I’m working with an awe-inspiring group of women on a curatorial project for the 4th International Biennale of Casablanca. A successful grant application from Creative New Zealand was announced earlier this month, and we came together this past weekend to talanoa in real time.

The working title of the project is A Maternal Lens, it will include new work by Margaret Aull, Leilani Kake, Julia Mage’au Gray, Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai and Vaimaila Urale. The exhibition project will open in Casablanca, Morocco in late October.

I’ll write more in the coming months about this project – it’s hearty. I just wanted to share that this weekend’s wānanga in Whaingaroa was filled with the sounds of the ocean and bush, the energy of an exquisite sunset and life-giving sunrise; it was restorative and invigorating. We missed Julia, who was in Australia making marks, but I’m feeling so positive about this project and its unique approach that privileges the roles of mothers / parents (M is for Mothers in the PIMPImanifesto).

I can’t wait to see it come together.

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This review of the recent exhibition, Wantok at Māngere Arts Centre – Ngā Tohu o Uenuku was originally written for ARTtalk (Issue 12), Fiji’s independent online art magazine.


As a curator, I view exhibitions in a few different ways. I think about the artwork and its medium, its politics and its placement. The artist – their positionality, their background and their message. The lighting even, the layout and feel of the Gallery. I think about the curator and their agenda, the experience of the audience, and often, the relationship of the exhibition themes to the exhibition’s site; who is this exhibition for?

Wantok is a group show of new work by nine Melanesian women artists, including the work of its curator. Produced for Māngere Arts Centre – Ngā Tohu o Uenuku, Wantok is part of the Gallery’s commitment to celebrating the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage, the landmark moment Aotearoa New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world to grant all women the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Māngere Arts Centre is a local government funded facility situated in the South Auckland suburb of Māngere, well known for its large, youthful and well-established Polynesian population.

The exhibition’s curator is Luisa Tora, a Fijian writer and visual artist who now calls Ōtāhuhu, South Auckland, home. She has invited artists to make new work around the theme of “decolonised views of beauty and mana through the lens of spirituality and symbolism associated with hair in Melanesian cultures”. The artists all live in Auckland, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne and represent ancestral connections to Fiji, Tokelau, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Granada (Caribbean), the South Sea Islander community, Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand.

In the case of the arts landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand, where Oceania is commonly viewed and understood through a Polynesian lens, this presentation of Melanesian diaspora experience requires context. This can be done effectively with well-crafted artwork labels and interpretive text, but this is absent from the show and the potential to diversify public perceptions about the wider Oceania region and the richness of Melanesian diaspora experience is frustratingly lost. Whilst much of the work in the exhibition is fighting hard to have space to be understood and interpreted, so many nuances of the artists’ approaches, thinking and themes are lost by not offering audiences ways for this work to be heard.

However, there is presence in the space. The presence of Melanesian women, of brown skin, and the clear control of those bodies and that representation in front, and behind the lens. And with four different video-based works in the two galleries, the exhibition is noisy! There are voices, conversations and laughing coming from the works of Torika Bolatagici and Salote Tawale, but a watery soundtrack emanating from a large-scale projected video work by Tufala Meri (the creative partnership of sisters, Molana and Reina Sutton) fills most of the exhibition’s soundscape.

Torika Bolatagici’s striking Tadrua Series (the space between) (2018) is six large scale portraits of strong, brown skinned women and girls with curly hair maintaining mesmerising connections with the camera. They are larger than life, a kind of feminine futuristic visual anthropology of Oceania. Whilst each image represents the same upper part of the body, each subject holds themselves differently; there are anthologies in the stories behind their eyes, equal parts strength and vulnerability in their postures, and pride and presence in their hair. In the accompanying video work, Tadra (to dream), the subjects are filmed resting on the acrylic kali, a kind of futuristic Fijian headrest made in collaboration with Lienors Torre and Shaun Bangay. The object itself sits unassumingly in the corner of the gallery on a plinth; set on a motion sensor, and with an internal sound device, occasionally women’s voices emanate from it, talking story about hair and rituals.

The stories and conversations from Bolatagici’s kali informed another collaborative aspect of this ambitious project in the form of a performative response by Ayeesha Ash and Emele Ugavule (members of the Sydney-based Black Birds collective). Marking the opening of the exhibition, Ash and Ugavule’s performance was meditative and graceful. They moved through the space, filling the room with Fijian vocal harmonies, amplifying the hair as an extension of the body and in its cutting, a significant act of bodily and emotional detachment. Their performance gave life to the space, connecting the artwork on the walls, to the audience who had come to greet it.

