When someone creates a ula lei (necklace of flowers), it is a sign of affection and is usually given to another as a gift with the purpose to embellish that person as part of a greeting, farewell, alofa (love), a celebration or graduation. In my culture, when a ula lei is presented to you, it is a definite link between past and present. It is a mea lofa of love (gift). All these things are links which I am choosing to activate in my work.
– Leanne Joy Lupelele Clayton
Leanne Joy Lupelele Clayton is a New Zealand born-Australian printmaker, sculptor and wearable’s artist of Samoan-European descent. Known for her use of recycling ordinary, everyday materials into meaningful artistic forms, Leanne uses art to make a contemporary commentary on her Pacific heritage, especially as it relates to cultural and personal memory and the roles of family and tradition in a cross-cultural society. “My artwork represents a confluence of Polynesian and Western cultures, utilising techniques and materials from each…I like to draw from diverse historical materials ranging from family photographs through to clothing and dress; exploring how cultural traditions shape who we are and where we are from”.
Leanne graduated with a Bachelor of Visual Arts (2005) and a Master of Fine Arts (2007) from the Auckland University of Technology where she majored in printmaking. She says “I became interested in printmaking because of my grandmother…she was talented with sewing, recycling, gardening, cooking, printmaking and drawing. I remember as a child how we would catch the bus to go to the Auckland Hospital to get x-ray sheets, which she would use to draw her designs onto, cut out and then print…I loved it!”. By the time Leanne reached university, she became fascinated by the repetitive prints of Andy Warhol. “I found that I was printing onto fabric, t-shirts, canvas, tapa and found objects…I felt that I had this freedom to explore and there were so many possibilities!”.
As a child, Leanne’s mother also taught her how to make ula leis. “I remember a lot of cutting, sorting, threading and making with conversations in between and some singing. The ula leis were often made for relatives for their family photos, which they placed over the frame. It’s a symbolic gesture which represents respect of loved ones past and present”. Growing up, Leanne and her mother would make the ula leis out of a wide variety of materials, even though fresh flowers are the traditional form. “Back in the 1970s, the material Mum and I used was colourful plastic sheet, quite thin…but we also made them from lollies! I have made ula lolly leis for all my kids, for my friend’s kids, relatives and so on. I even did it for my granddaughter’s graduation from pre-school. It’s a tradition!”.
For the exhibition A fine possession: jewellery and identity, we are featuring two of Leanne’s contemporary ula lei creations on display. Both titled ‘Ulapinaki’ (‘Ula’ – “necklace” and ‘pinaki’ – “peanuts”), these works are made from ‘non-traditional’, Western materials, including red and yellow measuring tape, cable ties and plastic peanuts. These materials reference a complex set of relationships which are not immediately understood, as Leanne explains:
These ula leis talk about Fa’a Samoa, or the ‘Samoan Way’ – a set of obligations which all Samoans are expected to fulfill. These obligations centre on the matai (chiefs), aiga (family) and the church. The leis arouse the idea of measurement, being tied to traditions and heated expectations which can evoke ‘nuttiness’ at times. It indicates links of knowing where you stand and how you conduct yourself…as Samoans we are patterned and measured by our worth…
Leanne says she has experienced a lot of cultural pressure. “Living in between two cultures was not easy back in the 1970s. There weren’t many Islanders living in Mt Eden (a suburb of Auckland in New Zealand), which in those days was a well-to-do area, since it was mainly white families and the elderly. In fact, we were the only Pacific Islanders on our street. It was hard at first, but then we got to know all our neighbours”. In Samoan culture, families are expected to work together and help anyone and everyone. “We are taught to do this not for any recognition or money. In fact, my parents always said that your reward is in heaven…You know what is expected of you, as you have already been taught. You show your love and respect for your parents when you do these acts. I guess that’s old school, but I like it”.
Leanne has showcased her work in a wide variety of group exhibitions, especially in New Zealand, and is represented in the permanent collections of the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Brisbane and Porirua City Council in New Zealand’s Wellington region. She has guest curated several exhibitions, including ‘Circular’ at Artstation in Auckland (2010) and ‘Our Celebration’, celebrating Auckland’s 169th birthday at the Women’s Pioneer Hall Freyburg Place (2009). She also runs a variety of community-focused art workshops, most recently on Australia’s Gold Coast, working with youths of Pacific Islander background.
These ula leis (‘Ulipinaki’) are on display in the “Contemporary – Upcycling” section of A fine possession: jewellery and identity showing at the Powerhouse Museum until September 2015.
Written by Melanie Pitkin, Assistant Curator