Suzanne Tamaki (Ngāti Maniapoto, Tūhoe) is an artist and social provocateur. Working across fashion, photography and moving image, she creates visual narratives that respond to cultural-politics in Aotearoa. Her works often investigate the nature of indigenous feminisms in the South Pacific, challenging the colonial gaze. Likewise, her works also critique Western ideas of nationhood within a bi-cultural nation.
In this interview, we begin by discussing Taonga Talkback, a series of recent video works which offer local perspectives on issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. I first came across Taonga Talkback on Facebook while I was in lockdown, and quickly became deeply obsessed with one of the stars of the series, Manu the plastic Māori. Like most of the works in Taonga Talkback, Manu’s videos are less than 2 minutes long, shot on a phone, and wildly irreverant exercises designed to affirm political agency and cultural sovereignty.
I was lucky enough to meet Suzanne at the Talanoa Mau at Te Papa in February, and more recently at a gallery opening. When I sat down to talk with her she was completing her Masters of Fine Arts and had just cooked me the most amazing dinner. She happily discussed her recent work as a solo practitioner, the energy drawn from her work with the collectives Pacific Sisters and SaVAge K’lub, and how social media offers new platforms to reach new audiences.
Israel Randell (IR): No hea koe?
Suzanne Tamaki (ST):
Ko Suzanne Tamaki tōku ingoa
Ko Mataatua te waka
Ko Pōhatu te maunga
Ko Ōhinemataroa te awa
Ko Te Rewarewa te marae
Ko Tuhoe te iwi
Ko Tainui te waka
Ko Kakepuku te maunga
Ko Waipa te awa
Ko Te Kōpua te marae
Ko Ngāti Maniapoto te iwi
IR: Kia Ora, I’ve been following the Pacific Sisters' Wheke Rorohiko project on Facebook and came across the videos you made for that series, Taonga Talkback. Can you tell us how that project came about?
ST: Taonga Talkback grew out of lockdown. I was stuck at home and the Pacific Sisters had received some funding from Creative New Zealand for this project. Each sister had to produce work and deliver it online over one week. [It] could look like one work a day, or whatever you wanted to do. I had an initial plan, but when we went into lockdown I decided I was going to redevelop this app that I had discovered, which I was using to take the piss out of the neighbour’s cat.
IR: So the app you used to animate the taonga you just stumbled upon?
ST: Yeah, I got the app and animated the cat and then I was thinking I could do people. So then I did his owner and then I did my friends. They soon got sick of me and told me to stop. So then I looked around my house and thought "Oh my god I’m going to make that statue talk, I’m going to make that doll talk," and then I was looking at all my art books and thought "I’m going to make that artwork talk." I was thinking outside of what the app was made for and used it to make other stuff have a story. Then COVID hit, we went into lockdown and I was looking at Black Lives Matter. I was thinking, New Zealand is upset about this, but New Zealand has its own stories. That’s why indigenous people around the world are supporting this and I was like, "Well, what are our stories?"
IR: And telling our stories is important right?
ST: Yeah. The first taonga I used to discuss this was the Tiki/Miss Tiki. I did a short little video because everyone calls her "Teke." It worked well but then I thought there could be a much bigger narrative around this if I did more digging.
IR: The conversation around pronunciation is so topical in Aotearoa.
ST: Then I found Manu, the little plastic Māori doll. [I] went online and found this really lovely conversation around her costume, [and] when she had been created. Then I gave myself a bit of poetic license to add ideas around the appropriation of Māori taonga and our culture to make money. I wanted to point out how China steals a lot of our patterns and designs and manufactures these taonga for next to nothing. Then they flood the New Zealand market and the international market. They’ve done it since the ‘60s and they’ve gotten away with it and nobody’s ever held them accountable.
What I found around the BLM movement is that New Zealand really woke up. Now there’s a real strong movement to speak out against cultural appropriation. I feel like, finally, I’m not a lone voice, and we can use social media as a platform to join together and have a bigger voice, a collective voice. So that was Manu, she had 15k views, which is amazing for a doll, so she can have her [own] series.
The next ones were the statues. At the time all the statues from BLM were being pulled down, pushed into the ocean and vandalised. In New Zealand, they had spray-painted Governor Grey so that it looked like blood. Then they had the Hamilton statue removed from Kirikiriroa and I was like "NZ, you rock; you protested about it, the council listened and they removed the statue." I couldn’t believe it! I was so proud of the people who protested and the council for saying "Yeah this is inappropriate, let’s take it down."
