Pacific Women's Work exhibition challenges stereotypes

A new art exhibition in Whangarei, New Zealand featuring Pacific artists is pushing the boundaries about the notion of women's work in everyday society.

Pacific artists are among 15 artists exhibiting at Women's Work, including Sulieti Fieme'a Burrows, Juliana Browneyes-Clifford, Emily Mafile'o, Karlo Mila, Lisa Taouma and Tui Emma Gillies.

The show is aimed at challenging old and new stereotypes around the work of women considering how it can be challenged, celebrated, hidden or illuminated.

Co-curator Billie Lythberg said it is an opportunity for people to respond to normative responses to the tasks of women.

"Because so often these gendered ideas of work have been imposed I think by art historians, by anthropologists, by sociologists. We theorise, we write and then things seem to be set."

She said often women are expected to take on domestic tasks like cooking, sewing and child rearing, but this show explores a new definition for women's roles through each art piece.

"Whereas within communities, especially with artists, things are so much more fluid so it is something we have talked about for a long time. And the possibility of having a show at Geoff Wilson gave us the chance to really crystallise that."

Lead artist Tui Emma Gillies has also helped organise the show and contributed a piece constructed around the Tongan word for women, fēfine.

Her first piece of work titled fēfine one, took a month to construct and shows a woman who is breast-feeding with an umbilical cord around her neck that goes down to her heart and is painted onto a tapa cloth.

"There is a baby in there and she's trying to look the part and she's trying to look at what the expectations of a mother are today is to just be able to continue to look good and also be able to raise children, sort of like superwoman," she said. "So I wanted to portray that in a piece of art."

Tui Gillies said she also wanted to include her mother Sulieti Burrow's work in their show.

Her mother is well known for her tapa art work and traditional art pieces, among other things.

For this exhibition, she said her mum created a piece showcasing traditional flowers that back in the islands women often used to make flower necklaces in the village.

"She's one of those traditional artists who is an old master of what she does and it was an opportunity to showcase a woman, a very strong woman, who is like I said, traditional," she said.

"So it is good to put her in the show as you need more of these elder people in the shows cos these are the ones who we all pull our strength from and we get our ideas from."

Maori artist Tracey Tawhiao said the premise of her work for the show focused on wahine or women and the Tiriti o Waitangi or Treaty of Waitangi.

She said she is subverting perception on what is often a volatile subject and is an example of how things can be co-existent with different cultures now.

"I found a newspaper article, well actually it was a whole newspaper, based on the treaty and I painted it for the exhibition and I laid it out in a pyramid. And it's just speaking to the different versions of the treaty and how we perceive words and media about things like the Treaty."

Billie Lythberg said she hopes to take the exhibition to showcase somewhere else after Whangarei and is open to invitations.

The Women's Work exhibition is on display on certain weekdays at Northtec's Geoff Wilson Gallery until June 9.