Artistic Projects

Men are from Maama
Women are from Pulotu

1 April – 28 May 2016
Mangere Arts Centre Nga Tohu o Uenuku


Exhibition Text

Men Are from Maama, Women are from Pulotu borrows its title from an article written by Meredith Filiha’a which looks at female status in Tongan society. Filihia’s research draws on Tongan cosmogonic origins to suggest that Tongan men and women descend from two different places: women from Pulotu, a place believed to be a source of life and death and chiefly things, and men from Maama (this world). In this exhibition, Filihia’s gendered positioning is used as an analogy for Ane Tonga’s photographic investigation of nifo koula (gold teeth).

Since 2008, Ane has been researching nifo koula – a form of Tongan body adornment where gold is melted onto the visible surface of teeth. For many recipients the procedure is carried out in the Kingdom of Tonga, using gold sourced from heirlooms such as wedding rings, which infuses gold teeth with layers of meaning and memory. This exhibition brings together two gendered bodies of work; Grills (2008-2014) which is centred on the experiences of women and the new series Fakaētangata (2014-2016) which delves into the experiences of men.

Grills (2008-2014) explores nifo koula as female symbols of faka’ofo’ofa (Tongan beauty). Each image in this series explores, and challenges, traditional notions of Tongan beauty. For example the works visually examine sino molu (soft supple body), ngingila (shininess) and tapu (sanctity of hair and head) as well as more vernacular notions of beauty such as hinehina (a preference for fair skin) and sino lelei (an idealized full figured body). The exhibition includes the moving image work Malimali that explores nifo koula through the eyes and voices of Tongan women living in Aotearoa.

Showing for the first time in Aotearoa is the new ‘brother’ series Fakaētangata (2014-2016), which explores nifo koula within the notions of mana and fakaētangata (masculinity). The photographic series follows the journey of a young man acquiring a nifo koula in the Kingdom of Tonga, likening his surgical process to a rite of passage. Accompanying the photographs is a moving image work Tohoaki’i (to catch your attention) that captures men from Tonga discussing their views and outlook of nifo koula as a process of exchange, necessity and teuteu (decoration).

Ane Tonga, 2016


 GRILLS 2008-ongoing


Creative New Zealand

Grills was produced with the assistance of Creative New Zealand funding. Click here to see Grills featured in the Funded Artists Showcase.

Exhibition History:

Grills 2015, Waikato Museum – Te Whare Taonga o Waikato.
Ane Tonga: Grills 2014, Gus Fisher Gallery.
Tonga ‘i Onopooni 2014, Pataka Art Museum.
Girls Who Shoot, Boys Who Draw 2012, Papakura Art Gallery.


Grills at Waikato Museum Te whare taonga o waikato

Exhibition Text:


A photographic series by Ane Tonga

Then one tooth after the other was isolated with a non-irritating protective varnish. While protected all four prepared teeth against outside influence with aluminium shells –

“It will feel strange at first when the anaesthesia wears off and your tongue discovers the metal”…

Günter Grass, 1969

Their task…is not to propagate Western culture, but to question its assumptions, to undermine its authority and liberate young people from the ‘structures’.

Roger Scruton, 1998

How is culture constructed and maintained and passed on to the next generation?

It is easy to use superficial readings of a person’s physical body and construct it in our own heads. We read skin colour, hairstyle, whether one wears glasses or whether one has blonde hair or dangly earrings etc. and make value judgements all the time. Though identity is supposedly fluid, the common practices of communities tend to become fixed identifiers by which we (rightly or wrongly) differentiate one cultural group from another.  In among the various Pacific cultures, it does appear to have become more of a Tongan phenomenon to adorn the mouth with pure gold. By their teeth ye shall know them…

You can tell what they are by what they do.

