Written by Francis McWhannell
Photographed by Kate van der Drift
Sione Tuívailala Monū is an artist of Tongan heritage who has been attracting attention for some years now, both as a part of Pacific queer collective FAFSWAG (they are no longer a member), and in their own right. Their May Fair Online booth is strikingly elegant, decorated with a large coconut palm and a family of pigs seemingly sculpted out of marble. All is stark white, save for the works proper, a series of brightly coloured masks festooned with plastic flowers and strings of crystalline and pearlescent beads. The masks at once suggest performance and stand as fully realised pieces. Having seen similar works by Monū in the real (a pair of flowering clouds is on display in the office and reading space attached to the new Tautai gallery), I’m familiar with the ways in which they respond to light and the moving eye of the viewer. Beads glisten and sparkle. Petal tones glow, pulse. Even as they hang still on a wall, Monū’s pieces radiate energy.
The masks have a range of reference points. A crown-like example is marked with the name Kanokupolu, Monū’s village in Tonga (from which the nation’s royal family also comes), and the place in which the works were produced. They connect with Tongan ceremonial and celebratory costume that incorporates flowers (plastic is preferred when fresh flowers are not available or when a piece needs to be longer-lasting), affirming the continuity and adaptability of the culture. Furthermore, they invoke the notion of the mask as a means of transforming one’s personal identity. Sometimes, such a transformation takes place only for a limited time and in a particular space. And yet it can get at an essential and enduring flourishing. I look at the masks — presented in a glorious invented gallery, in public, and as treasures — and I feel a deep sense of joy. These are works that brim with variegated pride.