Doing art Tuff way comes naturally

Michel Tuffery is passionate about the seabirds which feature in his latest work. Photos: Peter McIntosh
Michel Tuffery is passionate about the seabirds which feature in his latest work. Photos: Peter McIntosh
Artist Michel Tuffery has a soft spot for Dunedin, due in part to fond memories from his student days. He talks to Rebecca Fox about his latest project marrying his love of the environment with his art.

Surfing off Taiaroa Head back in the 1980s, Michel Tuffery wondered where the albatrosses were heading to as they flew above him.

Nearly four decades later he has been back to Taiaroa Head, not to surf, but to investigate the cultural connections between his family heritage and that of seabirds, as part of his WildCreations Artist in Residence programme funded by the Department of Conservation and Creative New Zealand.

''It's been terribly exciting. I've always been passionate about seabirds.''

He remembers a 1960s 8mm film he would use in ''VJ'' sets for Wellington band Rhombus.

''One scene was of our very first prime minister, Thomas Davis, for the Cook Islands. Then out of the horizon came this albatross toward the boat. So I got terribly emotional about it.''

As an arts student at the Dunedin School of Art back in the 1980s, Tuffery often cycled out to Taiaroa Head to surf off the head.

A collage of Tuffery’s  working sketches and photographs completed while at Taiaroa Head and...
A collage of Tuffery’s working sketches and photographs completed while at Taiaroa Head and Stewart Island are included in the exhibition.
''I've always been fascinated in where the birds go, what are their migration patterns? And mostly, what is the cultural opportunity to find out more about and [make a] connection?''

The Wild Creations project gave him access to key people who specialised in the study of seabirds. He looked into every angle, from going out on the fishing boats, working closely with Doc staff and scientists, current and retired, about the state of the birds. He also had korero huis with local kaumatua on Stewart Island and Taiaroa Head about the migration patterns of birds.

Tuffery, who was born in 1966 of Samoan, Rarotongan and Ma'ohi Tahitian heritage, can remember seeing the ''black cloud'' as they call it in French Polynesia when the sooty shearwaters migrate.

Talking with Rakiura kaumatua Philip Smith, he discovered the Takitimu waka which originated in ''Hawaiki'', the Pacific Islands and Tahiti, in about AD1350 travelled as far south as Te Anau, via the Wairau River where, the story goes, it broke up in a whirlpool.

It was commemorated by naming the mountains above, the Takitimu Ranges, which look down on that spot. ''When I went to these sites and made the connection between the names I got terribly excited ... I didn't realise the waka went down so far.

''All your names, the Ngai Tahu names, are Tahitian, from our way.''

Those ''deep'' discussions with kaumatua are reflected in his latest works with the ''frame''emblematically marked around the birds representing their ''mouths'' and are coloured in pounamu colours to further reference the connections.

Tuffery's work has always referenced environmental concerns. In 2014 he created a hypersized sculpture, Buru Transforma Kangaroo, which is installed in Airds, Southwest Sydney.

''I do a lot of community engagement work in Australia. I'm an artist not a social worker. However, I'm able to activate change to empower community. Airds was a simple philosophy: if the river is unhealthy, the community is unhealthy, so I got everyone talking, pulled several derelict cars that had been dumped in the River and surrounding bushland and made a sculpture based on an endemic species to that area. It got people talking to each other.''

Then there's the Povi or his bull sculptures made from cornbeef tins.

''I'm a fish, always in the water. I started looking at the sea, the albatross and other seabirds. If they're sick, we're sick. They are a good indicator of the state of Pacific.''

He believes that concern has been with him since seeing the rubbish in the sea near his ''nanny's island'' of Raiatea, in French Polynesia.

''That is what inspired my environmental take. I've always been a staunch.''

Tuffery did the trip south early last year but was unable to get to the Campbell and Snares Islands. He hopes to go there at a later date which is why the exhibition is named ''Chapter One''.

One of the reasons for the delay has been the commissioning of Tuffery's Siamani Samoa (German Samoa) work which includes collaborating with the Royal Samoa Police Band and the Stabsmusikkorps der Bundeswehr (the Staff Band for the German Armed Forces) for the opening of the prestigious Humboldt Forum and at the Federal Theatre Festival, Theater der Welt, in Dusseldorf in May, 2020.

The performances will be surrounded by an immersive architectural multimedia artwork on the west facade.

The Humboldt Forum, is a 600million ($NZ1billion, 29000sq m rebuild of the Berlin Palace, the winter residence of the Prussian royal family. The building will primarily display the Humboldt Foundation's ethnological and Asian collections.

This new work is an extension of Tuffery's 2015 presentation at Carriageworks, Sydney, which featured a theatre 12m video projection by Tuffery and 17 members of the the Royal Samoa Police Band playing German compositions.

The invitation to Berlin is recognition of the relationship between Germany and Samoa. Samoa was a German colony between 1900 and 1914.

''This is a real cultural connection. I'm famous for these gigantic projections and it is really significant for Germany to open up that relationship with Samoa.''

It has been a big couple of years for Tuffery who was the first Pacific Islander to have work bought by the The British Museum in London.

The work - a depiction of Captain Cook with Polynesian features and a flower in his hair, draws another cultural connection.

''I get asked, why is there a fish coming out of Cookie's ears or flowers? My response is simply, Ah, you've had your time. This is coming from an indigenous Pacific perspective.

It was quite emotional for Tuffery to see his work hanging in the museum but he realises he is just this generation's response to a cultural event.

''In 30 or 100 years there will be another one.''

Tuffery enjoys the variety of work he does, from sculpture, to painting to video projections as well as teaching.

''You only live once, so every day is a special day, so enjoy it. Make sure you do your part.

''Not about how much you have. It's about how much you contribute back. The rest will follow.''

He sees his latest work as being able to acknowledge the community that supported him during his art school days.

Tuffery came to Dunedin from Wellington at the encouragement of his high school art teacher, Gregory Flint, as he wanted him to focus on his art but he knew of Tuffery's dyslexia.

''There were very good tutors down here - Chris de Jong, Marilyn Webb, Peter Nichols, Tom Field, Jim Tomlin. They really shaped much of my approach. I've stayed with the kaupapa and am deeply grateful to have been taught by them all. Art school for me was like going to a lolly shop.''

His time in Dunedin opened his eyes to a different world and he tried out everything, playing club rugby, going hiking, drama, dance.

''I met some amazing people with long-standing friendships forged. I hitchhiked around, did farmstays. It was a completely different headspace. I got to know myself.

''Dunedin is the perfect place to come and study.''

To see
‘‘Chapter 1, Moana nga Manu’’,  Michel Tuffery, The Artist Room, Dunedin.

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