Tuesday, November 25, 2008
  Rotuma to Grey Lynn in magpie eye
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 think about 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.

NZ Herald November 8 more...
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