Matthew 7: 16

The Contemporary English Version of the Bible

Ane Tonga‘s photographic series at first glance is purely about the grills/nifo koula allusion. There is an implicit strategic essentialism at work in these images.  Tonga’s work employs the word Grills as a titular hook. It is the conceptual artifice that makes us look unwittingly at the entire phenomenon of nifo koula as a practice peculiar to Tongan cultural adornment. Nifo koula, the gold adornment of teeth, is a fairly recent trend in Tongan contemporary culture.  Aesthetically, it assumes a similar role to that of grills (teeth adornment) that rose in popularity within (but not exclusive to) black American hip-hop culture. Grills immediately speaks of hip-hop culture and minority status.

Body adornment in almost every culture signifies much more than decoration. Conscious decisions are made when adding to and adapting the body. Traditional tattoo and mehndi  application (henna) practices for instance are ways of decorating the body that have existed for centuries. While these practises are part ritual and part adornment, nifo koula is more of choice with no formal rite of passage attached to its acquisition.

While the nifo koula is the central thematic and the imagery is focused around the mouth only, Tonga’s works presents us with much more than gold, teeth and gums.

Representations of the mouth, especially in Western advertising and visual arts are often afforded a place somewhere near the top of the hierarchy of signifiers of soft eroticism.

Tonga (the artist) addresses the sexual politics of representation of the mouth as a symbol of allure – shiny and naturally full red lips and a tongue in mid-swill (Seta) –  this is sexually suggestive, which subverts the modern construction of Polynesian modesty since ‘Christianity’ insisted that islanders cover up in the late eighteenth century . Tonga’s visual strategy obscures the facial details in order to maintain the subjects’ privacy whilst simultaneously exposing quite intimate images of them in a very public setting. In doing so, she attempts to redress the absence of the brown body in contemporary art, film, media and advertising contexts. The unpretentious false teeth in a glass of water (Nan) and full jubey lips of the younger women expose the nifo koula readily for the artist because she is known to them. It is likely these images may not have been possible were they strangers to the person behind the lens. The artist introduces the political element in her documentation of teeth-adornment in this context: she presents a counter-strategy to the mainstream European bee-stung lips touted /pouted as ideal beauty that renders otherness invisible and less appealing.  American hip-hop grills as well as full Polynesian lips effortlessly transgress the conventions of beauty that is either fashion or Hollywood-driven.

These are women with close ties to the artist, they are not just subject matter; they truly matter. They form a visual matrilineal passage that leads to their homeland of the Kingdom of Tonga. Tonga’s (the artist) photographic images of the mouths of her mother and cousins and grandmother pull the viewer in; what the viewer sees is not just mouths with gold but a vision of modern Tonga itself.

In its very conception, these are Tongan works by a Tongan woman. They are statements of assertion of the ‘other’ in the discourse of contemporary art practice. Each of the mouths with gilded teeth is eloquent, beautiful, erotic and tapu.

It’s Grills by Ane Tonga, not Grillz by Nelly.

Nofo a!

Leafa Wilson

Curator (Art)

Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato


Grills at Gus fisher

Press Release:

Grills is part of an ongoing photographic investigation that explores nifo koula (gold teeth) a popular and relatively new form of Tongan body adornment. Gold used for nifo koula are often second hand jewellery pieces such as rings, earrings or necklaces melted down to create gold covers. For many recipients gold is sourced from heirlooms such as wedding rings that infuse gold teeth with layers of meaning and memory. The process of recycling is a metaphorical process where values, memories and genealogies are refashioned into new forms of body adornment.

This new gendered series examines nifo koula as symbols of faka’ ofo’ ofa (Tongan beauty). In Tongan culture beauty, faka’ ofo’ ofa, goes beyond the surface of physical attributes and is deeply embedded in social and moral values that uphold and emphasize family, kinship, church and a nationalist ideology based on a constitutional monarchy. Grills explores faka’ofa’ofa through the eyes and voices of Tongan women living in New Zealand revealing the changing notions of beauty.

