One of the most significant contemporary Pacific artists, Auckland-based Andy Leleisi’uao is known for his distinctive visual language that shows alternate universes populated by strange creatures free of the prejudices that plague our world. He draws inspiration from ancient and modern history, news headlines and personal experiences to construct the narrative of a species that is not divided by cultural background, religious convictions, political affiliations, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
His most prominent piece is “Harmonic People”, which, he maintains, is all about love, unity, people collectively looking after each other and building a future together. The painting, which won the 2017 Wallace Art Award, one of New Zealand’s premier prizes in the field, gradually evolved from the artist’s other work and is the product of his being alert to what’s happening around the world, and is also influenced by his family and friends.
Born in Mangere, Auckland in 1969, Andy Leleisi’uao is the son of the first wave of Samoan immigrants attracted to post world war New Zealand to fulfill drastic labour shortages in factories and freezing works. New Zealand was promoted as the land of milk and honey, a land of opportunity, and by 1971, 45,000 Pacific Islanders called New Zealand home. But, in 1974, under the pressure of an economic downturn, political sentiment toward Pacific immigration waned, and in a racist backlash against Pacific Island over stayers, the infamous dawn raids occurred.
Police with dogs burst into homes in the early hours, Pacific people were randomly stopped in the street, Police showed up at places of work. In an all too familiar narrative, the economic woes of the time were blamed on immigrants. Although the raids ended in the late 1970s, the relationship between Pacific Islanders and New Zealand was severely impacted. In the 1980s, there were only three places for the Pacific Islanders in New Zealand: the factory, on the dole or in prison.
Growing up, Andy neither felt fully Kiwi nor fully Samoan, so he merged these two identities into “Kamoan”, and he felt free to do with it whatever he liked. Initially, his art was visceral and furious, with a bit of humour, and focussed on the daily lives of the disadvantaged Samoan community. Around 2008, his vision took a more universal turn, and the visual vocabulary that he has since invented seems unhooked from history as we know it, it transcends direct references to period or place. His art is executed in black and white and is about reconciling the irreconcilable, about people getting on together, as lovers, as families, as insiders and outsiders.
Who is included in his definition of “Kamoan”? Andy says, “Anyone. For me it’s the naked bridge, a truce between space and cultures. Originally, it encompassed New Zealand–born Samoans and those born in Samoa but raised in New Zealand, and now it also transcends mindsets, religion, spirituality, sexuality, ignorance, etc., and it will continue to evolve.”
Andy Leleisi’uao is represented by Bergman Gallery located in Rarotonga, Cook Islands and Milford Galleries in Dunedin and Queenstown, New Zealand.