family wearing these kahoas in my first exhibition, Kahoa Kakala at Objectspace and Fresh Gallery. I since continued experimenting with flower designing with plastic materials. It’s something that our aunties and family in the diaspora would use a lot to mimic the bright colours of the natural florals they use in the islands, which they obviously didn’t grow here.

RH: Sione, your practice looks at a generational relationship with culture. These artworks are really popular with audiences, you sell them, and I wonder whether people ask about some of the background of how they have come to be?

SM: People seem to really respond to it. It’s part of why I’ve been making them a lot. With materials, it’s quite a joyous practice for me working and experimenting. Lots of people also have heaps of their own interpretations. I read a reviewer interpret my work as an expression of queer joy, which I found interesting. Other people say it has been nostalgic for them, like making with their families. I love the conversations that the artworks bring.

“There are certain times where I feel like I get opportunities and I look at the other artists and I wonder if I’m ticking a box. It makes me second guess my talents and skills as an artist. I hope that we can move past that kind of conversation. Until then, it’s always something that I think about in the back of my mind, thinking about what the context of the exhibition [I’m participating in] is.”
— Christopher Ulutupu

RH: Chris, as part of The Inner Lives of Islands you created a new commissioned artwork titled What’s the worst you could do?. What was the genesis of this?

Christopher Ulutupu: In 2011, I was working at Corrections and wrote a script called What’s the worst you could do?. I’ve always wanted to realise that script but didn’t think about it until my show at Enjoy Contemporary Art Space, Dreaming of Lulu. It was the first time I looked at that script and extracted themes from it and reimagined it. The central character was Lulu, a fictional character I created when I was a child. I thought that was a really cute connection.

When you approached me about doing the show at Te Tuhi, I thought about how I always wanted to do something with this script that really delved into the scriptwork itself. My initial brief was that I’d shoot these scenes with actors and do this really intensive drama, the climactic scene, and play it out with dialogue. We did a script workshop and then realised we were more interested in building the world and its essence. The artwork is a reflection of that pivot in the script where we’re more interested in the energy and the vibe of the text rather than the dialogue or characterisation.

RH: Can you talk a little bit about what the script actually was that you were responding to? The finished product says something quite different to the script and there’s a separation there that not everyone is privy to.

CU: The premise of the story centred around Lulu who is a mother, estranged from her partner in Porirua where she lives. She has two boys and the way she makes money is by singing, winning money at talent quests and gigs. One night, she enters a talent quest at the local RSA and she does this number, There are worse things I could do, from Grease. She hears her estranged partner is coming to see the show and thinks it could be her chance to reconnect with him. She puts on the most beautiful dress and really invests in the lighting and all these things. It cuts to the event. She arrives and she realises that he’s there with his new younger and hotter girlfriend. She’s devastated and so she locks herself in the car. Her sons try to get her out of the car to perform because they know that’s how she earns her living for them all, but then they decide to perform the song for her. The fa’afine, who are there at the club, help dress one of the boys in drag and they go perform this song. They get a standing ovation, people are loving it. The father, who is sitting in the crowd, stands up and says “What the hell?”. There’s this huge fight that ensues. He says, “Is this what your mother’s teaching you?.” It’s all those heteronormative observations about what masculinity is.

The kids run away. They find their dad’s car is outside and it’s this new BMW. He’s got a new girlfriend, he’s got a new car, so the boys throw a rock through it and they start smashing the windows. Then the mother comes out and says “Hey, what are you doing?.” But then she joins in on the destruction of this car. Then they ride off into the night. The new girlfriend is standing outside having a cigarette and then one of the boys throws his wig at her and says “Go home, ugly girl.” And that’s the end of the script.

SM: Was the script for a short film?

CU: Yeah, I wrote it in a short film format but haven’t shown it all. I feel like I need to rewrite it or get the language better. I wrote the script in a day at my desk when I should have been doing work. People have said they want to see the film. There’s this weird interplay where I really love the artwork that’s been created because of this film that never got made. Something that I’m definitely thinking about.

Christopher Ulutupu, What’s the worst you could do?, 2021, two-channel HD video, sound, 10 mins 48 secs. Installation view, Te Tuhi, Tāmaki Makaurau, July 2021. Cinematography by Haz Forrester, sound & camera assist by Kane Laing. Commissioned by Te Tuhi, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland.

RH: Sione, you say that an interpretation of your work has been that it’s an expression of queer joy. One of the conversations I had with you was your experience of not being allowed to participate in this practice of nimamea’a kakala because of gender. Is revisiting this practice as an adult part of coming to terms with that exclusion?

SM: Wow, did I say that? It sounds like me.

RH: I definitely relate to that feeling of being the gay kid in the family and watching the women do things that you want to do. For me it was always the kitchen, always wanting to help with making the food.

SM: I grew up as a leiti in the diaspora in Australia. I noticed in Australia that the attitudes from people within the diaspora had kind of regressed. They really project those toxic masculine roles onto the boys. My experience of growing up as leiti in the diaspora is that they don’t generally assign you the roles of women like they do in the islands. I’ve visited Tonga quite regularly since the start of my art practice. I got to really know my leiti family and they took care of me there, but I realised that their role in the islands with the other leitis was more fluid. It was really eye-opening to me. I definitely think it was an act of protest making with all these materials that I wasn’t taught when I was growing up.

