Living As Form

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Living As Form was a landmark exhibition at ORA Gallery New York, July-August 2016.
As a temporary space, ORA Gallery built a reputation for bringing stunning art from Aotearoa New Zealand to the attention of New York.




By Amanda White.



Art is life. Life is art.

- Visesio Siasau


This story begins in Mannahatta, home of the Lenape people. We thank the Lenape for this opportunity to make our work here.

From Aotearoa and Tonga our bloodlines are connected across the Pacific to this continent and around the world with the indigenous peoples of Earth.

Onotu’ofe’uli – Onotu’ofekula   (detail) Visesio Siasau, Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay, Haveluloto Koka‘anga,  ngatu tā‘uli launima  (black bark cloth)

Onotu’ofe’uli – Onotu’ofekula (detail) Visesio Siasau, Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay, Haveluloto Koka‘anga, ngatu tā‘uli launima (black bark cloth)



Far from Aotearoa and home, an idea for a project is born and nurtured by our sisters and brothers in Mannahatta. We bring our work and hearts into dialogue. There is synthesis and tension like the endless cycles of the planet and the cosmos. The meeting point is a birth; it creates a dynamic that transforms into art. This is Living As Form.

Visesio Siasau, Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay and George Nuku are deeply committed to their practice as a process of shared creation and the diffusion of ideas through form. Their work embodies a meaningful exploration of life, spirit, earth and the whakapapa (genealogy) that connects us and all things.



The Earth is a living body that thrives in connected cycles of night and day, seasons and years, and in concert with the rhythm of the celestial realm. In this age of unprecedentedly fast change in the climate and ecological systems, the Earth is tilting towards imbalance and massive ecological change. The same imbalance is a signatuare of our human world, manifest in the principles of Neoliberalism and the inequity of human society.

From this precarious site comes a global determination, voiced and visible in cultural forms and strident creativity.This landmark exhibition brings the three artists’ work into a dialogue around some of the fundamental principles of our existence and the challenges of a planet in crisis, interrogating assumptions about the role of art and our attempts to find meaning in the anthropocene era.

Carved perspex cube   (detail) George Nuku

Carved perspex cube (detail) George Nuku

The work in Living As Form comes from the fecund darkness: the spiritual beginning, the dark womb, the soil, rock, oil and ocean.  This work eschews a return to the past and assumptions about traditional

indigenous knowledge and instead announces a new vision for indigenous potency and new materiality.

Mateaki Moana  I - IV  (detail)   Visesio Siasau, lost wax glass (2013)

Mateaki Moana I - IV (detail) Visesio Siasau, lost wax glass (2013)

The works trace humanity’s resolute survival and complex bond with the source materials of this planet and their transformation at our hand, and into forms, food, energy and life. There is no art—there is only life, the unending cycles of transformation. Hermaphrodite figures embody a tangible emergence from the dark and our spiritual and corporeal cycle of life. 

Our food comes from the dark soil and the ocean—our most essential living systems. From ancient decomposed trees and rock come the carbon, oil and gas that form our chemically created materials. Plastic and polystyrene are revered, emissions are the Earth’s carbon breath—these radical propositions will shift perspectives and test assumptions about our role as kaitiakitanga (stewards).

Rotoiti Mr Leef   (detail) Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay, oil on canvas (2016)

Rotoiti Mr Leef (detail) Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay, oil on canvas (2016)



21 August, 2016

Last month George Nuku gave two extraordinary performances in Ora Gallery New York as part of an event for the exhibition Living As Form. In both, he simultaneously narrated and used the movement of his body to tell stunning, challenging stories, verging on supernatural, and profound metaphors for our biological and cultural evolution. That evening, George embodied Living As Form. 

At that time, Visesio Siasau was working on a new painting, unveiled the following week when work by fiber artist and designer Shona Tawhio was also welcomed into the show.

