All these worlds and more

Hanahiva Rose on imagination and storytelling in Sione Tuívailala Monū's recent work.

There’s big main-character energy in Sione Tuívailala Monū’s exhibition Stories, currently on display at City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi. The galleries have become a world of Monū’s making: elevating, intimate and determined. This is the first time Monū’s nimamea‘a tuikakala, or Tongan fine flower design, sculptures have been shown alongside their moving- image work, though—as is evident in the exhibition— each informs and provides impetus for the other.

Monū is a prolific filmmaker, well suited to the fast pace and highly responsive nature of social media. The Instagram ‘Stories’ feature—snippets of video and images made available for twenty-four hours at a time—gives the exhibition its name. It was on Instagram that the videos were first presented under Monū’s two accounts, @sione_has_doubts and @sione93. The influence of the platform is clear not only in the modes of display (one gallery presents videos across six mounted cell phones), duration of the films (individual clips following Instagram’s fifteen- and sixty-second time limits, stitched together into longer montages) and their dimensions (the distinctive 4:5, 1:1 and 1.91:1 aspect ratios Instagram employs), but also in the narrative structures and cinematographic gestures that underpin the videos—used as a shorthand for communicating quickly and effectively to an audience that can recognise the various cues. This is not to say that the videos don’t also operate in conversation with other worlds beyond the platform, lived and imagined, but rather that within the formal and technical constraints of their chosen media, Monū finds an opportunity for boundless expression.

Sione Tuívailala Monū, Untitled, 2022, screenshot. Courtesy of the artist

Instagram’s use of the term ‘Stories’ is interesting for the way it is inevitably tied up in ‘storytelling’, implying not only a narrative but also the act of fictionalisation. Whatever the pretence of reality, ‘truth’ remains elusive: more likely found in what is not captured and shared than what is. But this is a rigid approach to truthfulness, for it fails to attend to the question of what stories can offer our understanding of the world—how they help us to understand and recognise truths we do not otherwise have access to.

Writing on the relationship between fact and fiction in her work, Toni Morrison describes a process of ‘literary archaeology’:

On the basis of some information and a little bit of guesswork you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that those remains imply. What makes it fiction is the nature of the imaginative act: my reliance on the image—on the remains—in addition to recollection, to yield up a kind of truth.[1]

Imagination supplements the world described in the ‘remains’—or the archive, or the memory—with the understanding that, for many reasons, the world we wish to know is not fully captured in the pieces of information left behind. This certainty that imagination is central to our capacity to not only access the past but also envisage new futures is characteristic of Monū’s practice. Kindred: A Leitī Chronicle, a large site- specific installation made with Manu Vaeatangitau at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in 2022, presented a pantheon of ultimate leitī: King George, Gardinia, Chanel, Joey and Sīsī. As curator Ane Tonga writes:

For thousands of years, superior beings known as ‘ultimate leitī’ walked the lands and roamed the heavens. Ultimate leitī were celebrated as transgender deities who moved freely in a utopian world … Distinguished by their glamazonian stature and beaded armour, ultimate leitī were responsible for building and protecting the wealth of the Kingdom of Tonga.[2]

But then, with the arrival of Europeans and the introduction of Christianity, the leitī way of life changed.

Tāufa‘āhau I, ruler of Tonga … ordered the destruction of all deities, including ultimate leitī. They fled through the portals of the Ha‘amonga a Maui, to seek asylum in another multiverse, taking the guise of civilians in Aotearoa.[3]

Sione Tuívailala Monū, Stories, 2023. Installation view, City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, May 2023. Photo: Cheska Brown

Monū and Vaeatangitau’s Kindred gave powerful, gracious form to leitī who, though otherworldly in their bearing, do all have an earthly presence. Sīsī, looking out from red-tinted glass, with blue beads framing their face, shared many of Monū’s own characteristics—Sīsī is an alter-ego they developed as a teenager. Monū, Vaeatangitau, Sīsī and the other ultimate leitī are well aware of the power of moving fluidly between worlds. “We’re manifesting that reality [of the ultimate leitī] and drawing from it to liberate and empower us in our current existence,” says Vaeatangitau.[4]

I was reminded of the ultimate leitī and their penchant for colourful glass beads in Stories, where Monū’s ‘ao kakala, ‘floral clouds’, fill the air with vibrant clusters of flowers gathered above strings of beads. Disarmingly exuberant, the ‘ao kakala seem to belong to some kind of heightened reality—a world much like ours but happier and more colourful, with a greater propensity for fun. Monū’s practice of nimamea‘a tuikakala appears again and again in their videos: plastic flowers collected in bunches, sitting outside Bargain City; works in progress being carefully assembled; materials gathered for workshops at Aotearoa Art Fair and the local library; two large ‘ao kakala masks worn down the runway of the Sione Has Doubts Spring 2023 ready-to-wear collection; floral bananas being picked in the garden. Seeing the ‘ao kakala slip between physical and digital space emphasises the sense that, like the videos, they are highly networked: expressions of tradition and imagination that have been carried over oceans, generations and galaxies.

Sione Tuívailala Monū, Stories, 2023. Installation view, City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, May 2023. Photo: Cheska Brown

There are flowers, clouds, and also billows of e-cigarette vapor, often expelled in moments of pensive melancholy. In one video, Monū lies vaping in bed while Max Richter’s ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ provides a soundtrack to their rest. The wistful, hymnal chords of Richter’s composition are easily recognisable—the music has featured in many films and TV shows, where it provides what was recently described as an “unspooling, painstakingly repetitive melancholia.”[5] It’s precisely Richter’s ubiquity that makes Monū’s use of his song so funny (which is not to say cynical): they lie in bed as if following an instruction to ‘romanticise your life’, soundtracked by a song that many of us will associate with some filmic vision of the coming apocalypse.

Martine Syms—whose film work, along with that of Amalia Ulman and Meriem Bennani, is screening at City Gallery in association with Stories— has compared artists’ career trajectories to “episodic stories, with meaning accumulating, narratives developing and clout building from exhibition to exhibition.”[6] Monū the artist is certainly one of the subjects of Stories, though not the only one. There is also Monū the thoughtful vaper, Monū the laughing friend, Monū the multiverse-travelling leitī, Monū the caring family member, Monū the sassy Grindr date, Monū the subject of dramatic camera pans, Monū the creator (and consumer) of memes, Monū the main character, Monū of all these worlds and more.

“Only the act of imagination can save me,” writes Morrison. Imagination is a form of freedom: the freedom to imagine lives that look, feel and are otherwise to those we inhabit. This does not involve turning away from the rich, and at times painful, texture of the world we occupy, but rather a close attention to what might seem dim, ineffable or impossible to access: the point where memory and imagination meet, or what Morrison calls “the flooding.”[7] How better to describe the clarity, capaciousness and fluidity of Stories than that? It is a flooding.

Sione Tuívailala Monū, Stories, 2023. Installation view, City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, May 2023. Photo: Cheska Brown

(1) Toni Morrison, ‘The Site of Memory,’ in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. William Zinsser (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 92.
(2) Ane Tonga, A Leitī Chronicle Chapter 1: Kindred (Auckland: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2022).
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Alex Ross, ‘The Doleful Minimalism of Max Richter,’ The New Yorker, April 2023.
(6) Martine Syms in Kate Berlant, Aki Sasamoto, Amy Sillman and Martine Syms, ‘Stages of Laughter,’ Art in America 103, no.6 (June 2015), 111.
(7) Morrison, ‘The Site of Memory,’ 99.

Sione Tuívailala Monū, Stories, 6 May–3 September 2023, City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington

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