Highsnobiety’s Honors Week is a celebration of the women — particularly trans and BIPOC women — who have pushed our culture forward. This Women’s History Month, we’ve tapped six guest curators to go deep on the issues they care about and to spotlight their favorite women and nonbinary creators. Today, we look to Australia, where dancer and choreographer Amrita Hepi speaks to artist Angela Tiatia.
I first came across Angela Tiatia’s work with her 2014 series, "Walking the wall; an inventory of gestures." I remember meeting her direct gaze in the video; she is lying down in a black leotard and black high heels, her legs walking up and down the wall. They are inked with a malu, a traditional Samoan tattoo that begins below the knee and ends on the upper thigh.
Tiatia’s practice spans painting, performance, installation, and moving images. Using video, archives, mythology, and physical stamina, she examines contemporary culture and its relationship to representation, gender, neo-colonialism, and the commodification of the body and place.
This is an artist who is so succinct with timing it allows things to feel serendipitous. Her video works are a mix of lush images with a certain pace of endurance that speaks both frankly and hypnotically. Tiatia is someone who embodies the spirit of now in practice and in politics, and there is no one I would rather be talking to for Women’s History Month.
Amrita Hepi: Can you paint a picture of where you are right now?
Angela Tiatia: It’s a really interesting time in my life. My only son has left home to head off to university, so I’m in the weird place of being an individual again with extra time like I had in my 20s, before becoming a parent.
About two years ago, I made some very conscious decisions in my life; I stopped drinking, started eating a lot better, became more aware and deliberate about what I put my time and energy into. Just basically reset my priorities. And it’s been great. I’m the happiest and most creative I think I’ve ever been.
As an artist, I’m in the throes of delivering a new moving image work for the Art Gallery of NSW that opens in October 2021; I have been working on it since April 2019, and now it’s crunch time. So this work will consume all my time for the next 6 months or so.
How do you maintain energy and engagement with your art?
I always wanted to be an artist — from when I was a child. But that dream was locked away from me when I was younger. My mother had migrated from Sāmoa to New Zealand and, as a solo parent raising three daughters, every day was a struggle. She sacrificed so much, just so my sisters and I could scrape by.
The idea of being an artist was a luxury that was unimaginable in that situation. It took me a long time to ultimately decide to become an artist. It took a massive leap over my guilt to say the words “I’m an artist,” and to feel like I wasn’t being self-indulgent, or disappointing or betraying my mother and all she had done for us.
When I was finally able to own the words “I am an artist,” it was the fulfillment of a dream that had been put off for so long. When I finally had the courage to open that door, I ran into it and kept running, not wanting to pause or look back. So, I don’t struggle with motivation — and, frankly, don’t care about the fickleness or politics of the art world. I’m just not going to let any of that slow me down, let alone stop me.
For the practical side of maintaining discipline and physical energy, I physically train my body almost every day, which also is good discipline in showing up for things in your life that you don’t really want to do, or are a bit too difficult. But I always feel better after pushing myself through it.
How do you approach art-making now, as compared to five years ago?
Over the past few years, I’ve been tending to make larger-scale works, meaning they take longer and involve more people. It’s probably fair to say that I’m more productive than ever, but I make fewer works, as many will take at least a year to make.
In comparison, my earlier works would take somewhere between a day to a couple of months to create. Although the time and resources involved have increased, my process, approach, and intensity in forming the context and content of the work hasn’t really changed at all.
My work tends to emerge from two very distinct stages: The first stage, which takes about 90 percent of the time, is spent thinking, researching, sketching, and preparing. While the second stage, the final 10 percent, is the actual making and filming of the work. The two stages have very different dynamics.
The first is very much a solitary experience where I do foundational research and planning. This generally involves looking through mountains of archival images of real and constructed events. I guard the privacy of this stage very carefully and don’t really let anyone into it.
For me, this is important, as the ideas are still forming. They can be very fragile, like a seedling. So having someone wander in at this stage would be like inviting them to walk through the garden bed when it’s just been laid; I worry they would trample all over them. Also, my energy would be diverted from working on the ideas to strengthen them in my own mind, to instead trying to explain and protect them.
This is in stark contrast to the second stage of the process, the 10 percent. For this, I need to change gear from working by myself to drawing on many different people with complementary skills and experiences and gather them around the ideas, intent, and vision of the work. And then to make sure they stay aligned and on track, while the whole time ensuring the work is materializing in the form I had imagined and intended. How have your concerns shifted over time?
The themes haven’t really shifted — they still wrestle with questions of representation. Who’s being talked about? Who’s doing the talking? And who’s not? And why? And what are the impacts of all this? These are the questions I keep being drawn to in different forms.
But the scope and scale of works have changed a lot. When I was first making work, 15-17 years ago, I had very limited resources. So I used what I had access to. It was just me — maybe I’d rope my husband in to hold the camera — my equipment wasn’t great, and my technical skills were pretty rudimentary.
Now as a consequence of just doing it for so long, I’ve got access to more resources. So although the motivating themes are similar, the scale has changed. "The Fall," created in 2017, had a total of 75 crew, talent, and production people involved, while "Narcissus," created in 2019, had more than 100. Saying that — it’s not that they all have to get bigger and bigger. The work "The Golden Hour" that was showing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales involved about 20 people on the day of the shoot, and only me and the post-production expert for the creation of the final scene.
It’s been interesting, reflecting on my art practice recently, because each work bleeds into the next. There is always a continuation of something being carried from work to work. For example, my very first work, "Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis, 2010," makes a reappearance in a similar form seven years later, in "The Fall." It is very intentional. Some would say it’s branding, but I don’t like this analogy as it sounds cynical and self-serving. And my motivation is not wired that way. Instead, I’m drawn to certain images, motifs and ideas. And some of these recur if the work calls upon them — perhaps it is helpful to think of it as the artist’s hand making the same brush stroke on a different canvas.
What are you reading/moving to/watching at the moment?
I’m currently re-reading The Pacific Muse by Patti O’Brien. It’s a book on how Pacific Femininity was (and continues to be) exoticized and eroticized through the forces of colonization. I read it many years ago and found it really informing and provoking. It’s interesting how you pick up different things when you read a book at a different stage of your life. It’s also interesting to reflect on how society has slowly changed and how it hasn’t.
I just binge-watched I May Destroy You by Michaela Coel. Amazing — such a courageous woman. I love the energy, pace, care, and humor in the work while it dealt with sexual assault. I also watch hours and hours of social stories from the Dodo account, about doggies and cats being rescued. They are one-minute, sad-to-happy-ending stories, guaranteed.
How do you feel about events like International Women's Day?
A lot has been done. But there is still so much more left to do. We see this every day in stories about situations and environments that are stacked against women.
So it seems like a good idea to have a collective consciousness to look into the eyes of this reality and demand that we do better. However, we also have to be careful of who is being included and who isn’t.
We need to make spaces that welcome all voices, particularly those that have too often been silenced — especially trans women and women of color. Being a woman is not a uniform experience; there are many perspectives and realities. We need to make sure we prioritize, listen, and learn from all our sisters.