Su Elliott: Painting new paths

Su Elliot

By Samantha Magick

In an age where art is increasingly digitally-manipulated, there is no mistaking the artist’s hand in the work of Su Elliott.

Elliott likes to leave the faint traces of her erasures and evidence of her brush strokes in her finished works.

“To me it is important for whoever’s looking at the work to track my thought processes, [to know] ‘she made this, she erased this and she shifted it here’. Often you see a painting and it’s so picture-perfect, but it might as well been taken by a camera. I want all the mistakes to be in there. Because at the end of the day, life’s not perfect, right? It’s not perfect.”

Su Elliot

Elliott has always been interested in art, but says growing up in Fiji in the 1960s, there was very little opportunity to learn. Later, as a young mother living in New Zealand, she took up watercolours, and then while living in the Philippines during the tumultuous post-Marcos period, studied Chinese brush painting techniques.

Returning to New Zealand, Elliott attained formal academic qualifications in art and printmaking. Elliot also graduated with a Postgraduate Diploma in Museum Studies from Massey University before spending about 14 years working as a librarian.

But she knew that she needed to pursue her art, so in 2016, Elliott resigned from her job and prepared to return home to Fiji.

She observes that while first and second generation Polynesian artists growing up in Australia and New Zealand often mine from their cultural knowledge, “I was slightly different. The sort of mining I was doing there, the sort of art that I was creating, woodcuts and etchings and works on paper, they were always memories, memories of childhood stories that mum used to tell me, fairy tales that I grew up with, folk tales, and all these things made their way into these pages .

“But I realised that a large chunk was missing and that in order for me to go forward, I had to come back to the source. It was a huge decision for me to come back, I didn’t know how it was going to pan out. But I just had to come because I recognised this is the source.”

She continues: “In January 2017 I boarded the flight, I arrived here. I sold everything. I packed just some books and all my art supplies, and I came. I left everything behind and came with four suitcases.”

Oceania Centre Director, Larry Thomas, acknowledged the bravery this took while opening a recent exhibition of Elliott’s work. “She sacrificed family. She sacrificed work. And she sacrificed a certain way of life in pursuit of her art.”

Elliott took her time easing back into Fiji, spending time with her ailing mother and wider family, before returning to art. Her most recent body of work was created during Covid, and is a vibrant array of deeply introspective interior scenes and self-portraits, plus some large-scale charcoal portraits.

Su Elliot

Elliott recalls: “I was left with myself, and began to think, ‘Alright, so you are here now. You’ve got this skill, what are you going to do with it?’ And it was the best time to just focus on art making.”

The first painting she made during this period shows the artist cropping her own glorious buiniga (traditional hairstyle). Other imagery includes her yellow wedding dress, elongated and rooted beds, and flowers and masks.

She says her favourite work, Consider the Lilies of the Field, in which a masked Elliott stands before a wallpaper of ‘local lilies’ or anthuriums, reflected her reading of the bible, and in particular, God’s urging of his people not to be anxious.

Elliott says this message reassured her during Covid.

She’s now looking forward to new work, while acknowledging her artistic and genealogical ancestry.

“All of us artists, we do not operate in isolation. We come from a long line, we are descended from a long geological family tree of artists and creatives. And we stand on the backs of these people that have gone before.

“I totally believe that because this was the way my mother taught me. She used to say in a different context, ‘Sue, you’re going to New Zealand…always remember when you’re out in the world, representing your country and New Zealand, remember those of us in your family back in Fiji, that you represent us. How you present yourself out there, remember you represent your ancestors that have gone before. We are all there around you.’ That was an amazing thing for my mother to gift me that. Don’t think you are all alone, we are all around you.”

Elliott continues to call on her ancestors as her sources and inspiration. “I’m just buzzing with ideas for new work,” she says.

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