-Ane Tonga

Exhibition Text by Associate Professor and Art Historian Leonard Bell:



dust to dust at henderson billboards 2013-2015

Press Release:
Ane Tonga’s photographic series Dust to Dust merges multiple views of landscape into a single image to reveal new meanings that shape a sense of place and belonging in Maungarei (Mount Wellington). Residing in Maungarei for most of her life, the series is informed by her experiences and layered with research of historically recorded moments in the area.

Dust to Dust’s four images include an aerial view from Maungarei, overlooking uniform plots of housing within a new residential development; a rugby field that acts as an elevated stage for performance; and an aerial view of the newly developed netball stadium all of which recall ideas of nationalism, colonial settlement and the development over ‘uninhibited lands.’ Tonga comments,

“I’m interested in how historical narratives of landscape are remade in a contemporary context. Landscape had the ability to become symbols of power in colonial imagery and the development of housing mirrored a successful transfer of European lifestyle, which is embodied through architecture. This type of alluring imagery has continued to draw people to New Zealand. Additionally, national sports such as netball and rugby have then allowed migrant communities to partake and be part of a national identity.”

Ane Tonga is a practicing artist and curator based in Auckland. Much of her artistic practice references traditional art forms and cultural practices, tracking their evolution into a modern, multi-cultural society.

Dust to Dust is the second exhibition of While You Wait, a billboard exhibition series for the Henderson Rail Station platform organized by Auckland Council, and supported with funding from the Henderson-Massey Local Board.

The exhibition is presented as part of the Southside Arts Festival 2013, a showcase of the vibrant art, creativity and talent of South Auckland running from17 October.
Dust to Dust will remain on view at the Henderson Railway Station following the festival period into 2015.




The photographs of Dust to Dust are not simply representations of the land; rather they are constructed landscapes that reveal new meanings that shape a sense of place and belonging. The title of this series makes reference to part of the Book of Common Prayer; ‘…from ashes to ashes, dust to dust…’ is loosely based around Genesis 3:19 scripture and used during burial services, which suggests an inevitable return of the body back to landscape. In both Māori and Pacific Island custom, the connection to land is instilled in birth and practiced through the burial of placenta to bind one to the homeland. Dust to Dust embodies the process of palimpsest, to suggest a layering of history, experience and meaning.

Seeking to project landscape as a physical and multi-sensory medium, each photograph in Dust to Dust is constructed by merging multiple views of the land to create a singular landscape. Local landmarks such as the Leopards League club and AMI Netball stadium become bearings to explore a myriad of temporal and spatial connections to land. By re-visiting familiar landmarks each work compiles discreet histories of a particular landscape in Maungarei (Mount Wellington).

Exhibition History:
Dust to Dust 2013-2015, Henderson Billboards Project.
Dust to Dust 2011, TSB Wallace Arts Centre.


verona 2010

 Verona explores the conceptual leap made between the intrinsic knowledge involved in making Ngatu (Tongan Tapa) and the conventions of Western art. The work is reflective of a cultural base that staggers between Verona on Karangehape Road, Sylvia Park and then back to Verona.

Exhibition History:
Circular 2010, Art Station.

Double sidedness 2009

Double Sidedness explores the polarities of understanding and the exchange of knowledge that occurs when looking at a photograph.

The Double Sidedness series is based on the interest of the way in which a photograph functions as an archival reference, focusing on how much our knowledge of history is framed through photographs. Much of our visual knowledge is based on the information that historic photographs provide, and to an extent has supported the common belief that a photograph is a true reflection of the way that something appears.

In an attempt to understand the framing of knowledge and truths within ethnographic and historical photographs, the use of archaic processes within this series offer various perspectives and addresses ‘ways of seeing’ and more recently ‘ways of not seeing’.

My quest for knowledge has led me to this.
The landscapes are forsaken, transformed beyond my imagination, reasoning and knowledge.

Exhibition History:
Land/Scape 2012, Papakura Art Gallery.
Make/Shift 2010, St Paul Street Gallery.