Inspirational artists transform lives in Tonga

Visesio Siasau, 2015 Paramount Award Winner in the 24th Wallace Art Awards for significant huge tapa bark work which saw him in New York with his family for six months, now lives with his wife and fellow artist Serene Tay (Ngati Pikiao and Chinese) in his homeland of Tonga. Both share a dream of setting up the first art gallery in Tonga, a dream which was fuelled by their studies at Te Wananga o Aotearoa



In Nuku’alofa, local Tongan Artist Vivesio Siasau and his Ngāti Pikiao/Chinese wife, Serene Tay, are using what they learned at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa to transform lives.


Visesio and Serene have been living in Haveluloto – where Visesio grew up – for six years now, having made the decision to do what they can to help their community through the medium they know best. Both hold He Waka Hiringa – Master of Applied Indigenous Knowledge degrees, are talented artists in their own right and are using their art – and their lives – as an example to others.


“I’m back here and working from the community because it’s very inspirational and I can inspire other artists and people here,” says Visesio.


“I have to give back what I have learned from the outside world, so I’m utilising that to educate my people. Maybe one artist or two can come along the path that I am taking.”


Visesio, who became the first Tongan artist to win the prestigious Wallace Art Award in 2015, says by sharing what he has learned, he may inspire others.


One day they hope to open a contemporary art gallery in Tonga.


“There aren’t any galleries here in Tonga and to do that really would be an extension of us as artists and of what we’ve learned from Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. That is to always aspire to do things greater than ourselves, to be challenged in that way,” he says.


“For us, art is life. It is what we do, it’s who we are, it’s all embracing.”


Much of what they do is based on aroha, or ofa in Tongan. Like the word aroha, the full meaning is lost in the English translation, says Visesio.


“Ofa is a sense of love, in translation to English. Ofa is the essence of what we do as art practitioners. In translation, it is missing a lot of elements … it doesn’t grasp the depth of our language.”


That feeling of ofa flows through their art.


“What makes good art for me, what’s really important is the mana of the art, the integrity, it’s got to be pono, that it’s honest and aroha, that it’s about the love,” Serene says.


Both say their studies at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa helped develop their sense of aroha and an understanding of themselves.


For Visesio, it provided the spark he needed.


“When I went to the wānanga, I felt like ‘this is what I need’ because it fuelled what I wanted to do. When I came in to the wānanga, it’s what nurtured me to be stronger in what I was doing,” he says.


“It was like prepping myself and enhancing myself for what I’m doing now. It was the best learning environment for me.


Serene, who was a young solo mother of twins when she first enrolled with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, says it changed her life.


“Te Wānanga o Aotearoa allowed me to realise that I do have a place in this world. It really gave me the opportunity to know that education is so valuable and it’s able to open doors to the world.”


Visit to learn more about their journey.