Lana Lopsesi on tatu maker Julia Mage’au Gray, the revival of Melanesian female tattoo practice, and an exhibition paying homage to her remarkable work.
I remember turning up before the chaos. It was just me and Julia Mage’au Gray. Her daughter Vasa had run out to get some gloves. Looking at my body, she asked me questions like “Land or sea? Sea or air?” before marking me with her red pen.
It was a strange environment. It was 2017 and I was in a dealer gallery in Newmarket. King Kapisi was DJing and people watched. Before long Tagata Pasifika cameras were there too. Gallery goers were inspecting the work as if it was a painting on the wall and asking me questions. I was the live tattoo demonstration at Vaimaila Urale’s exhibition, and the marks I received a collaboration between the two artists. Vasa stretched the skin so her mum could poke. Despite the noise and bright lights around me, I felt completely present in that moment with Julia and her daughter.
I went in to get a tattoo and left with marks that made me feel renewed and empowered.
Lain Blo Yu Mi – Our People Our Lines, has just opened at Vunilagi Vou in Ōtāhuhu, Auckland. Curated by Ema Tavola, the exhibition showcases the marks made by Julia, alongside stories by Emmaline Matagi (Fiji) and Michaelyn Pokarop (Papua New Guinea, Mekeo).
The work of Mage’au Gray is not only about tatu revival, but the body sovereignty that comes with it. Tatu can offer a way of healing the shame that we can hold in our bodies as an inheritance of colonisation, something I learned unexpectedly on that evening in 2017.
Walking into Vunilagi Vou, A3 photos hang on the gallery’s iconic yellow brick wall – coincidentally also a colour of Papua New Guinea. The installation titled Melanesian Marks: IG (2019) are a selection of images from Mage’au Gray’s 2019 Instagram posts. Framed by a white border referencing the Instagram interface, each image is accompanied by its original caption, asserting Mage’au Gray’s voice in the gallery.
Social media has played a significant role in the dissemination of Mage’au Gray’s work. For most people it is the first encounter with these marks and unless you receive them yourself or are privy to someone else receiving them, it’s usually also the only way that you’ll come in contact with them.
The uniform, grid-like saloon hang of the photos brings to life the familiarity of interacting with a cultural practice on social media. In the digital age, communities separated by distance are leaning on accessible technologies to build community around practices such as language, dance, clothing and tattoo. Melanesian Marks: IG shows bodies in motion wearing Mage’au Gray’s marks and brings to light the artist’s aesthetic – synonymous with a “Melanesian visual vocabulary” as Tavola describes it. Smiles and pride emanate from the faces of mostly Melanesian men and women living in New Zealand and Australia. This community of wearers Tavola jokingly refers to as “Julia’s children”.
Placed among the photos is Tep Tok: Reading Between Our Lines (2013), a film produced by a collective of women that Mage’au Gray was once part of. It traces “the relationships of Melanesian tattoo from their respective regions to practices across the Pacific”. The journeys shown were the catalyst for Mage’au Gray’s move from a dancer into a mark maker.
In the centre of the gallery are contributions from Matagi and Pokarop. The revolving wall is lined with portraits of Matagi’s veiqia (Fijian woman’s marks), excited and empowered memories from each time Matagi was marked by Mage’au Gray, and contributions from Matagi’s daughter about her mum’s marks. You get the sense that this was a journey Matagi had unknowingly waited for her whole life. In a slightly contrasting and somewhat melancholic approach, the other side of the wall is filled with Pokarop’s diary entries. They recount an inquisitive and hesitant lead-up to receiving her tatu from Mage’au Gray. Alongside these sit photos and a family fibre skirt.
The inclusion of Matagi and Pokarop can be seen as a response to the ethnographic and hypersexualised writing of European explorers and serial stealers (‘collectors’) such as Baron Anatole Von Hügel, who documented female tattooing practices such as veiqia in Fiji. The exhibition not only highlights a cultural revival happening in real time, but simultaneous attempts to write the history around it.
Lain Blo Yu Mi showcases not only the lines which are drawn on skin, but as Tavola tells us, those Mage’au Gray “draws between us all”. These are also the lines connecting this growing community of wearers as well as the lines of reconnection being drawn back to dormant practices and estranged ancestries. Mage’au Gray enables people to embody decolonisation. Ultimately this show is a love letter back, from Ema Tavola, on behalf of newly empowered communities.
The exhibition feeds into an upcoming show of Mage’au Gray’s work in London, also curated by Tavola. The real impetus however came from the pair seeing The Veiqia Project’s contribution to the exhibition names held in our mouths at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery earlier this year. The Veiqia Project is a collective of Fijian women from across the diaspora who are active in the field of veiqia, the traditional practice of Fijian female tattooing. Because of Mage’au Gray’s central role in reviving Melanesia tatu, many of the collective members now wear her marks. According to Tavola, it was the exclusion of Mage’au Gray from that exhibition, compounded by the pink vinyl marks – a large part of Mage’au Gray’s tatu aesthetic – that was the tipping point for the pair*. As a response, Lain Bli Yu Mi is centred on Mage’au Gray while also contextualising her practice within the wider community.
On September 28 the show will close with Melanesian mark making and ritual. Audiences are encouraged to bring food as a gesture of reciprocity. A limited print series of Mage’au Gray’s work is also available for sale from the gallery.
Lain Blo Yu Mi – Our People Our Lines is supported by The Arts Foundation Te Tumu Toi and is at Vunilagi Vou, Shop 4, 256 Great South Road, Ōtāhuhu from 3-28 September
For more information on Julia Mage’au Gray visit Melanesian Marks.
*Author’s note: The “pink vinyl marks” mentioned in the review originally didn’t include any attribution to Julia Mage’au Gray (when both the author, Ema Tavola and Julia Mage’au Gray saw the exhibition). However the author acknowledges that after the exhibition’s opening, the wall labels were changed to read: “Weniqia designed by maternal ancestors with contemporary iterations by Joana Monolagi and Julia Mage’au Gray.”