Sio’s painting Uli ‘i he ‘ULI weaves a layer of black on black in the langi pattern, a geometric spiraling that represents the primordial emergence of living consciousness from the darkness. In Living As Form, it completes the universe. It is a bridge or passage from the cosmos (represented by the ngatu and Taputapu atea) to the human psyche. It’s unveiling alongside Shona’s superb woven garments revealed the evolution of the show as an inclusive, growing family of forms.

Shona Tahwiao - Red Ensemble, detail

Visesio Siasau - Uli ‘i he ‘ULI, detail


Some time earlier, George had talked about art being the only thing left that can attract the attention of most people: where politics, science and the media had failed to alert us to the seriousness of global climate change and pollution. All forms of cultural practice—art, writing, film, design—are potent channels for sharing knowledge and ideas, never more powerful than when they illuminate the critical issues that we are faced with and forge a pathway of curiosity and understanding. We at Project Art Lab have hope for science communication, even at times through the media, and we're optimistic about the sharing of information through social media. But we believe that art is a critical medium for the exchange of ideas: because it connects through the heart and the senses often before or as much as through the intellect; because it transcends language and communicates through form, line and color; because it provokes and bring us into uncomfortable confrontations with a visceral immediacy. Art finds our personal resonances.

Sio’s new painting, Uli ‘i he ‘ULII, recalls some of the earliest forms of artistic mark-making in more than one culture. A stone from Jordan, dating back 14,000 years, is incised with a similar geometric form. Recognizing this connection, we also realize that our relationship with the earth is both the oldest and the most current and relevant story of our existence, and its manifestation in art is as timeless.

Engraved stone, c.12,000 BCE, Natufian culture, Jordan

Engraved stone, c.12,000 BCE, Natufian culture, Jordan


Shona’s designs bring a new manifestation of “living forms”, real fiber shaped to clothe the body. Like the Mateaki Moana figures, Shona’s designs represent the corporeal, evoking humans firmly rooted to the ground, female bodies empowered with armor-like garments. Serene’s paintings are also a representation of life and life-giving power, in particular of maternal fertility embodied in vessels and food. Her sumptuous paintings are a gateway to the next generation. This is the physical, almost functional stratum of the Living As Form universe: Mateaki Moana figures ready to procreate, maternal vessels ready to sustain new life inside, warriors to protect the next generation, and this Earth.


Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay, Moana Kermedecs; Visesio Siasau, Mateaki Moana; Shona Tahwiao, Black Ensemble


Last week Project Art Lab's Amanda White had the privilege to begin work on a new project with people from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa (Akimel Au-Authm and Xalychidom Piipaash tribes) and Hopi communities in Arizona. The discussions reinforced that a deep respect for the natural environment permeates all indigenous cultures and informs a knowledge of the Earth, its systems, species, production of food, healthcare and how all these function in synergy. These are long-held knowledge systems based on millennia of observation and knowledge passed from one generation to the next. They often highlight the causes of imbalance that define so many of the current impacts of pollution and climate change, now startlingly evident. Many indigenous groups are also at extreme risk from the nearest impacts of climate change and suffer most at the impacts of damaging resource extraction.


Indigenous knowledge systems have often been positioned as alternative worldviews to scientific evidence and exclusive of technology. They are neither. Nor are they relegated to history, to a time before subjugation by colonization and Christianity. These knowledge systems are practiced and fundamentally important now and more than ever as all people wake up to a planet in crisis. They must also be treated with enormous respect as many indigenous groups continue on the hard road to self-determination and we strive for equitable societies. These are the conversations we imagine in Sio’s Fetaulaki’anga assemblages.


We believe in the potential for sharing knowledge and creating resilient lifeways. In our vision, this becomes a knowledge base without ownership, founded in the concept that we are one part of this ecological system, fulfilling our role as kaitiakitanga (stewards) of Earth.


As the world recognizes the urgent need for meeting the challenges of climate change and pollution, art is a ground to stand on for global visibility, an essential platform and a strong voice that transcends borders and languages. Living As Form and several of the exhibitions at Ora Gallery have highlighted the power of cultural work to illuminate our relationship with the natural world, often within indigenous perspectives such as the Maori concept of whakapapa, the connectedness of all things in a living system. We need to continue to amplify sustainability and inspire stewardship through a relationship of respect for the natural world, and fortify our ability to meet the challenges our planet faces in the anthropocene age.