Jasmine Togo-Brisby’s large scale lightboxes depict photographic portraits of herself, her daughter and her mother, each with long curly hair adorned with a model sailing ship on top of their heads. Their gazes vary, and their garb is Victorian and formal. Without any context of the artist’s South Sea Islander genealogy and the history of the black birding slave trade in Melanesia, these works are perplexing, but confusing. Despite providing audiences with no context for this work and its themes, the light box is a beautiful medium that makes photography pop, commanding your attention.

Tufala Meri is sisters Molana and Reina Sutton. Their work includes five installations of domestic-like assemblages of photographs and objects, furniture and books, and a performative video work that is presented as a large scale full wall projection. In the video, the sisters initially appear to be very aware of the camera, holding poses with a large wooden bowl with characteristic Solomon Island shell inlay around the rim. They are standing next to a beautiful stream, on rocks, wearing similar neon patterned dresses and bare feet. The audio is watery, there is laughter and a woman’s voice. The sound of scrubbing, or rubbing can be heard, hoots and children’s giggles. It becomes clear that the video does not match the sound, but the two are related. The sisters gradually become more relaxed, and the shots tighten to capture closer views of their faces and actions. Suddenly, we see a photograph, another Melanesian woman – the sisters’ mother. The photograph is in the wooden bowl, it is carefully removed and placed on a rock, along with flowers and mementos.

Splashes and a sporadic deep rhythmic beat can be heard, almost like hearing the deep bass coming from someone’s headphones. The voices and laughter are joyful. We hear the presence and closeness of the water and the children… we hear a time and space, and we see another. The sisters play with each other’s hair, they laugh and splash and the light on the water running across boulders is almost golden. They use the wooden bowl to drench each other’s hair, which is thick and curly. The audio gets quiet, we see but we can’t hear. There is no more sound, just visuals, symbols – tattoos – body language, and land. The video ends with a final shot of the stream.

In conversation with Reina Sutton at the Wantok opening, I learned that the audio is from a home video of their late mother, shot in the Solomon Islands in 2008. It captures their mum at the river with her cousins, laughing, washing and the mesmerising beat that can be heard is water drumming. The work, Tufala Meri Blo Tiu lays the audio of their mother’s video over their own ‘home video’, filmed in Aotearoa New Zealand.

I spent time feeling mesmerised by this work and moved by the loving homage to their mother. I love that the scale of the video projection means their mother’s face is so large and present in the gallery, a beautiful and heartfelt dedication. Tufala Meri created a space for sitting, resting and being comfortable, which I appreciate; they effectively invite audiences to enjoy their work, be comforted and to listen and hear their message.

In a similar audio / video mash up, Salote Tawale’s video work, Polite Disguise (2018) overlays the sound of conversations between women about hair and othering with a series of performative Western beauty rituals. Tawale carries out the removal of her own hair via tweezers, scissors, hair clippers and adhesive strips. It is high definition, sometimes clumsy, and at points almost cringe-inducing and painful. In between her performative hair removal processes, the video intersperses popular hair product advertising jingles and YouTube-like vlogger cutaways. The work is shown on a monitor adorned with a large black and pink artificial flower garland that obstructs the corners of the screen, a confusingly unnecessary addition.

Dulcie Stewart’s series, Flora vitensis; drauniulu edition (2018) feels like the quietest work in the show. Stewart uses reproductions of botanical illustrations overlaid on the faces of Fijian women from ethnographic photographs, many of which exist in archives around the world with no biographic information about the subject. Stewart calls into question the visual ‘silencing’ of these women by rendering them nameless, disconnecting them from their past and their future. Interspersed with these photographic assemblages are a series of hand-drawn botanical illustrations of plants from Fiji, named Flora vitensis. In contrast to the ethnographic portraits, Flora vitensis are documented thoroughly, depicting their history and plant-based genealogy, uses and properties.

There’s a diplomacy about Stewart’s work, simultaneously thoughtful and confronting. She brings her interests in literature and archives, paper and records, together beautifully. She is both protector and promoter, reframing histories written about us but not for us.

The work I’m reluctant to mention, because curators being both author and artist in their own exhibitions is problematic, is a video portrait by Luisa Tora. In a topless self-portrait, Tora is superimposed against a galactic moving backdrop full of shooting stars, moons and planets. Her hair throbs outward from her head like a woolly halo, her stance stoic and defiant. Her gaze is not directly at the viewer and there’s an almost Mona Lisa like quality to the emotion or lack of emotion in her face. It’s a work that engages and titillates a lot of people because it’s ‘cool’, but for me feels like an unnecessary addition to the exhibition and something you might find if you type ‘God complex’ into a gif finder.

