Hawkes Bay, Aotearoa New Zealand, 2020
Vivienne Haldane’s best-known photographs chronicle the Pacific Sisters, one of Aotearoa’s most influential Māori and Pacifika artistic and fashion collectives of the 1990s. The collective are an integral part of New Zealand’s indigenous and mainstream art history, an ever-evolving group working collaboratively across fashion, performance, music, and film.
Her Pacific Sisters: He Toa Tāera | Fashion Activists series, completed after her graduation, has latterly made a mark in New Zealand’s leading art institutions, exhibited at Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington (2018) and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki (2019), with Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki acquiring the exhibited suite of her lightboxes for the permanent collection.
Photos included here from the Trish Clark Gallery
The artist’s self-described ‘organic journey’ of documenting the Sisters began with an introduction from performance artist Mika, and soon after, a commission from John Draper to shoot the Sisters.
Working closely with the collective over a period of time in friendly collaborative creativity resulted in images of striking intimacy and emotional weight, and shooting around Auckland in locations ranging from Point Chevalier Beach to the Karangahape Road sex shops.
Haldane stayed in touch with the sisters over the years and they “often lamented the fact that these photos had never seen the light of day”, Draper’s Glo magazine having never been published. The images didn’t surface until Nina Tonga contacted the Sisters for the Te Papa exhibition, leading to the inclusion of Haldane’s photographs as an integral part of the Pacific Sisters retrospective at Te Papa Tongarewa.
The meaning this collaboration with the Pacific Sisters holds for me as an artist, in Vivienne Haldane’s words
Where do I began? I feel so passionate about this connection and the project that sprang from it. However, many times my spirit has flagged over it. I always believed in this collection of photos (taken in the early 1990s) and held them as close as a protective mother guards her child.
The ‘child’ took a long time to grow up and then she spread her wings and flew and how high she flew.
To go back to the beginning:
The performance artist, Mika told me, ‘There are some people I’d like you to meet.’
John Draper (of Glo), a gay magazine, told me to go out and take photos of the Sisters and ‘just do what you like’.
We galivanted all around Auckland city and beyond: the former Southdown Freezing Works, the sex shops in K Road, the Auckland Domain, Beresford Street Church and Point Chevalier Beach. All became the backdrop for dress-ups and photos.
My camera loved the Sisters and they loved my camera right back. Can’t you tell?
Growing up in Hawke’s Bay, I had never known any Māori people before or anything of their culture. Its sounds awkward to say this, but it reflects life in those times, or, you could say, I was ignorant about Māori culture.
I was fascinated by the Sisters’ passion, by their beauty, their sass. I was relatively new as a photographer, having studied it later in life (in my 30s). My marriage had broken up. I’d moved to the city from Waiheke Island. It was a raw time or me and I poured myself into this work with a passion.
With the Glo commission going nowhere, the negatives went into the box and there they stayed. I never had the spare cash to exhibit these photos. In hindsight, that was a lucky thing in disguise, for when Nina Tonga asked me, ‘Have these photos ever been exhibited before?’ I could honestly say, ‘No’. I thought to myself: these sleeping beauties are about to awake from their slumber in a box that’s travelled with me for many years.
So, the Pacific Sisters, our work combined, was shown to the public, first at Te Papa, then Auckland Art gallery and now in Trish Clark Gallery. Be still my beating heart. I feel so proud, so happy, satisfied.
I feel as if I have ridden on the Pacific Sisters’ Korowai, was swept up and tucked into its threads.
I didn’t see Nephi again until 2018 when she returned home from to Havelock North to look after her mother, Doris. Now for Nephi’s story.
About Nephi Tupaea
Nephi is one of the founding members of Pacific Sisters starting in the 1990s.
In June 2020 she was asked to be part of another Pacific Sisters project: Wheke rorohiko. This was initiated by Pacific Sisters Ani O’Neill and Feeona Clifton and funded by Creative New Zealand. Nephi asked me to take photos of her work for this project. ‘I decided to make masks because I thought it was relevant to COVID-19,’ says Nephi.