Living As Form at Ora Gallery New York closed on 14 August 2016 but we hope it is just the beginning of this extraordinary collaboration.



Taputapu atea is a collaborative work by George Nuku and Visesio Siasau. It was completed and unveiled in Living As Form on 13 July 2016, representing the penetration of light and the meeting place between the cosmic and earthly realms.


This work embodies a dialogue: between the artists, between darkness and light, and between the spiritual and corporeal aspects of human existence. It is also in dialogue with the forms around it: the ngatu are the darkness and the beginning; the paintings, figures and small taonga are the children of this universe.

 The ideas expressed on the cube surface patterns by Nuku and Siasau are potent sacred ancestral semiotics. The design that Nuku has chosen is called Takarangi atea, a reference to cosmic light penetrating the void. 

Siasau’s deisgn is referred to as Mata ‘atea: the consciousness pertaining to the highest levels of Langi, the uppermost sphere in the supreme heavenly realms. Mata ‘atea is the cosmogony that we receive through cosmic consciousness. It creates a balanced polarity equivalent to the corporeal and spiritual, giving us the duality of human psychology.

“Divinity into divinity” refers to these patterns, carved and permeating the polystyrene. The result is a glimpse of its mauri, its life force and its divinity revealed and made manifest.


Taputapu atea George Nuku and Visesio Siasau, light expanded polystyrene 4ft x 4ft x 4ft x 4ft (2016)





Currently based in New York, Visesio and Serene join with George and acknowledge the Lenape people as tangata whenua—people of the land—first people of Mannahatta, with their exhibition, reflecting a shared indigenous understanding of our interconnected world.


Visesio and Serene both have Masters in Applied Indigenous Knowledge. They have synergized their practice for over a decade, working in all mediums from sculpture to Tongan ngatu (bark cloth). Their practice is 

open and collaborative; they also work with kautaha koka‘anga (a Tongan women’s bark cloth making collective) to create the ngatu. In this collaboration they have joined with George to bring life to a shared vision.


Visesio Siasau  


Visesio (Sio) Siasau is an accomplished Tongan artist and the Paramount Award Winner of the 24th Wallace Art Awards in New Zealand for his ngatu tā ‘uli launima, a 60 foot black bark cloth titled Onotu’ofe’uli – Onotu’ofekula. He is the first Tongan to win this prestigious art award. Living As Form is a cosmology and a whakapapa (genealogy) and a language of forms. 

Sio’s ngatu are the meeting place for negative and positive energy, a site of procreation and birth. From this cosmological darkness comes life, strands of knowledge that are represented by the art forms. The forms are vessels: they carry meaning to us in their materiality, color, shape and pure physicality. This is the language of Living As Form.



Onotu’ofe’uli – Onotu’ofekula

We are pleased to present the award-winning ngatu tā‘uli launima (black bark cloth). Onotu'ofe'uli - Onotu'ofekula translates to "strands of color inextricably connected to the qualities of kula (red color/light) and 'uli (black color)". This is the first time that a Contemporary Tongan bark-cloth (ngatu) has been shown in a gallery in New York City. The ngatu embodies more than 3000 years of history and knowledge from the Oceanic area.


Ngatu Tā‘uli Mateaki

 Visesio, Serene and Haveluloto Koka‘anga, a Tongan women’s bark cloth-making collective made this ngatu in 2016.  It is made with the inner bark of hiapo (paper mulberry), black soot from the burned flesh of tuitui (candlenuts), red/brown pigment from the bark of the koka tree, and ‘umea (red soil/clay). Originally only Tongan royalty and aristocracy had ngatu tā‘uli. The intensive process for making the natural black dye for ngatu tā‘uli means they are the most revered ngatu.