RH: Chris, did you spend any time growing up in Samoa?

CU: No. I didn’t go to Samoa until I was 23. A lot of my family haven’t gone to Samoa, just for financial reasons. It’s quite expensive to go. I think I always envisioned that I would go with my parents. The first time I went to Samoa was when I went over to work on The Orator. There’s a weird fear when you’re diasporic that you need your parents to help you navigate the cultural landscape. My Samoan wasn’t up to scratch and I’d always worry I’d say the wrong thing. I talk about it in some of my work, about being told that this is your homeland when you only get images or video of this place and have no actual physical connection to it. It was very jarring, but while I was there I learnt so much.

RH: Were you ever clocked in Samoa as a queer person?

CU: Yeah. I went there and I had just come out. I really loved how unexpectedly queer Samoan society was. I felt like there was such a huge number of fa’afafine and fa’afatama who were there and I met so many people in polyamorous or open relationships. I always imagined the islands being quite Christian, which was true, but I felt like there was this underbelly of queerness that exists through the fabric of society there.

RH: I think with many of these island nations, introduced religion kind of sits on top of how so many people conduct themselves and informs the value systems they think they need to present. I moved to small town Aotearoa after being in the Philippines. It wasn’t until years later I realised that one of the biggest differences is that in the Philippines queer people are just a really visible, everyday, part of society. Moving to small town Aotearoa, I realised I didn’t see another visibly queer person for ten or so years.

CU: I definitely felt that it was so much more prominent when I was back in Samoa. I learnt a lot. Being there demystified some of those preconceptions I had about island life. Here we build up such a different image of what it would be like in the islands and it’s not until you’re there that you actually learn that it’s so much deeper than that, deeper than these representations.

RH: How have you found the language that we use to describe our experiences as non-heterosexual people from the islands? For me, I think the language informs the way people navigate each other. In Tagalog there are no gendered pronouns. We have a singular they. So when you’re talking about someone, the gendering of them is a few steps down the conversation. In English, it’s often one of the first things you have to establish. Is that similar in Tongan and Samoan at all?

SM: Faka leiti translates to ‘in the manner of a lady.’ But leiti isn’t a pronoun that women use in Tonga so leitis in Tonga have really embraced that as a pronoun, dropping the ‘faka’ or ‘in the manner of’ and just calling ourselves Leitī. When I first went to Tonga, my leiti aunties told me to shave my beard. They said, “You’re not going to get any dick if you don’t shave your beard.’’ It felt very indigenous and pre-colonial, the way things function around sexuality in the islands, which was a really nice surprise when I visited. How about you, Chris?

CU: There weren’t that many labels in my time in Samoa. A lot of the queer people I interacted with also had families—they had babies and wives, and that was their life, but they were queer as well. I found it interesting that people keep multiple versions of themselves that weren’t hidden. It was kind of freeing. In terms of gender, I felt like I’ve only recently realised that there were not only fa’afafine but fa’afatama—different pre-colonial genders. That’s all relatively new in the language that I’ve been using for a long time. I would love to go back at some point and even do a new artwork there.

SM: That would be amazing.

Sione Monu, ‘Ao kakala (installation view), 2021, plastic flowers, foam board, beads. Commissioned by Te Tuhi, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland.

CU: I did propose one year that I would do an artwork in Samoa. Last time I was there I went to Vailima, a village near the mountain. There’s a ranch of horses there.

RH: Oh, the Samoan gay cowboys?

CU: Yeah, the Samoan gay cowboys. I remember arriving and there was this one guy who had really long hair and was taming a horse. I was like, what is this vibe? He looked like Fabio, but Samoan.

SM: You need to make Vailima Mountain.

CU: Yeah. I thought, what did I just step into? I don’t even know if it still exists but I want to put that into a work somehow. I was blown away. I thought, this is the gayest thing I’ve ever seen.

RH: Sione, you have an ongoing interest in queer indigeneity. You’ve made a name for yourself as a moving image artist with a strong engagement with social media. How do you think these ideas translate between your mediums?

SM: My sculptural works were kind of second to my video practice when I first came here as an artist. Then the videos grew, so I would focus on them more. But I would say my video work is where I express the queer ideas I would have.

RH: I was really interested in how you spoke about Only Yesterday, the moving image artwork you did for the Circuit symposium, Sovereign Pacific / Pacific Sovereigns. You talk about it being this kind of fantasy world—what if colonialism didn’t happen, what if leitis existed without Western colonial influence? It functions like a sci-fi fantasy.

SM: Me and my friend Manu collaborated on that. Manu is a huge fan of afro-futurism, Pacific futurism, and sci-fi worlds. I had only started getting into these ideas, but we wanted to create that kind of vibe, that kind of world building, without explaining it so much. So we came up with this world and characters who we played and made little vignettes of our alternate leiti lives. We made the costumes with that background in mind. With the costumes we wanted to express that if leiti were to come into themselves and their sovereignty in the modern world, we would be quite showy about our identity.