My friend Nigel Borell, a fellow curator, shared with me his appreciation of this show, noting that Auckland audiences appreciate the different framing of Pacific Islander experience. Whilst we are different, we have a shared imperialist histories and hair is a vessel for colonisation carrying ideas of shame and beauty, pride and presence. Nigel is right.

This exhibition could not be closer to my core as a Fijian woman curator living in South Auckland. Many of these artists are respected friends and peers, and their collective presence in the gallery is life-giving. I’ve spent hours in the space, because being close to these representations of Melanesian diaspora experience is affirming and empowering. Despite the lack of interpretive text and artwork labels, there is value in the presence of these works.

Curate is derived from the Latin term cūrā(re) meaning to care for, attend to. Luisa Tora cared enough to devise the concept of this exhibition, and Māngere Arts Centre offered space to bring it to life. The caring can’t stop at that; audiences are essential in enabling artwork to arrive, to be heard and to land. The dialogue between artwork and audience is what leaves the impression and changes culture. Hopefully the exhibition’s upcoming publication will deepen the impact of Wantok, but perhaps the most significant repercussion of this show is the connections forged between the artists and their efforts to be present in this space.

Wantok

Featuring Torika Bolatagici with Blackbirds, Dulcie Stewart, Molana & Reina Sutton, Salote Tawale, Jasmine Togo-Brisby, Luisa Tora
Curated by Luisa Tora

21 April – 26 May 2018
Māngere Arts Centre – Ngā Tohu o Uenuku, South Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand

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It’s a new dawn, it‘s a new day, it’s a new life for me… and I’m feeling good.

It’s on… 2018 is here. I saw in the new year under the Sky Tower, for the first time. The fireworks were spectacular. I ended the night with a motley crew of Fiji gang, South Auckland peeps and FAF SWAG family in Ōtara.

Today, suddenly, all my big talk about reverse migrating feels very real. I’ve been tackling my borderline hoarding problem head first this festive season, trying to be ruthless and rationale, and work out ways to migrate probably hundreds of kilos of [essential] books from one home to another.

I came to Aotearoa with the intention of doing an undergraduate degree and returning home to Suva to open a gallery. I think I spent most of my twenties telling people about that plan, but at some point I probably just stopped believing it was possible. But, three curatorial projects I’ve been involved with over the past two or so years have represented a shift in my practice and thinking and Fiji has come back into focus.

A change in circumstances in late 2017 became the final turning point, and the return home, the reverse migration, went from dream to plan and now, reality.

I found this Manukau Institute of Technology promo from 2007 in the boxes and boxes of ephemera that have accumulated from 16 years in Auckland. It was a good reminder.

Much to do and pack before the final departure, but it’s full steam ahead. I can’t wait…

Bring on the super moon! 

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2017 was a year of hard hustle! Through five curatorial projects and a solo show, a three month residency with a three year old, a little bit of heartbreak and a manifesto, these are a few of the stand-out memories of 2017…

Researching Pacific artists + creative entrepreneurship

In a short research project commissioned by British Council New Zealand and Tautai Trust, I had the opportunity to undertake a series of in-depth interviews with Pacific artists in Auckland who work full-time as creative professionals. With the hope of feeding into the development of a customised capacity building programme, interviewees shared vital insights towards understanding the struggles and opportunities of finding the sweet spot between financial sustainability whilst maintaining artistic and cultural integrity.

“Still trying to find a way to operate within a framework that doesn’t care too much whether we’re there or not.” ~ PCE Needs Analysis Interviewee

The research was revealing, and sobering. The work that Pacific creative entrepreneurs do amazes and inspires me; many projects have deep cultural significance and have been personally and emotionally transformative. It’s the kind of work that I think many people would never imagine being paid to do, which reminded me again of the privilege of being attuned to one’s creative potential, and the privilege of public funding that enables so much of this enquiry. For many Pacific artists, a creative practice is unavoidably a community and collective pursuit, so the benefits are rarely for individual gains.

The challenges of being undervalued, structural racism, discrimination and stereotyping and a disregard for the Pacific creative process, are lingering issues surrounding many practitioners. Sometimes, the organisations and clients who benefit the most from the cultural integrity of Pacific artists, are the worst offenders.

The impact of this research for me personally has been significant. As an arts manager and curator, I understand more about my peers and our realities, the value of building and nurturing communities of practice, the powerful potential of collaboration and the vital roles Pacific artists play in the social, political and economic development of our Pacific communities.

