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"Fierce Advocate", "Strong-Hold Creative" - Reina Sutton Remembered

11 Jul 2024

A hugely admired artist and curator has gone too soon - those who knew and loved her are coming to terms with the devastating news. 

Tāmaki Makaurau is processing the loss of a much-loved member of the creativity community, with artist and advocate Reina Sutton passing away unexpectedly.

A groundbreaking multi-disciplinary artist who loved to push boundaries, Sutton has carved a strong reputation for both her mahi and her personal touch as she made an incredible impact on many.

As news filtered through, the shock set in quickly, with many wanting to celebrate her remarkable life.

reina sutton.jpg
Reina Sutton. Photo: Supplied.

Sutton was born in the Solomon Islands before moving to Manurewa. Her journey in the arts took her into a number of different realms as a practising artist, curator and collaborator, including with the highly-regarded SaVAge K'lub. She also worked closely to ensure creatives get the support they need, including as an Arts and Culture Programmer at Auckland Council. 

 Sutton’s practice is stated to have "Revolved around sharing personal stories within the context of a culture that she has been denied for most of her life and a cult that she has been drowning in for the majority of her life."

Unitec paid tribute to their Bachelor of Design and Visual Arts alumni on social media.

"Reina was a member of the Aotearoa SaVAge K’lub, drawing together myth-makers, navigators, hip shakers and acti.VA.tors from around the globe. It is now a multi-disciplinary vehicle built to discuss ideas of space, hospitality and what it means to be framed as a 'savage' in the 21st century.

"She was also a founding member of Tufala Meri - a collaborative initiative with her younger sister, Molana Sutton. Reina’s practice is concerned with storytelling, specifically identity and death, reclaiming her newly discovered culture. Reina’s diverse practice incorporates various types of media. Our thoughts and prayers go out to her aiga and community. Ia manuia lau malaga, Reina."

Tautai Comtemporary Ary Gallery also shared its collective grief - stating "Gone too soon but never forgotten," referring to her as "a solo strong-hold creative" as well as part of an extraordinary collective.

"Her SaVAge K’lub contributions to creation include the iconic collective’s high tea at the historical Alleluya Cafe in 2015, to TAUTAI/NAVIGATE, an exhibition that celebrated 30 years of Contemporary Pacific Art in 2016 at Studio One Toi Tu. "She also blessed us as a curator for ‘Myths and Legends in my veins’ exhibition at Papakura Art Gallery in 2015." 

She was also part of Te Whānga show held at Auckland Museum in collaboration with Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Centre and the SaVAge #metoo Late activation (below).


Community champion

Sutton was a huge advocate for so many communities, especially queer Pasifika. Fellow creative Paul Fagamalo shared his memories of Sutton with The Big Idea.

"Reina was one of those people who had the innate ability to support you even when you didn't think you needed supporting. 

"She would very literally give you the shirt off her back or the adornments from her body - which is what she did for me one day when I saw her at BGO one year. I have always loved her funky style and I off-handedly commented that I loved her necklace - a piece made by her gorgeous sister Molana (a fantastic artist and maker in her own right), and she took it off then and there and gave it to me. 

"I will always treasure that necklace, and her spirit of alofa and giving to everyone around her. I'll miss our constant conversation on instagram via memes - we communicated through laughter, joy, sadness, truth, sadness, all wrapped up in short 15-20sec social media videos. 

"You would always know when Reina was in the fale because of the laughter and shade going on, and I don't think I've ever envied anyone else's afro as much as I did hers. 

"She was a fierce advocate for the communities she represented and will be sorely missed by all the people that were lucky enough to have met her and been in her orbit. Moe mai ra e hoa - 'till we meet again."

Art Laureate collective FAFSWAG were among those reflecting on Sutton's impact on other creatives - and her staunch support for those who needed her.

Vasemaca Tavola, through her Vunilagi Vou studio Instagram account, shared her love and support for Sutton's family.  "There are so few words that can ease the pain of grief, but to simply say that Reina will not be forgotten - for her fire and honesty, her service to art, artists and community, and her creative expression: bold, unapologetic and loving."

Reina Sutton's time may have been cut short - but her legacy of love, kindness and creativity will leave a lasting impression.