Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Sofia Tekela-Smith: Grace
John Leech Gallery
11 November - 5 December 2008

Sofia Tekela-Smith is an artist whose practice showcases the tension between ‘applied’ art and ‘fine’, and attempts to bridge, if not obliterate’ the distinction. Making jewellery is her first love and she openly flaunts it, using various strategies to legitimise its status as ‘sculpture.’

With her earlier work, placing her body ornaments onto black fibreglass busts modelled on herself, family and friends, she used a quite brilliant device to critique the colonial gaze, whilst making (traditional) sculpture that could also display ‘Pacific’ jewellery. Since then though, her strategies have been less successful. Other devices, such as making large colour photographs of Polynesian (and Pakeha) women with red stained hands miming poetical phrases, have ended up perpetuating the sexually appraising gaze they claim to be critiquing. The current show at John Leech’s has other problems.

One of these is the use of appropriated images from the Renaissance (Botticelli and Raphael), a method linked to the eighties and in Australia anyway, to artists like Imants Tillers and Julie Brown-Rrap. Tekela-Smith was a teenager when those artists were making such work and her thinking is different: she has tied the Renaissance images and her own body into a narrative about the life of her mother who was a nun before she married Sofia’s father.

It’s a clever idea but it runs out of steam when she uses a tondo format for framing (decorative motifs imposed on to mirrored surfaces), into which she places her pendants and necklaces – in front of the photograph. The mixing of illusory space and real objects seems forced. The codes of representation also get mixed in an unresolved manner: background with indexical photography, foreground stitched lines which sometimes also run through the photos.

These sewn lines serve as a sort of clumsy drawing. Sometimes she uses silk thread, other times her own hair. Even though they are symbolic and are used to make a political point about women’s craft, they lack finesse and end up looking awkward.

Sofia Tekela-Smith’s jewellery looks better in isolation, away from these measures that try and get it acceptance as ‘art’ – or if that already, then ‘serious’ art. The convoluted framing and narrative contextualising only distract from ornaments that look far better by themselves.

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