Nimamea ‘a koka‘anga

The specialist art of bark cloth making is called Nimamea ‘a koka‘anga. Tongan ngatu are ngatu tāhina (white-marked bark cloth) and ngatu tā‘uli (black-marked bark cloth). A kautaha koka‘anga (Tongan women’s bark cloth making collective) prepares wide strips of plain bark cloth and red and black dyes. A board for making the ngatu —a papa koka‘anga— is made with a rounded surface to support the bark cloth.

The bark comes from the hiapo (paper mulberry tree). The hiapo are cultivated in preparation for bark cloth making and the bark is beaten into fine strips for making the ngatu. Sap from the bark of both koka and tongo trees is used for red and black dyes for both types of ngatu.

The Birth

The birth comes from the black, black dark. First Otua, god. “O” is the darkness, black, emptiness, chaos and reconfigurations of energy to produce forms, like the mountains that are born of the gradual transformation of Earth. The birth of the form brings it into the light. The black, black ngatu is the beginning. The children are speaking to us. 


Mateaki Moana

The hermaphrodite figures embody man and woman synchronized, a spiritual and corporeal unity and a physical presence of love, fertility and readiness for life. They are rich with color and light, made with glass to channel and transform the light.



 Fetaulaki’anga is the intersection or meeting place. Tongan deities hold conversations with Christian gods and symbols, seeking a lost identity. These assemblages are moments of tension, they meld time and space into form and draw us to the Tongan knowledge, a holistic vision for our relationship with the Earth. Where are we, lost long ago in your mission to convert our people to a new faith? Where is the old knowledge, the Tongan knowledge?

The deities embody the interlocking cycles of Earth, moon and sun: the turn of the seasons, the force of gravity and the lunar-female cycles. If we move with nature’s patterns and cycles, compassion and reciprocity become known to us. We can use resources and leave time for healing. The ngatu themselves are made with a specialized knowledge and respect for the plants that give their bark and sap for the work. This is the knowledge for our future, understanding the rights of the water, rocks, soil, plants and fellow animals.


Mata Moana

These paintings draw us to the eye of the ocean (Mata Moana). 70% of the Earth’s surface is water. Water is a life giving force and the element we are born from; it represents an endless cycle of renewal on Earth.

Mata Moana I   Visesio Siasau, oil on canvas (2016)

Mata Moana I Visesio Siasau, oil on canvas (2016)

Mata Moana II      Visesio Siasau, o  il on canvas (  2016)

Mata Moana II Visesio Siasau, oil on canvas (2016)


Tohorā (whale) Body Adornment

Sio has carved for nearly twenty years in Aotearoa New Zealand and is a descendant of the Lemaki clan, specialist canoe builders, carvers and tufunga fonua: creators of land from Ha’ano Ha’apai, Tonga. His work has been sold at Auckland Museum and Rotorua Museum, Auckland Airport and high-end art establishments. International organizations and art collectors collect Sio’s body adornments. Now he creates only a few exclusive pieces per year.



As elsewhere among Polynesian peoples, many Māori tribes have strong cultural affinities to whales. In Māori cosmology, whales are the descendants of Tangaroa, god of the oceans. They were revered with awe, as supernatural beings, and often deemed tapu, or sacred.

Whales appear in the migration stories of many tribes. In some, whales were a sign indicating to a tribe that it should settle in a particular place. In others, whales were guides. A legend highlighted in the acclaimed New Zealand film, ‘Whale Rider’, tells of a whale bearing the tribal ancestor, Paikea, to New Zealand after his canoe sinks on the voyage from Hawaiiki, the ancestral home of Māori.

Some individual Māori were said to have a whale guardian spirit when at sea. Stylized whale shapes, symbolizing the bounty within, were often carved on the bargeboards of storage houses.

All of these tohorā pieces naturally beached onto the shores of Aotearoa New Zealand. These pieces of tohorā differ in age: the largest piece (rei puta) presented is also the oldest piece, at two hundred years old. The Hei tiki pieces are more than a hundred years old. The tohorā came into Sio’s hands as part of a reciprocal gifting.

