New Zealand-born, Sydney-based artist Angela Tiatia is a person of movement, of restless tides. I try to catch her in late June but she’s in remote central Australia, in Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands with fellow artist Tony Albert and over a dozen others on a trip organised by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
“It was a once in a lifetime experience for many of us – gaining permission to visit is quite difficult and rarely granted.” There they visited Aboriginal art centres and communities, with Tiatia dropping in to catch up with Kaylene Whiskey. Tiatia was a guest judge of the Sulman Prize this year which Whiskey won. “I got to spend some time with her and see her new works,” she says.
A week or two later Tiatia is on sabbatical in New York City, which involves gallery hopping, taking in the likes of American contemporary artists Kara Walker and Faith Ringgold, whose practices traverse hot-button themes of race, gender and violence.
Of Samoan and New Zealand-Australian background, Tiatia has wrestled with notions of representation and neo-colonialism, working across a range of disciplines. She was a finalist in the 2018 Archibald Prize with Study for a self-portrait, a painting that upends not only the male, European gaze but also the treatment of women of colour as the exotic other, most pertinently by Paul Gauguin. In Tiatia’s portrait she holds the viewer’s gaze, primed for action like a tightly wound coil from her crouching position on a stool.
The youngest of three, Tiatia grew up in suburban Auckland, in a neighbourhood where Pacific Islanders were the dominant culture. Later her family moved to Australia, residing in regional Victoria and Brisbane – largely white communities which were “more racist back then” she says. The artist had three loves: art, film and physicality – she had a thing for glamour too, watching Hitchcock movies and B-grade 1950s horror. “I was quite naughty and mischievous, always pushing boundaries,” she says. “My mum nicknamed me ‘the little devil’’.”
Here multiple mediums operate at once, Tiatia directs a kinetic performance, captured on film, and performed in the confines of an installation. The camera rolls in one take as actors perform frenzied movement – consuming, discarding and worshipping – all captured in slow motion by the artist who we glimpse atop a camera dolly with other crewmembers. Involving over 60 people and made within a short timeframe of six weeks, Tiatia is not overstating when she says “it was a very intense experience that involved high levels of steady organisation and an unwavering belief in the end product, and myself as an artist.”
Tiatia – a former model, who has criticised the tokenistic use of diversity in the industry, is often present, bodily, in her work. “I am the most immediate resource on hand,” she says. “Also, it’s the ultimate control – knowing my wants and needs in the work. And by using myself there’s no layer of translation where ideas can be lost or compromised.”
In Holding On (2015) a video work filmed on Tuvalu, a vulnerable South Pacific island which is on average, less than two metres above sea level, Tiatia couldn’t ask anybody else to put their body on the line. In it, she lies on a concrete slab, in the wake of an incoming tide.
“I filmed this every evening close to sunset 10 days in a row until I got the perfect shot. It was a very physically demanding work that involved being scraped and pushed around – as well as swallowing water and having it go into your eyes and nose at the same time. I could not have asked someone else to do this. No one would do it.”
Holding On is an erratic adagio performed atop a slab. A slab is not a welcoming place for a body, we can think of it as a surface where a postmortem examination is conducted. Tiatia’s performance is a rough-and-tumble response to environmental calamity – hopefully, unlike an autopsy – it’s not too late. “It’s my response to climate change and rising water levels in the Pacific. It’s a direct reflection of the people of the Pacific holding on to their lands, as they are currently experiencing very challenging times in terms of climate change.”