Through My Eyes

Artist Darcell Apelu tells us about her next artwork — a towering gold fountain at Tauranga Art Gallery, her Mount upbringing, the discovery of her Pacific culture and her love of wood chopping.

Artist Darcell Apelu tells us about her next artwork (a towering gold fountain at Tauranga Art Gallery), her Mount upbringing, the discovery
of her Pacific culture and her love of wood chopping.

A room full of axes and saws is not what you’d usually expect to see in an artist’s spare room but that’s what you’ll find at Darcell Apelu’s house, because champion wood chopper is one of her other talents. An assortment of axes sit upright in specially designed boxes, each with a different weight, size and edge thickness, and five hefty saws, ranging up to about 6-foot long, commandeer the rest of the floor space, safely sandwiched between planks of wood.

Mount Maunganui-born and raised, Darcell, 30, is a teacher in art and design at Toi Ohomai, an internationally acclaimed woodchopper, and a talented artist about to exhibit at Tauranga Art Gallery. Although it may seem like an out-of the-ordinary line up of accomplishments, Darcell has
had a sense of being “the odd one out” for much of her life, which has, in turn, had a significant influence on her art practice.

Mount Beginnings

Growing up, Darcell belonged to one of the Mount’s few Pasifika families (her father, now passed,
was Niuean, her mother is Pākehā) — her sister and her were the only Niueans at Mount Maunganui College. She sensed people’s curiosity about her from a young age. “There were moments when
I was with my mum, who is blue eyed and blonde, that people would just stare. They were trying to figure it out, they just couldn’t place me, couldn’t tell what kind of brown I was.”

It was at college that she discovered her two passions. Her talent for art was encouraged from
early on. “My parents were supportive of anything I did,” she says. “I was a quirky kid, I played video games, I had saxophone lessons, I played the clarinet — I was the biggest nerd you could imagine!” she laughs. Darcell also joined the school wood chopping team. “It was just another extra-curricular activity, so that’s where those two worlds started for me.”

She was “hooked on chopping straightaway”, first representing New Zealand at just 16 years old. “There’s something really empowering about chopping — this feeling of being strong and being able to use that strength. The mental game is also really important. You train for six months and you have 20 seconds to make it work — if your technique screws up halfway through, you’re done.”

Now an experienced chopper with international titles under her belt (and a striking tattoo of a saw and two axes across her back), Darcell is as fiercely competitive as ever, with goals she’s yet to tick off. She competes in underhand (horizontal block between your feet), chainsaw racing, single saw and double saw (with her sawing partner of 10 years, 67-year-old chopping legend, Sheree Taylor). She has standing (vertical) blocks in her sights: “Not a lot of women do it in New Zealand. It does
take a lot of upper body strength.”

For Darcell, a big part of chopping is the tight-knit community. “I have made lifelong friends.
The support system is one of a kind. I guess with any sports there are politics, but I value the friendships with so many people from different walks of life.”

Looking Inward

It was only when she left Tauranga to study art at Auckland’s AUT that Darcell realised that she
was “a bit of an anomaly”. “I was going through the world not really thinking about it until I got to university and realised — I am a Pasifika woman who wood chops; there’s no other Pasifika woman
in the country doing what I do. When people find that out, it’s always a little bit strange for them.”

But the move north brought with it a dawning of something much more significant — what it actually meant to be Pasifika. “It was such a culture shock to be surrounded by people who looked like me,” says Darcell, who grew up with a predominately Pākehā identity around her mother’s side of the family. I made really strong connections with the other Pasifika students and I learned so much from them. That identity wasn’t there until I got to Auckland.”

Darcell says discussing this process of cultural reclamation with her father was a tough conversation. “He was always, ‘I’m a staunch Kiwi’. He didn’t even get a chance to go back to Niue... he saw himself as a New Zealander, so the Pacific part of his identity got pushed to the wayside a little bit,” she explains. “He grew up during the dawn raids,
he lived in those suburbs in Auckland, and I think that changed his perspective a lot. Even though
I was accepting this ‘islandness’, he was happy with that. He totally understood where I was coming from, it just wasn’t his journey.”

This cultural awakening directly influenced Darcell’s art practice, which took an autobiographical approach as she investigated her place in the world. After a degree majoring in sculpture, she moved into performance art and moving image for her Masters. “I had to know who I was, before I got to know my community better, and I thought the most impactful way to do that was to use film and performance with me in it.”

Her thought-provoking body of work included the performance Brown Girl in the Ring (Tra la la la la) at Christchurch’s The Physics Room, where she stood naked in the middle of the gallery. “I forced people to walk right past me. I was interested in making people really engage, instead of being this thing that was looked at.

“I wanted to do it in Christchurch, because that place is not used to bodies like mine — brown, plus sized, hairy — all that sort of stuff. I was pushing back at all these issues around beauty and being
a brown body in that space. A lot of people just stood by the doorway,” she laughs.

Her Make Me exhibition and performance at Tauranga Art Gallery also explored perceptions of the Pacific body and highlighted issues around Pacific identity within Tauranga. And her love of chopping was incorporated into performances, including chopping a block in a gallery. Now, she explains her practice has shifted to be “more generalised”. “It still has that connection with me, but it encompasses others that are like me.”

Darcell gives it her all in an underhand chopping event.

A Death of Prosperity, 2020 at Te Tuhi gallery in Auckland. Darcell’s much-anticipated upscaled iteration will be exhibited
in the atrium at Tauranga Art Gallery.

A Death of Prosperity

Her “monumental” work, A Death of Prosperity, which is to be installed in Tauranga Art Gallery’s atrium, is an example of this broader perspective in her art. The piece will be an upscaled version
of a work that showed at Auckland’s Te Tuhi gallery in 2020 — it’s a commentary on ideas such as
the ownership and occupation of land, and wealth distribution, in a colonised country.

The reimagined five-metre-high iteration, commissioned by Sonya Korohina’s Supercut Projects, consists of a gold perspex-clad fountain with water continually cascading down tiers of chairs. Around the base of the work, where the water pools, are the words: “You will never possess the
soil, you will never be secure”. Darcell has inverted a directive by British colonist Edward Gibbon Wakefield: “Possess yourselves of the soil and you are secure” — a promise to migrants about
a new, prosperous life in New Zealand.

Through this work, Darcell is questioning the idea of possession and security, especially pertinent
at a time when land ‘ownership’ is unattainable for so many. “With Māoridom, we are guardians, kaitiaki of the land; we’re only here for a short amount of time, it’s not about ownership.” She acknowledges the complexity in this for her personally. “My mother has lived in the family home
in Matavai St [in the Mount] since 1989 and home has always been super special for us. When you
are connected to home, you are secure,” she says. “I think that’s where the ideas behind A Death
of Prosperity
come from — not only the idea of ownership, but of legacy — the way my parents built their life, their work ethic, notions of being savvy with money.

“I am super thankful I got a stepping stone socially, culturally, financially. I see the difference between my upbringing and those in the Pasifika community that don’t have that skill set — I think it was only because I was in a Pākehā world that my parents were able to utilise that and get ahead.”

Darcell says the work is also a bit of an “up you” to the wealthy. “The trickle down effect does not work. The cascade of the water in this work is cyclical — yes, it flows down, but it’s only a trickle and it’s still drawn back up to the top.”

A Death of Prosperity is due to open late November/early December 2021, visit artgallery.org.nz
For more artworks in the Tauranga Arts Festival’s Visual Arts Programme, visit taurangafestival.co.nz