The Tongan artist tong-popping from his Lyall Bay bungalow

By Melody Thomas
Photographed by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #86
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Home is where the art is – and art is in every corner of this fale. It’s on the walls, in the studio, and even under the rug. From Tonga, to Sydney, to Wellington, artist Telly Tuita tells Melody Thomas how this Lyall Bay bungalow became the place for him.

“Home” means different things to different people. For some it carries memories of love and safety, for others uncertainty or distress. Those who’ve had to leave one home for another might spend their lives suspended between the two, never feeling fully accepted in either. But “home” is always more than just a structure.

For artist Telly Tuita, home is the Tonga recalled by his inner child, bathed in the hues of nostalgia. It’s in Australia, with the aunty and uncle he calls Mum and Dad. And it’s the Lyall Bay bungalow he shares with his husband Hoani, their chow chow Bella, and regular visitors, including their daughter Molly Mae, who lives down the road with her Mums.

The bungalow sits on the flat between Kilbirnie and Lyall Bay, close enough to the beach to be technically part of the latter. It’s a sweet, pale mint whare snuggled cosily between the houses either side.

When Telly opens the front door, his trademark bubbliness announces itself immediately. He ushers me into the lounge, insisting on getting us sponge cake and coffee. The house is simple and tidy, newly renovated with walls painted grey-white, windows and doors framed in natural wood, and mid-century and Georgian furniture thoughtfully placed. Telly’s artwork brings it all to life. His paintings, photographs, and collages hang on every wall in every room, a riot of colour, pattern and texture. In a cluttered space it might all be too much, but here it’s perfect. It’s like a cosy gallery, with comfy couches, well-tended plants and a fluffy canine companion.

Telly and Hoani first met in 2016. Hoani had been visiting Sydney, where Telly lived, and was headed out for a morning run on his last day in the city. He bumped into Telly, who was returning from a friend’s three-day long birthday bender. The meet-cute is a perfect snapshot of their personalities: “Hoani’s lovely and quiet, and I’m loud and a bit of a show-off ,” says Telly.

Hoani was charmed into accepting a ride to the airport from Telly the next day. “That was the game changer for him,” explains Telly, “He said what he’d seen the night before, and what he saw coming and picking him up were two completely different people… [Here was] this nice young man in loafers and a shirt, and a dog, in a nice car.”

The rest – as they say – is history. Telly and Hoani fell in love over FaceTime and via trips between Sydney and Lyall Bay, where Hoani was living, and they eventually began to discuss how they might close the geographical distance between them. In the end Telly decided to come to Aotearoa, and they bought the Lyall Bay bungalow. Moving countries and buying a house with someone is a big commitment, but Telly’s used to uncertainty. “I thrive in the unknown. I thrive in the whatever,” he says.

Telly was born in Tonga in 1980, but his Dad lived in Australia, and his Mum left when he was a baby, so he lived with extended family. When Telly was seven or eight, his Grandad came to collect him from wherever he was (there are no records and Telly is uncertain). He was enrolled in school, given his first taste of routine and stability, and then in 1989, he was told he was being sent to live with his Dad in Australia. Telly had no idea what Australia was. He hadn’t met his Dad, had never left Tonga, and didn’t really speak English (his Grandad had started to pass on bits and pieces. The first two English words Telly learned were “apple” and – somewhat fittingly – “house”).

In a photograph taken at the time, Telly stands next to his Grandpa Solomone Tu’niua Tuita and a cousin, staring forlornly at the camera. It’s the earliest existing picture he has of himself.

“I look sad as hell, in my little uniform and sandals… Spiky hair, big eyes, probably snot running down my nose,” says Telly.

“Heading off to God knows where” I say.

“God knows who and God knows what,” he finishes.