Sio carved Taonga (precious treasures) for many prominent dignitaries and heads of state visiting Aotearoa before heading to his ancestral homelands Tongatapu.



Rei Puta Nui

These carved pendants are known as rei puta (rei meaning 'whale ivory' and puta 'hole'). This body adornment is an adaptation of the rei puta, abstracting the traditional rei puta form.

Rei Puta Nui   Visesio Siasau, whale bone

Rei Puta Nui Visesio Siasau, whale bone




These two pieces of rei puta are made from sperm whale teeth, a rare and precious material in traditional Māori society.

Māori traditionally made and wore items of jewelry that decorated the head, ears, neck, and breast. The most common materials used were pounamu (New Zealand greenstone), ivory, and whale bone. The first Māori settlers brought the fashions typical of East Polynesia with them. The most common ornaments found in New Zealand's earliest archaeological sites consist of reel-type necklaces, often with a central pendant made from genuine or imitation whale tooth. A single sperm-whale-tooth pendant like this example is called a rei puta and is found in New Zealand and East Polynesia. Rei puta pendants were also made from imitation whale ivory using moa (large, flightless, and extinct native New Zealand bird: Dinornis gigantean) bone and whale bone. Sometimes those made from whale teeth had carvings on their surfaces, as with this example.

Rei Puta   Visesio Siasau, whale bone

Rei Puta Visesio Siasau, whale bone




It is said that tiki personifies the primordial human, the first person created. Some tiki serve as dwelling places for ancestral spirits, while others are vessels for gods and supernatural beings. The orientation, head placement, and patterning of the tiki have specific spiritual meanings. The poked tongue is associated with protective magic.

The tiki may represent Hine-te-iwaiwa, a celebrated ancestress associated with fertility and the virtuous qualities of Māori womanhood. In marriage the family of the husband often gave a hei-tiki to the bride to help her conceive. In some Māori tribes, hei tiki were buried with their guardian, the wearer, and would later be retrieved and brought out in times of mourning.
It would then be handed to the next generation to be worn. This is how the mana (importance) of the tiki increases over time and generations.



Toki   Visesio Siasau, 200 year old  tohorā  (whale bone )

Toki Visesio Siasau, 200 year old tohorā (whale bone)



Circle I    Visesio Siasau, jade

Circle I Visesio Siasau, jade

Circle II   Visesio Siasau, jade

Circle II Visesio Siasau, jade


 Uli ‘i he ‘ULI

Energy, vibrations, forces, and sound chaotically configure and reconfigure themselves in the space of the unknown, the blackness known as ‘ULI. The form of the langi pattern ripples in geometric lines and space. Langi articulates ta/va (time/space) in the Tongan epistemology of mathematical order. This order generates form, rising from the color ‘ULI.

In the Tongan language, langi is sky, heaven, the king or queen’s head, or a raised and terraced sovereign burial place—references to height and ascent. It can also refer to singing a song to accompany a Tongan dance. In Uli ‘i he ‘ULI, the langi pattern is a reference to the outmost consciousness of the human psyche within the black. Formulated in the unconscious, the living consciousness first reveals itself in this geometric form.

          Uli ‘i he ‘ULI (Black on black)   Visesio Siasau, 10 x 20 x 16, Oil on Canvas (2016)


 Uli ‘i he ‘ULI (Black on black) Visesio Siasau, 10 x 20 x 16, Oil on Canvas (2016)


Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay


Serene is an experienced artist from Aotearoa New Zealand. Her vision comes in part from her own maternal perspective, as a vessel of knowledge that is transferred from one generation to another, especially stewardship of our environment. The transference of knowledge acknowledges that future generations will evolve and build on what we know: these paintings are a beginning and a gateway to what is as yet unknown and will be added by our children.

The works also convey Serene’s deeply felt relationship with color, which holds personal meanings for her life and work. The kaupapa (themes) of Serene’s painted work—the effects of climate change, customary cultural practices, permaculture and food sovereignty— embody a dedication to the exchange of knowledge in our communities.

