Michel Tuffery MNZM – Artist

Story by Tony Cutting


I have had the pleasure of knowing Michel and Jayne (Mrs Tuffery) since we were all in our early adult years in Wellington.  He is a great friend who always has a smile on his face.  Michel is a man who loves life and is passionate about his music, diverse pacific culture, art and sport.

Although I do not get to see much of Michel (He is a very busy man), when we do catch up, it really is like nothing has changed.

Michel is a very humble man who has achieved great things.  Here is my version of Michel’s story.

A Shining Star is born

The year was 1966 and a young man ‘Michel Cliff Tuffery’ is born in Wellington, New Zealand.  He is to become one of New Zealand’s most sort after international artists, awarded the MNZM, while still retaining the humbleness, cheekiness and ‘mana’ of the young man we knew from Newlands back in the day.  

His mum Bula Tuffery (nee Paotonu) was of Samoan heritage and biological dad William Bates (Rarotongan, Tahitian Ma’ohi). William was the Proprietor of Hostel Aorangi, Rarotonga. Bula married Denis Tuffery who was European, creating a melting pot of siblings across his family. In total Michel had eleven other brothers and sisters he was related to, they include Mary, Anna, Moana, Tetanui, Paul, Tessa, Peter, Andrew, Shane, Craig, Daniel.

Michel’s stepfather Denis Tuffery was a Patent Attorney and Bula worked as a cleaner.

Thorndon Primary School

Michel attended Thorndon Primary School where he remembers his teachers well. 

“My teachers were able to capture my attention, engaged with me, they helped me confidently learning how to speak, read and write, they acknowledged that art was my first language (drawing).  I was initially the only way I could communicate, so they built on this and grew my confidence using a well-rounded approach”

Michel played Rugby during those primary school years and describes himself as;

“Cheeky as always however, I was fortunate to be sent to Thorndon Primary where a new pilot program was being implemented for challenged kids like myself. It was at Thorndon that I was able to become fully engaged academically and socially”.

Newlands College

At Newlands College, Michel struggled with the core academic subjects to start with.  He had a lot of additional support within these classes, however, with this support he achieved School Certificate and gain his University Entrance qualifications allowing him to seriously consider tertiary study.

He played Rugby and Athletics for school.  After school, he also attended the local Boxing club. There was one subject at college he loved the most – Art. 

Michel achieved both with his sporting prowess and with his artist talent.  He remembers his Art teacher Gregory Flint as the someone who encouraging him to chase his dream and set his goal to go to Art School in Dunedin.  

Throughout his college years Michel had a “Pretty normal” secondary school life.  He was very social, loved sports and had a broad range of diverse friends.

“It was a great time to be growing up, and I definitely loved my music!”

Dunedin School of Art / University of Hawaii, Manoa Campus

Michel followed his destiny and attended Dunedin Art School (The school was administered by the Otago Polytechnic).  Where he gained his Diploma in Fine Arts (Honours) 1989, he would be awarded a Master of Fine Arts (Honorary) in 2014. He also attended the University of Hawaii, Manoa Campus as a fine arts student and tutor when he completed his time in Dunedin.


Working Life / Professional Full-time Artist

While developing his portfolio of art, Michel started his working career as a Physical Education teacher at Newlands College. He stayed one year then moved to Whitireia Polytechnic when he secured an Art Tutor role.  Michel was destined to be a full-time artist and this soon became his reality.

Here is what Wikipedia tells us about Michel

Michael "Michel" Cliff Tuffery MNZM is a New Zealand artist of Samoan, Tahitian and Cook Islands descent. He is one of New Zealand's most well-known artists and his work is held in many art collections in New Zealand and around the world. He lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand. Renowned as a printmaker, painter and sculptor, Tuffery has gained national and international recognition, and has made a major contribution to New Zealand art.

One of his distinctive sculptures from 1994 is the life-sized work, entitled Pisupo lua afe (Corned beef 2000), which was constructed from flattened and riveted re-cycled corned beef tins. His work is shaped by his research into, and encounters with his Polynesian heritage while making use of Māori design. His mother is Samoan and his father was Cook Island Tahitian.
He attended Newlands College in Wellington, and has a Diploma in Fine Arts (Hons) from the School of Fine Arts at Otago Polytechnic (1989). Many of his works explore colonialism and people's treatment of the environment.

He was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to art in the 2008 Queen's Birthday Honours. 


Michel has exhibited extensively in New Zealand and internationally here are some of his major exhibitions to date;

•    1989 Tautai Artists, Gallery 33 1/3 and Louise Beale Gallery, Wellington
•    1990 Te Moemoea no Iotefa, Sarjeant Art Gallery, Whanganui
•    1990 Three Polynesian Artists, Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch
•    1990 Anti Drift Net Series, ASA Gallery, Auckland
•    1994 Bottled Ocean City Gallery Wellington and touring
•    1994 Woodcuts on Tapa, Claybrook Gallery, Auckland
•    1994 Pisupo Lua Afe, Wellington
•    1994 Povi Tau Vaga - The Challenge, Wellington[7]
•    1996 7th Festival of Pacific Arts group exhibition, Samoa
•    1997 Pacific Diaries, Hogarth Gallery, Sydney
•    1997 Common Ground, Page 90 Art Gallery, Taranaki
•    1998 Recent Works, Portfolio Gallery, Auckland
•    1998 Paringa Ou, Fiji Museum, Fiji
•    1998 Testing Traditions, Aotea Centre, Auckland
•    1999 O le Vasa Loloto ma le Laloa, Christchurch
•    1999 Povi Lua Noumea, and Faga Ofe E'a, in collaboration with artist Patrice Kaikilekofe, New Caledonia
•    2001 Asiasi, Jane Land Gallery, Wellington
•    2001 Out of the Blue, Hawkes Bay Exhibitions Centre, Hastings
•    2002 Mata Mata, Toi o Tamaki, Auckland City Art Gallery
•    2002 Diaspora - Art of the Asia Pacific, Portfolio Gallery, Auckland
•    2002 Pasifika,The Lane Gallery, Auckland
•    2003 Voyages, The Lane Gallery, Auckland
•    2003 Animated Effigy, MacKay Art Gallery, North Queensland
•    2012 First Contact, multi-media work for the opening of the 2012 New Zealand International Arts Festival
•    2012 Siamani Samoa, Pataka Museum and Gallery, Porirua
•    2013 Made in Oceania: Tapa – Art and Social Landscapes, Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, Germany
•    2015 World War I Remembered: A Light and Sound Show, multi-media installation with Ngataiharuru Taepa, Pukeahu National War Memorial Park, Wellington


Other activities 

I asked Michel what he does when he is not working on his art?  His answer "Diving - it’s like being in the library for me, total bliss!"

What does the future hold for Michel Tuffery?

"Unknown, however as always it’ll be well considered and meaningful"

It was great catching up with Michel on the day he installed his exhibition at Mahara Gallery in Waikanae. It had been awhile since we last caught up face to face. He greeted me with his cheeky smile as always, you know the type of smile that makes you smile back.  What makes Michel so happy and someone I would like my kids to know more about?  The answer is simple he followed his dream and made it happen and now he is truly living a life he loves.

After Waikanae he is off to Europe again. I look forwarded to hearing about what he gets up to (usually from Jayne first).  I also hope this story inspires other budding young (and old) artists to follow Michel's approach - make it meaningful, make it happen.

Thank you Michel :-)

If you would like to view or buy Michels art please feel free to visit his Facebook Page HERE