The problem with the statue is that people didn’t know the history behind him. Even when they removed the statue there was still no conversation around what he’d done. I was like, "Where is that voice? Where is the education?" So that’s why I did the Hamilton statue.. [I used] animation and imagination... and people listened. I did those two statues to tell people that this is a colonized story and people aren’t telling it, so I’ll tell it AND it's all facts. So basically, that’s where Taonga Talkback came from, being at home watching the world and thinking about what I could be doing to have a voice to speak about our Black Lives Matter.
IR: Yes! Part of the reason why I thought Taonga Talkback was so successful and why I wanted to talk to you is because the videos were short, sharp, informative and disruptive. Also, so much of our community now digest information via Facebook. It which can be such a problematic platform but it's good when it's educational.
ST: Totally. The other thing I tried to add to them was humour. Because Māoris and Pacific Islanders, we laugh about a lot of stuff even though it’s shit. We have to laugh because it’s a coping mechanism for the bad stuff that happens in our lives. We laugh at each other, we laugh together, but it hides a lot of pain. But it’s also a way that we can talk about something uncomfortable. Just like the portraits I do, it makes people uncomfortable but at the same time there’s a twist to them, there’s an edge, a sort of black humour where people don’t get too offended [so] that they need to turn it off.
IR: It’s a point for people to enter the work and laugh, but also think.
ST: Yeah, like, "Hang on, I just laughed when Gollywog called Agatha Christie a rich bitch," it makes them question.
IR: Are all the objects in your videos yours?
ST: Yes. The dream was to work with Te Papa in the collections. But because we were in lockdown I had to look around my house, which is like a museum anyway, and just use the objects here that could convey those stories.
IR: Is that why you used the Golliwog?
ST: I have a massive Golliwog collection and they have a massive story. Shops in New Zealand are still selling them. They don’t feel they need to remove them or see why people are getting so upset. It was really good for me to go back and find out all this information about them and do a narrative from a Golliwog’s perspective. It says "This is how I was invented, this is some of the stories being written about me." It's racist, like, really racist. It's not cool to be marketing and selling these dolls. But the problem then is you’ve got a whole ton of Golliwog dolls rotting away in someone’s basement or opshops. So I go around to all the opshops and I buy them because I feel bad for them. Because at one stage they were loved.
I have a big collection and I keep them together as a little tribe, where they can be loved and not discarded. It is still part of history, not a NZ history but British European history. They’ve infiltrated NZ and and it still underpins the racism against Māori and Polynesians. For me, having them in a place that’s a brown house, they are free to just hang out here. A lot of people who come to my house appreciate them, and I don’t mind if people want to have discussions around it too. Shouldn’t we be having discussions?
IR: Yeah we should, and the most important ones are the ones that make us uncomfortable. How were these works perceived on a social platform like Facebook?
ST: The interesting thing about putting art on social media is that you are exposing [these ideas to] people who maybe aren’t looking for art.. I see it as artwork, they might not see it as artwork. I like that you're almost forcing people to view art. Art is changing and it’s not always in a gallery or a confined space. A lot of art now is online. Putting it on Facebook was quite incredible because of its popularity. It got shared a lot and it went viral, especially Manu the plastic Māori. But it’s this thing around amusement, it’s quick and easy but still loaded. It’s such a different platform to present a work.
IR: And when something is so loaded people can’t help but respond.
ST: Just before lockdown—‘cause I’m studying at Massey doing my Masters—I had to do a work in response to Shona Rapira Davies' work Nga Morehu (The Survivors) (1988). At the time I was thinking about COVID and the plague, and I had planned a costume [for the shoot], but my photographer got the dates mixed up. He called me and I was at the Newtown Bowling Club for a tournament. We ended up making this work at the Bowling club on this beautifully manicured lawn wearing my white bowling outfit. I made these masks with moko patterns. My bowls also had these Endeavour-looking ships on them too. I wanted to speak about the plague, colonisation and invasion. So I got the photographer to do a Facebook live of me holding the bowl wailing, and then I dropped the ball.
IR: What did your classmates say about showing work on Facebook?
ST: They asked me why I had put it on Facebook and I said, "Why wouldn’t I?" And then I showed them that it already had 150 views and people were commenting on it and liking it. Then I was like "How many people go into a gallery after your opening?" When you’re in a gallery people are always like “Oh that’s interesting” but on Facebook people are like “WTF is that?” or “That’s fucking weird.” There’s a whole other tone. They have an opportunity to be honest. So if they’re challenged by it, or threatened by it or love it, they let you know.