Rotoiti Mr Leef   Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay, oil on canvas (2016)

Rotoiti Mr Leef Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay, oil on canvas (2016)

Medicine Woman   Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay, oil on canvas (2016)

Medicine Woman Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay, oil on canvas (2016)

Maia Brave Warrior   Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay, oil on canvas (2016)

Maia Brave Warrior Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay, oil on canvas (2016)

Homage to Pueblo   Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay, oil on canvas (2016)

Homage to Pueblo Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay, oil on canvas (2016)

Moana Kermedecs   Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay, oil on canvas (2016)

Moana Kermedecs Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay, oil on canvas (2016)




George is an acclaimed artist from Aotearoa New Zealand. Rather than condemn chemically constructed materials to silence, George reveres them as living matter for his art as an interrogation of our relationship with the Earth. He works in stone, bone, wood, shell, plastic, Plexiglass and polystyrene. Massive carved polystyrene cubes speak directly to Sio’s ngatu. These monumental forms are in dynamic encounters like the planets in our cosmos. The cubes are also the beginning, from the black ngatu emerges the first light of the universe, it filters through the cubes expressing the separation of the primal couple Ranginui and Papatuanuku and the start of each day in the Earth’s diurnal cycle.

George’s works embody the spectrum of scale in our universe. Precious taonga can be held in the palm of a hand, immense cubes float overhead. Both embody the cosmos and the birth of light with the same potency. A personal taonga can be carried on our body at all times, it is a vessel for the light of the universe, worn near the heart.

George’s work will evolve and expand over the period of the exhibition and in collaboration with Sio and Serene and a group of children who will work with him in the gallery.



Star Cube   George Nuku, carved perspex

Star Cube George Nuku, carved perspex

Universe Cube    George Nuku, carved perspex

Universe Cube George Nuku, carved perspex

Wind Cube    George Nuku, carved perspex

Wind Cube George Nuku, carved perspex


Carved plexiglass

Kotiate    George Nuku, p  lexiglass, paua shell, red pigment

Kotiate George Nuku, plexiglass, paua shell, red pigment

Wahaika   George Nuku, plexiglass, paua shell, red pigment

Wahaika George Nuku, plexiglass, paua shell, red pigment



Taputapu atea cube George Nuku and Visesio Siasau, light expanded polystyrene



These original pieces are carved from pahina (gold lipped pearl shell) & parau (silver lipped pearl shell) and abalone, and represent themes including the ocean, fishhooks, human figures (he tiki), shark teeth and bird and bat forms.



Bottled Ocean 2116 – Species Dasani    George Nuku, plastic bottles,   aqua marine plexiglass, red acrylic cord

Bottled Ocean 2116 – Species Dasani George Nuku, plastic bottles, aqua marine plexiglass, red acrylic cord

Bottled Ocean 2116   (being assembled) George Nuku, plexiglass, plastic bottles

Bottled Ocean 2116 (being assembled) George Nuku, plexiglass, plastic bottles



Henry F. Skerritt

In 1977, the American economist John Kenneth Galbraith declared the world to be in an “age of uncertainty.” As Galbraith rightly predicted, the old world order built upon the opposing but equally self-assured ideologies of capitalism and communism was giving way to an unclear future. Three decades later, the triumph of global capitalism appears an increasingly pyrrhic victory, as resurgent nativist movements across the globe—from Brexit to Trumpism—disrupt our fragile globalism and throw the established political order into turmoil. And yet, as global warming places a question mark over the future of human life on the planet, there has never been a more dire need for humans to band together on a global scale. This requires imagining ourselves as the diverse occupants of a shared planet.

I first saw the work of George Nuku in Summer 2013, as part of the exhibition Paradise Lost? at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Nuku had carved seven Plexiglass museum vitrines, and arranged them as a “gateway” or Waharoa, in the great hall of the museum. At the time, I wrote: “Waharoa offers exactly what the title suggests: a glimpse at a radically different way of seeing the world. In its transparency, Waharoa does not proffer a single, overarching worldview, but many shifting, disparate and mismatching ways of seeing and valuing the same world.”