RH: Do you think people buy into your sculptural work as an artefact of your video practice?

SM: I think most likely. When I release a new series of clouds at Moana Fresh my favourite part is making little videos on my instagram stories, giving them a little narrative. I notice a lot of people respond to that and end up buying work from those stories.

RH: It’s funny, Chris, you’re on the other end of the spectrum where I feel like you’re really bad at social media.

CU: It’s so true. I wish I cared about it more but I actually don’t. I’m very in my bubble sometimes. I think I mentioned this to someone yesterday, I just hang out with the same people I live with. Outside of that, I feel like I’m much more of an observer rather than a participant on social media. I love the memes and I love watching, but I rarely ever participate.

Christopher Ulutupu, What’s the worst you could do?, 2021, two-channel HD video, sound, 10 mins 48 secs. Installation view, Te Tuhi, Tāmaki Makaurau, July 2021. Cinematography by Haz Forrester, sound & camera assist by Kane Laing. Commissioned by Te Tuhi, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland.

RH: Both of you have moved around significantly since childhood. Sione, how long have you been in Tāmaki Makaurau?

SM: Since 2015.

RH: So a good six years. What was the transition like moving from Canberra, as a Pacific person and as an artist?

SM: I think for both reasons it was why I moved here. I did one semester of art school. I wasn’t flourishing so I dropped out and moved to Tāmaki Makaurau. I realised that all my Instagram friends were brown and artists in Aotearoa, so I moved to try and be friends in real life. It worked out really well for me, I think.

RH: Did you have a similar experience, Chris, moving from Nelson to Te Whanganui-a-Tara?

CU: I don’t know. I feel like from an early age my family were of the opinion you don’t need friends, you’ve got family. I only hung out with my cousins up until I was 19. When I went to study, I moved from a brown household in a very white city to a hostel where I was the only brown person. By that time I was really good at assimilating. I was still grappling with being queer, but also still so isolated from my brown community. I found it really difficult to land where I was supposed to be. I don’t know if many other queer people feel like this, but I hung out with certain people and thought, this is my community now. Then something abruptly shifts or something happens and you realise actually they’re not your community.

RH: Moving to Te Whanganui-a-Tara as a teengager I thought I was going to find my people and community right away. On reflection I think class and race is a much bigger social determinant than sexuality. It took me a good ten years to feel like I’d settled into a solid network of brown, queer people. After moving to Tāmaki Makaurau recently I realised I had spent over ten years building a community that’s meaningful to me and it’s almost like I’m having to start here from scratch.

CU: I remember one time when I was in my yo-pro phase and all my gay friends happened to be predominantly white. I think someone said “poor people just choose to be poor.” They were some rich white gay who owned a yacht or something. I flipped. I looked around me and realised so many of these people were like that. I was like, “I need to leave.” It was very dramatic. I flipped a table at the time. I don’t even think I paid for my meal, I just left.

RH: It also takes a long time to realise that you can leave the table. I feel like I wouldn’t have had that confidence in some of my younger days with some of the conversations that I’ve sat through.

SM: I feel like young queer people, they come into the world from a very gloomy and traumatic past. They have an opportunity to find their people. I remember when I first came out I was like, “Yes, you’re all my community!” And then releasing further down the line that a lot of those relationships you make aren’t all equal. It does take time to figure out.

RH: Watching younger brown people, do you think it seems like they’ve been able to navigate those things quicker?

SM: I think they’re all doing the thing we all did when we were young. Just throwing themselves out there and ignoring the red flags. But they’ll figure it out like we did, I think.

RH: Is there anything you’re hopeful for in terms of brown queerness in art and in Aotearoa?

CU: I just hope it gets to a point where it’s not solely about that in the art world, where it’s not tokenised. There are certain times where I feel like I get opportunities and I look at the other artists and I wonder if I’m ticking a box. It makes me second guess my talents and skills as an artist. I hope that we can move past that kind of conversation. Until then, it’s always something that I think about in the back of my mind, thinking about what the context of the exhibition is. In The Inner Lives of Islands with you, Robbie, I feel like that’s not the case at all. You can really see that evidently in the work and the way you’ve grouped it together. It’s such a nice feeling. It’s really reaffirming when you get opportunities where you’re not just there superficially. I’m grateful for any opportunity that comes to me, but I just hope that future generations don’t have to deal with that particular issue.

RH: Bless you, Chris. Sione, what are you hopeful for?

SM: Probably the same in that I hope the younger artists are brave to experiment and make weird shit and not have to tick boxes. I’ve been seeing some young queer brown artists lately, some out of Elam [School of Fine Arts], making really cool stuff.

RH: Anyone you want to shoutout?

SM: Peni had a show at Parasite called New World Daughter: A sterile sermon on the vile waha of a fucking leiti. They’re work is super exciting to me and we have Leitī connections so I’m here for all of it!

RH: Awesome. Thank you both so much for the chats and making time.

Sione Monu, ‘Ao kakala (installation view), 2021, plastic flowers, foam board, beads. Commissioned by Te Tuhi, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland.

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