From the New Zealand Herald (8 November 2008)
The spirit of motherhood
By Adam Gifford
Somewhere around Grey Lynn Park there is a magpie nest with a mother of pearl disc which was supposed to be part of a Sofia Tekela-Smith jewellery piece.
"When I've finished sanding them, I leave them to dry on the deck. There were eight, and then there were seven, and there was a magpie on the fence looking very pleased with itself," says Tekela-Smith, chronicling some of the challenges of preparing her new show, Grace.
The biggest challenge was working around daughter Helava, who has just turned 1. "I couldn't cut stone or shell while I was pregnant, because it's all toxic stuff."
A show in an art gallery setting forces Tekela-Smith to thinkabout more than the immediate object. "Jewellery is small.
You can't do big works, and for it to have a presence outside the body in an arena like a gallery, you need to present it in a way that it doesn't get lost."
Her first John Leech show included big breastplates, the second large photographs of women wearing her jewellery.
With Grace, the photographs are of herself, posed as Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Raphael's Madonna and Child.
"It's a labour of love, this show. I have put myself up on the canvas naked. People have said incredible things about the photographs such as, `Why do that when you are not in your best shape?' - real personal criticisms.
"The photographs are not intended to be a fashion photograph but everyone is looking at it from a very superficial level. I have to be strong and not listen to what other people say. I know why I am doing stuff."
Grace was sparked by finding a photograph of her mother in a nun's habit on a website about Rotuma, a Polynesian island administered by Fiji.
"I knew she had been a nun but had never seen a photo. I wanted to do stuff around that. What was it like for her family when she left [the convent], what was it like for her?"
But in the way that so much renaissance art is unknowable to most modern viewers, because they are not familiar with the keys to the symbols, so Tekela-Smith's photographs are open to misinterpretation.
She seems surprised that they are being read as ironic commentaries on the "dusky maiden" stereotype.
"It's all going back to my mother. I look at it and think, 'There is a woman who has run away from the church'. One day she pledged herself to God and church, and took on vows of poverty, chastity - then one day she wakes up and that's not her any more. She is not going to be chaste any more. She starts exploring that whole sexuality she has. That is how I am looking at the photograph," Tekela-Smith says.
The first stop for the former Sister Francis of Assisi was Fiji.
When working as a hotel receptionist, Meriama Sauitu met and soon married Glaswegian John Smith, before heading to New Zealand.
A few years later, Meriama made her only return trip to Rotuma, taking her young son and baby daughter to show to her mother, Mue Tekala, and stepfather Tavo Sauitu. When she returned to Auckland, she left the children with their grandparents, where they stayed until Mue died 12 years later.
It's from Rotuma that Tekela-Smith remembers preparing and weaving pandanus, the collective spirit of women weaving or embroidering and catching up with village gossip, telling stories and legends.
"Now I work my own and I am sitting there thinking of the stories instead, making up my own stories, fabricating my history as I go along."
The jewellery - constructions of shell, stone, precious metals and embroidered tapa cloth - is housed in 70s vintage round mirror photo frames collected from op shops.
"When I grew up we didn't have mirrors. When I came back to Henderson, the mirrors were always covered when they weren't in use, because my mother had that idea of the atua [spirit beings] coming through and stealing the soul while you were asleep."
A positive memory she has of Meriama, before her parents divorced and her mother left, was of embroidering together.
"I recently found a cloth we worked on. That is why I'm embroidering for this show. I'm using myhair because her hair was shaved off to punish her for shaming the family when she left the convent.
I've been collecting my hair for a long time but not knowing why I was collecting it."
Where and when: John Leech Gallery, cnr Kitchener-Wellesley Sts, Nov 11-Dec 5, 2008.