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People to watch this month: Leafa Wilson, Curator

Mar 1, 2016 Art

Leafa Wilson’s vibe turns heads in a beige town like Hamilton. She stands out because she does bright so well and she doesn’t care what people think.


She’s kitschy $2-shop-meets-art-lady with her hooped pink plastic earrings — “someone’s gotta support those slave kids in China, I’m always for the underdog” — and calico wrapped around her wrist with a hologram of Jesus dangling from it.

The wristband looks like the kind of piece you might pay off over time from a fancy jewellery maker. It’s actually a homemade number, worn to house her swipe and photocopy cards, and she laughs like hell when she describes it, delighted to be wearing something so artfully practical. Wilson shaves her head and has done for years. Last year, she shaved her daughters’ heads at a performance-art event in Wellington.

The 50-year-old has been on the periphery of the art world since her emergence in the 80s from art school in Dunedin, where she’d arrived to find herself the only brown girl in the class. Her mum, back home in Tokoroa,  told her: “You are you. You are beautiful as you. Just be different, be a nonconformist.”

Wilson has worked as an art curator at Waikato Museum for the past 12 years, and she has raised six kids (part of the reason, she says, for not being better known in the art world — “the kids don’t bring themselves up”). She prefers performance art to painting and wonders aloud if it’s because it’s the cheapest way to make her art public. “What has always been my main thing about art is the idea,” she says.

Wilson is the curator of Tautai/Navigate, an exhibition marking the Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust’s 30th anniversary. She has gathered works by Fatu Feu’u, Lily Laita, Reina Sutton, Sheyne Tuffery, Louisa Afoa and Angela Tiatia. “These are my people. I am deeply invested in the journey that has been part of my life,” Wilson says.

“This exhibition is about a 30-year space of time where all these artists who started in the 80s have influenced others, so there’s this whole trajectory of emerging artists in that time and they have navigated through identity politics, cultural politics, appropriation, acculturation, enculturation — so many different things to navigate through — and still come out with their art. I think it’s really something. What this is is a big party time. It’s going to be full-on.”

Tautai/Navigate, Studio One Toi Tu, March 5-26,

Main image: Peter Drury.


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