Hello, my name is Vinesh

Having worked together on projects for more than a decade, I loved curating Vinesh Kumaran’s first solo exhibition, Hello, my name is Vinesh this year as the first exhibition in the PIMPI Winter Series. From 2015-16, Kumaran shot and shared a portrait a day, made in and around his work and rest time, in South Auckland and beyond. He had wanted to hone and test his skills and passion for portraiture, and throughout the year, his photographs and their narrative weight grew stronger and stronger. The Instagram format helped to perfectly curate the series and as the collection grew, the audience for his work diversified and deepened in their engagement. The series was originally intended for a large scale exhibition at Mangere Arts Centre but translated beautifully to Lime Espresso Bar & Eatery in Ōtāhuhu, produced with support from the Māngere-Ōtāhuhu Local Board.

Employing the same approach, Vinesh went on to shoot a series of portraits for Paperboy magazine, featuring on the front cover of the 7-13 September issue. Working together again, we have another project in the pipeline for 2018 profiling individuals involved in creative and commercial businesses in the Māngere-Ōtāhuhu area. Watch this space!

The Perpetual Flux of Transitional Otherness

Exhibiting with two of my closest friends, Margaret Aull and Leilani Kake, was one of my favourite exhibition experiences. We encouraged and supported each other, shared ideas and individually produced cohesive bodies of work that seemed to complement each other effortlessly.

The exhibition was produced for Olly, the coffee and donut shop co-owned by Chlöe Swarbrick, who went on to be a hugely valuable addition to the New Zealand Green Party in the 2017 general election. The exhibition was inspired by and produced to tautoko this young politician who rose to notoriety for her courageous bid for the Auckland mayoralty in the 2016 local government elections. The last painting in my Poedua series was eventually traded with Sāmoan tattoo practitioner, Tyla Vaeau-Ta’ufo’ou who gave me a beautiful custom piece based on the leaves of the Tavola tree (Terminalia catappa).

Tā-Vā (Time-Space) Theory of Reality in Māngere

In July, the esteemed Hūfanga Dr Ōkusitino Māhina and the Kula Uli Publishing team hosted the launch of a Special Issue of the Journal of Pacific Studies (published by Brigham Young University Hawai’i) dedicated to the Tā-Vā (Time-Space) Theory of Reality. The Māngere Arts Centre galleries were packed to capacity as the publication’s New Zealand-based contributors spoke to the influence of Māhina and how Tā-Vā (Time-Space) Theory of Reality has shaped their work and thinking.

A complex discourse between natives, fobs and academics

After a haunting intergenerational group performance of fangufangu (nose flute), the publication’s contributors responded to probing questions about the relevance and implementation of Tā-Vā (Time-Space) Theory of Reality in academia, at grassroots levels and as a lens on New Zealand national culture.

In the process of seeing Hūfanga in the midst of this highly conceptual but grounded discussion, it hit me how precious these times are – it is such a privilege to share intellectual energy and dialogue with courageous thought leaders who push boundaries and re-shape histories. The publication is a special resource, but being present within these exchanges, as Māhina put it, “a complex discourse between natives, fobs and academics“, in the cultural context of both Tongan hospitality and art, made this moment incredibly meaningful.

Konile Fusitua, a quiet muse

Through my daughter, Konile Fusitua is my 16 year old nephew. He relocated from Portland, Oregon to South Auckland last year and has spent his first full year at Papatoetoe High School. I started following Konile on Instagram and became an instant fan of his bold aesthetic, blending symbols of popular culture and Pacific cultural imagery, tracing the expansion of his world and his place within it.

Konile is constantly refining, editing and curating his Instagram feed, which I find fascinating; the chronological archive has perhaps become archaic within the philosophy of Snapchat ephemerality. I love his fascination with Gucci, and his fresh appreciation for the Pacific Island cultural saturation of Southside. I included Konile’s work in the PIMPI Winter Series exhibition, #CHANGES in July; it was his first show, and I hope, first of many.

Femslick – Akashi Fisiinaua

Photo credit: Jermaine Dean

Akashi Fisiinaua’s solo show, Femslick debuted as the first work in FAF SWAG’s 2017 residency partnership with Basement Theatre in central Auckland. In a short season that added the essential flavour of FAF SWAG to the Auckland Pride Festival programme, Fisiinaua directed a stunning audience experience as close to ball culture realness as you can get. As the chanter of FAF SWAG’s Vogue balls, Fisiinaua transitioned the role into a narrative tool that brought the electric energy of ball culture to a potent, intimate and intense theatre experience.