Using diverse materials, Nephi created a wide range of masks. She says that being a full-time carer for her mother, Doris Tupaea and being isolated during lockdown, influenced her mask making. ‘I became interested in the relationship we have between our inner consciousness and our subconsciousness and how we wear so many different masks in life. Everyday we wear a different mask depending on our; role -parent, teacher, tutor for kapa haka, friend or lover. Masks play an important role in our lives whether we are aware of it or not. It’s a metaphor for how we are dealing with life inside.’
Nephi talks more about her role as carer. ‘When you are a carer, you are holding so much in. You have to be really patient and show a lot of virtue when you are looking after a parent. You can’t just snap. You have to bit your tongue and that causes a lot of suppressed energy. So one mask that I made like a blank canvas represented that feeling – like the a scream you can’t hear. That’s what it feels like. No one knows what’s happening inside you.’
In 2018, Nephi’s family asked her to return from Australia where she’d lived for 20 years when Doris became ill. You have a sense of duty with your parent but you also want to keep your own identity and that’s a challenge. In my time with her, I’ve noticed she’s lost some of her spark for life which I find really disheartening. It hurts my soul. I want her to have a fulfilling life right to the very end. It’s been rewarding to because when you look after a parent, it’s the most precious gift you could ever receive on this earth. Not many people have that. I have the opportunity to be so intimate and close with my mum. It’s an amazing bond. It’s an honour, no matter how much they piss you off. No matter how demanding; you have to bite your lip.
Nephi has also been studying at Toimairangi School of Māori Visual Art, in Heretaunga, helmed by Dr Sandy Adsett. She says attending the school has been a welcome break from the routine of caregiver and has helped her to recallibrate her artistic vision. ‘It has been a journey of healing. I feel I’ve been guided by my tipuna and it has also been very good for my mental health. When you are a carer, you become very isolated, so art school offers an escape. It has saved my sanity. I feel as if I am back on track. I am serious about wanting to be a full-time practicing artist. I am still finding myself as a person in the art world. The mask making as part of the Wheke rorohiko project served to guided me on this mission, it gave me a purpose.’
Doris Orangakau Tupaea, age 77, is Ngati Koroki and comes from Tuakai and Port Waikato. Her marriage to Matiu Tupaea (Ngati Tipa), was arranged by her father. According to Nephi, it was a real love match. Matiu died six years ago and Doris misses him dearly. ‘Dad was all Mum knew,’ says Nephi.
Doris and Matiu had nine children, of which Nephi is the youngest.
‘Mum and Dad worked at the Whakatu Freezing Works for 25 years. We always had seasonal work in orchards; my first job, aged six was picking asparagus. I’m the only one in my family not to work at the freezing works. I’m an artist. They also worked in shearing gangs, following the shearing season. It was an amazing time in my life. It was exciting, This way of life was good- we were always moving around, constantly working, never sitting around the house,’ says Nephi.
More about the Wheke rorohiko project here.
About Vivienne Haldane and the Pacific Sisters
Vivienne Haldane is a New Zealand photographer and writer with a long-time practice spanning both fine-art photography and editorial assignments for a wide range of noted New Zealand publications and earlier years spent as a weaving and textile artist. Early studies in weaving, photography and graphic design were interspersed with the births of three children. Full-time photography studies at Unitec in the early 90’s, under tutors such as senior photographers Fiona Pardington and Haruhiko Sameshima, resulted in an AGFA Scholarship for outstanding work.
Haldane credits a number of key photographic influences, in particular Duane Michals for his photo sequences, Joel Meyerowitz, Lee Miller, Dorothea Lange, and Elliot Erwitt, as well as Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton and the new wave of 1990s fashion photography / music. Her authentically tender portraits are all her own, however. Following the critical success and acclaimed institutional reception of Pacific Sisters, Haldane is currently shifting away from editorial work and focusing on her fine-art photography.
Haldane lives and works in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand.
Her website is here.