ANDY LELEISI’UAO – Umbilical Brown – 27 July-20 Aug, 2021
Andy Leleisi’uao is polite in his manner, careful not to offend. It is in the studio that he articulates what is on his mind and speaks to the truth of colonial migrant experience and it isn’t all easy to hear.
In this new exhibition, Umbilical Brown, he doesn’t paint for us utopias or highlight myth, science fiction, games and puzzles, as many of his shows have done. He speaks of familial connection, of being brown in a white world.
Both of Andy’s parents are Samoan. They arrived steeped in Fa’a Samoa. His mother came from Lalomaunga on Upolu and his father from Paloli on Savai’i. They met and married in Auckland in the early 1960s. Although the economic and institutional structure of New Zealand Aotearoa was (and still is) predominantly European, the social/cultural world in which they lived was Polynesian. Church was important.
Umbilical cords tie us to our mothers; from generation to generation they reach into ancestry. Like cord, blood ties and binds us. Leleisi’uao, in Umbilical V, names his connections, the aiga/family closest to him, those who sustain him and who he sustains. The three simple colour fields of Umbilical Brown VI tell a different story. Buried into the paint are crosses signifying past lives, those now isolated in City Council cemeteries far from the traditional burial sites in Samoa.
One of Leleisi’uao’s first political exhibitions from the late nineties was The Brownest Dawn. It was about the dawn raids in which ‘overstayers’, people who had come here to work in our factories were dragged from their beds to be shipped back to the Islands. In a changing economy, people like machines that have outlived their usefulness, are made redundant, cast out, rejected. This is particularly difficult for migrant groups. Leleisi’uao has made innumerable paintings and drawings in which people are plugged in, wound up, made to operate as if the working parts of industry; depersonalised, mute. The four small works of Umbilical Brown VII gesture a response.
Floating in the background of Umbilical Brown I (top of page) are letters not included in the Samoan alphabet, which only has 17 letters. Flags on foreheads signify Niuean, Cook Island, Samoan, Maori and Tongan groups, all of whom live in an alien culture, their own language made vulnerable by the dominance of English. This contrasts with Umbilical III in which brown babies fall amongst black boxes which close about their heads. Some boxes contain letters from the Samoan alphabet, some are empty. Lose the language, lose the culture is his message.
Umbilical Brown II is a puzzle. Words embedded in the pattern of lines and rows, understable by those who know Samoan they cannot otherwise be decoded. Umbilical Brown IV is organised as a grid of rectangles. They may remind one of cigarette packets, or a window viewed from the other side. Words are written on each box in reverse. These are labels, racial slurs; some mild, some extreme. Put in boxes, people are consigned to the limitations of prejudice.
The work of Andy Leleisi’uao most frequently comes across as warm and hopeful. His creativity and honesty is a gift to the wider conversation. The eight small paintings of Umbilical Brown VIII show hands releasing motifs: jigsaw pieces, butterflies, Rubik’s cubes, crucifixes, taro, leis, wind-up keys, crutches. These are recurring motifs that have appeared in his work for decades. Here he disperses them, hopeful seeds: a contribution.