This is the single most important challenge facing contemporary artists today. I have since become increasingly convinced that this challenge is at the heart of Nuku’s practice. We can see it in museum installations like Waharoa, which force the viewer to become cognizant of the “invisible” mechanisms of display; just as it is at the heart of projects like Bottled Ocean [2014-ongoing], which represent the artist’s most overt efforts to reshape our relationship to the world of plastic. Evidence of the continuity of these concerns can be found in a 2006 statement by Nuku, made on the eve of the exhibition Pasifika Styles, which first brought him to international attention. 


We’re living in a plastic world and we cannot continue to have this kind of non-relationship with this material we use constantly. Where does this material come from? What is its genealogy? The role of the art is to initiate these conversations with the people and the medium.


By 2006, Nuku had been carving with Plexiglass for over a decade—since discovering the medium working in the art department for the 1993 film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. As a carver, Nuku is a material polymath: his mediums traverse pounamu (jade), pearl shell, bone, wood, stone, as well as Plexiglass and polystyrene.

Nuku had originally been attracted to the low cost and ease of transporting and carving polystyrene. By the mid-2000s, however, his attitude to the medium began to change. Rather than using polystyrene to replicate wood or stone, he began to recognize the essence and divinity of polystyrene—“forcing the audience to honor it, to accept it as a medium.” This discovery did not lead Nuku down the path of modernist medium specificity, but rather, to what we might term an “activism of form.” Nuku was already articulating this in 2006, but over the past decade he has refined this message—or perhaps, the uncertainty of our times have made the clarity of his message more self-evident.

Living as Form resounds with the force of Nuku’s formal activism. The exhibition’s title begs comparison to another exhibition of the same name curated by Nato Thompson in 2011. Thompson’s exhibition surveyed the emergence of a new stream of contemporary art that he termed “socially engaged practice.” For Thompson, “socially engaged practice” eschewed the traditional studio arts of sculpture, film, painting, and video, in favor of direct engagement with the social and political sphere. Socially engaged practice, he argued, was not a new art movement (like Futurism, Constructivism or Dada), but represented a new social order: “new forms of living.”

For Thompson, the emergence of socially engaged practice was indelibly linked to the contemporary epoch. Socially engaged practice was a rejection of the hegemony of neoliberalism, the commodification of the art object and the separation of art and life. It is easy to see parallels between the rise of socially engaged practice and the indigenous art movements that came to prominence at around the same time. Across the world, indigenous artists also sought to challenge neoliberalism by offering alternative ways of being in the present. But the lesson of artists such as Nuku or Visesio Siasau, and Serene Hai Thang Whakatau Tay is not simply to suggest that living could be form, but also that form could be living.

This is something that, I think, Nuku has always intuitively understood: it has certainly been a dominant feature of his work for over a decade. Where the artists in Thompson’s Living as Form responded to the separation of art and life by rejecting the art object in favor of a dematerialized practice, Nuku aims for a much greater philosophical readjustment. Nuku’s work does not merely attempt to occupy the opposite of a dialectic position between art and life, but rather, presents the two as intrinsically linked. This is what I take him to mean when he advocates for a “new vision for indigenous potency and new materiality.”

As a “new form of living,” this idea has decidedly ancient roots. We should remember that the Māori language did not originally have a word for “art,” but rather, a selection of words that united artistic practices with the social, political and religious realms. The idea that art and life were separate was an introduced concept that Māori artists had persisted perfectly well without for centuries. As Visesio Siasau notes, “There is no art—there is only life.” Indeed, art dies precisely the moment when it is removed from life, when it becomes the object of reification in the museum cabinet. When art is alive, it mediates (between the past, present and future, the living and the dead, form and living), and in doing so substantiates new forms of existence. As Nuku notes:


We, the artists, have to travel all the time: between the inside and the outside, the living and the dead, the sacred and the profane, the night and day, men and women. This in-between space is where the artist must be.