Fisiinaua is a recent graduate of Toi Whakaari’s renowned Performing Arts (Acting) degree programme. The technical skill, lyricism and performative awareness she brings to FAF SWAG Vogue ball culture was translated seamlessly to a theatre setting, a first iteration of iconic and disruptive storytelling that continued beautifully throughout FAF SWAG’s residency with Fa’aafa by Pati Solomona Tyrell and Neon Bootleg by Moe Laga.

The remarkable momentum of artist Pati Solomona Tyrell

Photo credit: Hōhua Ropate Kurene

Fresh out of art school, Pati Solomona Tyrell has had an incredible year! Working commercially, his photography of strong, culturally powerful Pacific Islanders has made some of the most iconic Paperboy magazine covers yet. His work as a photographer and performance artist has been shown nationally and internationally and in June, ST PAUL St Gallery staged a massive solo exhibition of his work called Fāgogo.

Through FAF SWAG, Pati has been in the engine room working on everything from event coordination, large scale photoshoots, cross-cultural collaborations, documentaries and an incredible new app that is set for release in the new year. For a young artist, this has been a wild first year of post-art-school life, but along with the massive highs, a bitter blow intended to derail his practice was dealt from an unexpected source. Fortunately, that effort was met with a significant rally of support from our communities, and the utmost respect has been thrown down for Pati as he navigates new waters. His many successes are his dignified response and his future is unbearably bright!

Twitter < IRL

This year has been the eighth year I’ve used the social media platform, but the culture of Twitter has changed for me. What was once a relatively safe space, used by a relative minority of people from everyday life, has become so mainstream in New Zealand that the same voices, tone and attitudes you might hear in mainstream media, or in the comments section of the New Zealand Herald, seem to uncomfortably eclipse with my consciousness on an all too regular basis.

There’s this interesting accusation that has arisen time and time again of brown Twitter users of existing in bubbles, a similar line of criticism of the kind of Trump-ish politics where bias, opinions and hate speech dominate facts and research. The problem with this, and it has been directed at me more than once, is that the communities we’re part of on and offline, are often communities of shared beliefs, values and likeness that create supportive networks and intellectual ecosystems. It’s disturbing to me that these vital systems of survival and support, particularly for marginalised people living in dominant culture New Zealand, are seen in such a negative light.

On Twitter, where the conversations I’m part of revolve around race, racism, everyday politics, gender, parenting, localism and cultural identity, the line between right and wrong, truth and realness, is simultaneously multi-dimensional and non-existent. I’m tired of getting into Twitter beefs with faceless handles, particularly in the case where those individuals wouldn’t approach, engage or confront me in real life.

Twitter isn’t the safe space it once was.


Pacific arts managers changing the game in 2017

I’m uplifted when I see Pacific people in positions of influence in the arts and cultural sectors in New Zealand. Pacific arts managers bring unique intercultural competencies, fresh ideas and engaged intergenerational communities. 2017 has seen some excellent appointments of Pacific arts managers across gallery management and strategic leadership, curatorial programming and events, check it out…

Ioka Magele-Suamasi
Ioka Magele-Suamasi was appointed as Learning and Outreach Manager at Auckland Art Gallery in October. She vacated the role of Outreach Coordinator which was recently secured by rising star, Jasmine Te Hira. The role coordinating Education and Family Programmes is also now held by Emily Mafile’o.

Jep Savali
Jep Savali was appointed Entertainment Manager for SkyCity, where he had previously worked as manager of the SkyCity Theatre. Jep is bringing a distinctly Pacific awareness to the live music and entertainment that takes place within and around the venue. Recently, the notoriously entertaining, Cindy of Samoa dazzled in a sold out solo show and the annual New Years Eve party boasts an impressive programme of Pacific musicians from Che Fu and King Kapisi to Three Houses Down, Sammy J, Sons of Zion and Malcolm Lakatani.

Simonne Likio
Simonne Likio was a well-known face at Fresh Gallery Ōtara until she was appointed in a new role within the restructured Funding and Capability Services team at Creative New Zealand as a much needed Auckland-based Pacific arts funding advisor.

Margaret Aull
Margaret Aull was appointed to a new role as Curator and Gallery Manager for Te Puia and the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute (NZMACI) in November. She had previously worked as Curator and registrar of the collection of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa and has just completed a year of freelancing and studying to complete a Post-Graduate Diploma of Business Management.

Clinton Hewitt
In September, