When I came across Janet Lilo’s installation, Right of Way at Auckland’s ARTSPACE gallery, I had a day filled with experiences of the necessary paradigm shift related to the South / Central Auckland divide.
When you catch the bus from Papatoetoe to Karangahape Road, you traverse a socio-economic landscape from brown suburbia through industrial back roads, passing bigger, flasher homes in Penrose and Greenlane before Newmarket, with its window displays and disposable income. History and economics change before your eyes.
ARTSPACE has always been a problematic place for me. In the 2nd Auckland Triennial in 2004 I was involved in a petition about the photographer, Emily Mafile’o whose work depicted scenes of South Auckland people and spaces. The petition was aimed at the Triennial’s organisers inviting them to consider that for those working tirelessly to challenge stereotypes and negative perceptions of South Auckland, imagery such as Mafile’o’s did little to help the cause. It was an experience that gave me early exposure to issues of representation, art world power and influence.
These days I care less for the fiery philoso-fighting that I engaged with at every opportunity throughout my twenties. I am concerned and invested in the idea of cultural safety and empowerment rather than front-line combat.
Since her ground-breaking solo exhibition, Top 16 in 2007, I’ve always appreciated the ability for Janet Lilo’s work to translate across diverse audiences. She is the New Zealand artworld’s grassroots cultural darling – engaging value systems, histories and digital realities across the board.
Right of Way developed for ARTSPACE on the occasion of the 5th Auckland Triennial is fairly epic – in scale and in mana. Janet delivers, as she so often does. In the intimate moments created through her sound works, her digital vistas and real-life scale depictions of people and spaces, this is Janet’s ghetto aesthetic evolved; it’s refreshing and empowering.
I listened to one of Janet’s sound works on headphones for almost ten minutes, warmed by nostalgia and comforted by familiarity. It’s the sound of a muted house party; Samoan musician, Ria’s 2013 poly-hit, Winner mixed with classic house-party-old-school. In the flood of memories and lived experience this work evoked, I felt relief. In a private moment between me, an orange cone and a pair of headphones in a pictorial life-size environment that looks like where I live, the artworld felt right.
Hou Hanru’s lofty curatorial framework for the 5th Auckland Triennial is certainly dislocated in the Fresh Gallery Otara offering. If you were to live here is almost comical in an exhibition featuring not one artist who is familiar with what it is to actually live in South Auckland. In the case of ARTSPACE, Janet’s work effortlessly engages Hou Hanru’s wider ideas of transformation, locality and community; Janet is a mediator between worldviews and comfort zones. Right of Way is that new New Zealand art; post-identity, thoughtful, accessible – artistically egalitarian.
I suspect listening to Janet’s sound work was the first time an artwork shown in a central Auckland gallery has spoken so directly to my experience and worldview. ARTSPACE and Auckland’s Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust have recently joined forces to create an internship dedicated to engaging Pacific communities in a “meaningful and sustainable way”. It would be great to see ‘engagement’ not only in terms of education but also curatorial consideration. If Pacific communities were engaged AND reflected in the institution’s public programming, imagine the possibilities!
Listen to Nights on Radio New Zealand from 8.40pm on Wednesday 29 May for more discussion about the 5th Auckland Triennial’s presence in South Auckland as well as the representation of South Auckland on TV3’s drama series, Harry.