The role of the artist is to mediate between planes of existence, and in doing so, to create new modes of understanding the world. Eschewing form (as in dematerialized social practice) does not negate the power that objects have in our world. The anthropologist Michael Taussig argues that it is through the act of creating images that we create a sensuous link to the world: we copy the world in order to comprehend it through our bodies. But if making symbolic marks is one method through which we forge a physical link between the world and ourselves, then it is also how we shape the world, or, in other words, how we make our imaginaries real. This in turn impacts how we see the world, “plunging us into the plane where the object world and the visual copy merge.”

It is here that the significance of Nuku’s socially engaged formalism becomes most apparent. For rather than picturing the world along dialectic terms that divides humans and objects, Nuku attempts to forge a new planetary relationality. The issue is not formal versus dematerialized practice, but the way in which we structure our relationship to form. To create a genealogy of plastic is to bring it into relation with humans, to remove the distinction between the natural and the cultural, and to honor the divinity of the previously “disposable.” If Nuku’s suggestion that we should revere pollution sounds controversial, it is because it represents a profound shift away from the prevailing environmental politics that sees humans responsible for nature, towards one in which humans are embedded as part of the natural world.

Indeed, the guardianship of Kaitiakitanga comes precisely from the sense of kinship between the Māori and the natural world. It is not a simple environmental ethos, but a total ordering principle that infuses all aspects of being. The Kaitaki or guardian spirits reveal themselves as animals, birds, insects or fish. They are the mediators between worlds, connecting the spirit world with the human world, and uniting the cosmic order. As a tohunga Nuku’s artwork offers a similar mediation, bringing plastic into a genealogy (whakapapa) that unites all things. Whakapapa in this sense is not a return to the past, but the picturing of a new trajectory, in which the sediments of the past (whether tradition or trash) are cast as the forebears of a more certain future.




Shona Tawhiao is a Maori fibre artist and fashion designer from Aotearoa New Zealand. Shona creates contemporary mahi raranga flax weaving which combine modern materials and native flax – Harakeke – made with matching accessories, such as hats and shoes. 

Tawhiao mixes traditional Māori weaving skills with her eye for contemporary design which has helped her build both a local and international profile, showing in London, Paris and now New York


I. Black Feathered EnsembleBlack skirt, Black flax bandeau, Neckpiece, Feathered cape.

II.  Red Ensemble: Red kupenga bandeau, Black whatu skirt and neck piece, Tawhiao Bandana.

III. Black Ensemble: Full flax skirt, Black flax chest plate with belt, Woven bandana, Horn Taonga.





Visesio, Serene and George share a determination for Social Practice as a visible manifestation in their work and in this collective: work that honors the democracy of an open forum for making, and also generously invites people into the creative naissance.

The work is a beginning and an opening for dialogue, action and inspiration that will germinate in gallery encounters and a series of organized events, as well as inviting connections with New York’s artists, practitioners and institutions.


The artists will often be present and working in the space, and music, dance and voice will weave through the works. Visesio’s vision for marrying tufunga’i (creative work) and mahi aroha (compassionate work) is a seed for awakening the work of all three artists in a vigorous synergy and rousing people to thought and action.


Located in New York City, ORA Gallery is a space dedicated to Aotearoa New Zealand Art & Design and ingenuity.
ORA Gallery – 51 7th Avenue, New York, NY, 10011 – Open Wed- Sunday 11 am- 7pm


Project Art Lab collaborates with artists and practitioners and is created by Amanda White and Andrew B. White.
We create visibility for cultural work that is generous, that seeks transference of meaning and knowledge in response to global challenges: focusing on stewardship of the Earth and indigenous knowledge systems.


The vision of the Wallace Arts Trust is to support, promote and expose New Zealand contemporary artists while providing the wider public with an inimitable cultural and historical resource of contemporary New Zealand art.



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