Telly arrived in Minto, a working class neighbourhood in south-west Sydney, and moved in with his Dad, step-Mum, and her three daughters from a previous relationship. It was a huge change for Telly, and he struggled to adjust. He clashed with his step-Mum, who Telly believes had pushed to bring him into their home, but then found it wasn’t as she’d expected. “You assume that you’re gonna get a child you can sort of mould, but I wasn’t mouldable or changeable,” he says.

At age 14, Telly was kicked out, eventually settling in the nearby suburb of Campbelltown with his uncle, aunt, and their three sons. Telly had had a little taste of something like home with his Grandad in Tonga, but in Campbelltown he got to settle in. His aunt became like a Mum to Telly, helping him get through high school and university, supporting him when he came out, taking him to his first musical and his first art gallery. These days Telly has relinquished the anger he once held towards his step-Mum, understanding things must have been difficult for her too, but he has only immense love and gratitude for his aunty-Mum. “A big part of my success is due to her,” he says.

After leaving school, Telly applied to both art school and the army, an unlikely combination of choices, but “because of the way my life was, nothing ever was set in stone,” he explains. Luckily for us, Telly got into art school first.

Telly finished his Fine Arts degree at Western Sydney University in 2003, but in a working class family there was pressure to get a “real job”, and “artist” didn’t cut it. The day after he graduated, Telly registered to do a bachelor’s degree in art teaching. He followed this with a Master’s in Special Education and then began working as a special education art teacher. By the time he met Hoani, Telly was a deputy principal, though he’d never stopped creating.

“I always had certain materials lying around just in case I had to scratch that itch”, he says, but “teaching took over, and art was just going to be a hobby.”

Teaching might have remained Telly’s career, if he hadn’t moved to Aotearoa, where Hoani suggested he focus on art full-time instead. Telly had already converted the bungalow’s sunroom into a studio, and not having to worry about paying for a space when he wasn’t making money from his art made the idea of pursing it feasible. “In some ways, the art has been made because of the house,” he says.

Telly’s studio might be my favourite room here. It’s also an aesthetic outlier: messy and cluttered, shelves nearing collapse under the weight of raw materials, walls splashed with paint and scrawled with the first bursts of creative ideation. Showing me around, Telly pulls open a filing cabinet and begins rifling through piles of old work (earlier he pulled up a rug to reveal his photographic backdrops, and behind the shower curtain hid materials waiting to go to a storage unit).

Despite telling me mere moments ago that both Hoani and the gallery that represents him have told him to stop giving artworks away as gifts, he presses one into my hands: a small collaged painting depicting figures in silhouette, a moonlit ocean, and the words “Love is not an emotion, it is a skill we need to learn.” Given what he’s just told me I know I should refuse, but I can’t. I adore it, the words as much as the images. It’s soon framed and hanging on my bedroom wall.

Telly’s energy is explosive; his art-making can’t be contained by the studio’s walls. Some mornings, he takes over the dining room table, painstakingly drawing and colouring ngatu over coffee. When it rains, Telly stalks between the house and the shed with spray cans, willing newly lacquered canvases to hurry up and dry. When it’s fine and his photographer is in town, Telly poses in front of elaborate faux-photo-studio sets in the backyard wearing bright masks, costume pieces, or sometimes just underwear, capturing the Tongpop aesthetic he’s become known and celebrated for.

Because these days, art is his “real” job. Since moving to Aotearoa, Telly has exhibited all over the country, been a finalist in a handful of art awards, secured representation from Bergman Gallery Auckland, and participated in high-profile group shows – including Whetūrangitia / Made As Stars, showing at The Dowse until February 2023 – as well as delivering his hit Tongpop shows. It all adds up to a successful second career, made possible in no small part by the bungalow he now calls home, and the boundless love and support of Hoani.

“I think I was lucky to have found him,” Telly tells me, “I hope he’d say the same thing about me.”

Later, I email Hoani to see how he defines home. His reply is perfect: “Home could be anywhere for me. At the moment it is in this house because that is where I feel safe and nurtured – and that is because of Telly.”


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