Mama: any respected member of the community from whom one learns something of value. The Mirror Mama Project now on view at Hastings City Gallery has much to teach. It invites us to share, however briefly, in the cultural journeys of ten women who immigrated to New Zealand from the Pacific Islands, Africa and the Middle East. Their personal stories of loss and separation, connection and community compel us to think more deeply about their individual lives. At the same time, the exhibition raises broader questions of personal identity in the context of cultural heritage. As painter Delicia Sampero, the instigator of the Project says, “A personal story, well told, will reach beyond.”
With the help of Mary Ama and the Pacific Arts and Culture Centre at Corbans in Waitakere City, and RAS (Refugees as Survivors) in Auckland, Delicia became involved with six Pacific Island Mamas and 4 refugee Mamas. Each one is skilled and committed to a traditional craft or art form of her native culture. Delicia’s purpose was to paint their portraits. But the fine hand work was of such quality and significance that it too became part of the exhibition, along with the text of brief personal statements.
Sampero’s large and vivid portraits dominate this intimate exhibition installed in one of the Gallery’s smaller installation spaces. Richly hued faces stand out against neutral, silver backgrounds. Luminously portrayed and robed in the striking colours of their homelands, most of the subjects look directly at the viewer; their gazes clear, direct and unhesitant.
For Sampero, portraiture is powerful way of establishing connection—between herself and her subjects, and between her art and the viewer. Although the paintings were completed in two months—“the fastest I ever painted”—much time was spent developing relationships with the woman despite language barrier with the refugees and the need for translators.
“I try to portray the person in the best way I can and also give them mana,” Delicia says. “I want them to love themselves in what they see. Some of the women were terribly nervous in posing. It’s very exposing. They are so often in the background, I wanted to celebrate them.”
But Sampero invited the women to do more than pose. “I was so impressed by the Mamas. I wanted them to play a part not just through the portraits but also through their own creative work. The handwork provides a way for the viewer to connect to the woman’s environment, to the elders or teachers from whom she learned, and to the importance of her creativity. If viewers experience the person’s own work and then look at the face and read a bit of her story, it’s like a map.”
Tueke Malage comes from the Pacific island of Tuvalu noted for its raffia art. Beneath her portrait hangs a stunning example: stars of brilliant colored raffia stand out from a black ground, as if the night sky were full of giant flowers. Her statement reads:
“I am making a star for all people in my birth family. The central one is my mum; the other ones are for my siblings. The stars make a picture and hold each other in place– a sea of stars connecting us from one place to another. Our ancestor navigated the sea by following the stars. I navigate my path in this new land by contemplating on the stars.”
Sefuiva Saifoloi is from Samoa. Weaving plastic strapping with natural fiber, she has created a striking woven panel of greens, yellows and blacks.
“As I weave, memories pass through my mind. I remember being a teacher in Samoa. I think of my children and grand children and their stories. When I first came here I was a sewer, a factory worker, a stranger in a new land; and then slowly I became a part of the new land.”
Rachel Gabire is a refugee from the Congo. She is a master embroiderer and beneath her painting hangs a stunning example.
In my country the women do embroidery, usually flower designs; but traditionally our art is all about dark and light, like the stripes of a zebra. My father, mother, siblings, aunties and uncles and one of my children have been taken from me and are now in heaven. For ten months I have been living in New Zealand. I picture flight. I picture angels, flowers, peace. I picture transformation from darkness.
Delicia says that many of the Mamas are now part of her life and part of her community, just as she is now part of theirs. “Much of the exhibition,” says the artist, “is about making connections despite our differences.” But the Mirror Mama Project is also about what can happen when art making gets out of the private realm of the studio and becomes, in Sampero’s words, a “social working ground” for individual and cultural affirmation and understanding.
“I wanted to be useful to them,” says Sampero of the Mamas. I feel like I’ve contributed something to their lives through this project as they have to mine.” In so doing, Sampero enables us too to appreciate these lives, and to share in a community of wise women that we might otherwise never see.