IR: Everyone is a keyboard warrior now and feels so free to say whatever they want.
ST: And they don’t think it's art, they just think Suzanne is doing something weird. But it doesn’t matter. They still saw it and engaged with it.
IR: And you see the engagement in real time.
ST: And whether they like it or dislike it, for me as an artist, it's still validation that people are watching the art. You can put stuff up in a gallery and sometimes you don’t even know who saw it, you don’t know what they thought about it. It’s like you put all of your stuff into an empty vacuum and you leave it there for two weeks. You don’t know what anyone thought except for the curator or a friend who tells you they went and loved it. But outside of that, you have no idea how people feel about your work.
IR: Do you think that social platforms and galleries can work together? Or should we just take things straight out of the gallery? Does that morph art into something else? Do we even need a gallery?
ST: Good question. I like the idea of being able to do both. I love physical artworks, like my portraits and how it’s something older or maybe traditional. I love having physical artwork around me, as opposed to just ephemeral things you can only view online. The two can work side by side but also our audience is evolving too. They are a lot savvier around tech. How do we appeal to a younger audience? A smarter audience, [as] opposed to an old school audience who are used to that gallery space.
IR: Galleries can be very conventional and traditional.
ST: They could become like home phones [and] just slowly go. [But] what I like about galleries is that it brings people together and there’s a social connectedness that you don’t get through your computer. There is always something beautiful about being there in the flesh. That human experience is something we all need. That’s what galleries can provide, especially for artists because we need that more tactile approach.
IR: What’s the driving force behind (re)presenting history?
ST: It just makes sense to represent, repurpose, reanimate the past and bring it into the present. Everything evolves, culture isn’t a harbour, it’s a journey and we’re part of that. Part of our challenge is to grow with it as well. I can’t say that I’m a master weaver or have all these amazing traditional skills because I don’t. But I can look at [weavers] and learn from them and use those skills to manipulate objects that are relevant in my life right now. To tell sort of the same stories. [In] Pacific Sisters we were creating traditionally inspired garments using natural foliage and materials. I thought, "how we can morph that using the materials around us?", because we’re urban Māori. Pacific Sisters was a really big driver around my practice.
IR: Speaking of that, can you tell us about "In Bed with Suzanne"?
ST: In 1995 I was at Unitec and studying TV and Video. We had to do a biography about ourselves and at the time I loved Madonna. She had this series called In Bed With Madonna so I thought I’d do one called In Bed With Suzanne. At the time I was surrounded by beautiful men and women. We were all really good friends and it was so much fun. But it was a bit of a bummer because the guy I was working with did something wrong with the levels and you couldn’t hear anyone talking. The other dumb thing was that everything we shot was on super VHS. I can’t even view it. The video was funny!
IR: I would love to see the video of it. How was studying film and TV back then?
ST: Video school was interesting, my daughter was 5 months at the time and I was trying to get a job at Television New Zealand working with the Māori television department. I thought, "If I get a certificate maybe I could get a job." But it was great studying, I enjoyed having access to equipment and because I was with all the sisters. I’d interview everyone and make random movies. It’s not about money, it’s just about doing art and hanging out with your mates and enjoying it. There’s a whole heap of stuff [from that era], like Hunters and Collectors of Planet Tonga.
IR: Was that the video in the Pacific Sisters survey exhibition at Te Papa in 2018?
ST: Yeah. That was filmed while I was at video school. That was just us having fun in the dunes hunting men and taking them back to our spaceship.
IR: The best things come out of experimentation and play.
ST: Yeah. At the time there wasn’t anything in place for us to even follow. I was looking at music videos, all the multimedia stuff that Lisa Reihana was doing, and I was thinking about film noir, but doing it in a way that was a bit more out there. That’s why in Planet Tonga we had a spaceship. It's playful but also challenging. I called it Planet Tonga because that was SIALOLOs fashion label and we were wearing her clothes when we were hunting the men. All the garments we were wearing on the spaceship were from [the vintage clothing store] Hunters and Collectors. Te Papa digitised this one, but I have a whole bunch more than I probably need to digitise.
IR: Any last words for young Moana artists?
ST: Don’t be afraid of technology, be inquisitive and always search, don’t limit yourself to just any one thing either. Grow your practice, take chances, be scared, do it anyway and have good people around you!