The Sentiment of Nifo Koula

‘So People Will Know Where We Are From’


ANE TONGA Hoha’a 2013
Colour photograph

Grills is an intimate affair. Spanning three generations of women in artist Ane Tonga’s family, the six large photographs and video work address notions of belonging, place, beauty, relationships and cultural expression. The images feature her grandmother, mother, aunty and three cousins. The partial portraits, close-ups of the lower half of their faces, are smiling, pulling faces, straightening hair and whitening teeth. The common thread running throughout this series, which the artist has been developing since 2008 while at Elam, is that all the subjects wear nifo koula; that’s Tongan for gold teeth.

A glint. A gleam. Hidden yet displayed. It’s a performative action that reveals this adornment. ‘Smiling and talking will show the gold in their teeth,’ explains the artist’s Nan, Mele Lose Manu in the video work that accompanies the images. It too employs the partial shot of the face. A relationship develops as the different narratives thread over and through each other. Like motivations to get a tatau, differences emerge between the Tongan-born and New Zealand-born recipients. From a sign of wealth to a marker of identity, the development of the nifo koula in terms of its meaning and significance has changed over time and place. The video highlights the dynamics of family,home and relationships. The six voices reflect on a range of things, both personal and collective, spanning from individual motivations to ideals of Tongan beauty. Nan’s nifo koula are worn on false teeth, which rest in a glass of water sitting on a table. Presumably the wearer is the figure in the background watching TV.

Meleane Ulukilikupeta Lose Finau Burns, the artist’s aunt, wears her nifo koula proudly. Spanning six of her top front teeth they beam out messages of ‘Ofa, love; both in text and symbol. ‘It looks nice and shiny and I love it. . . . It’s my connection to Tonga.’ Eseta Tuiano Tameifuna, is also proud of her three gold teeth. She wears them confidently in front, one very prominent, the others in designs. Though she does confide, ‘I’m embarrassed to say my tooth is chipped so I asked him to wrap the whole tooth.’ While Emma Hopoi was going for the ‘vampire look’, the significance is also deeper. ‘It just felt like I was complete. ‘Cos I always looked at Tongan girls having nifo koula as, like, they’ve got something to show that they’re Tongan and everyone thinks we are Samoan without it . . . . You got the gold tooth. You did go to Tonga.’

Grills is about relationships. Its focus is on people rather than place. Like tivaevae, the practice of sealing gold onto teeth did not originate in the Pacific; but it has become indigenised. It has become a migration story. A glimpse. A glimpse of gold.

ANE TONGA Hinehina 2014
Colour photograph

ANE TONGA Ofa 2014
Colour photograph

ANE TONGA Seta 2012
Colour photograph

ANE TONGA Nan 2012
Colour photograph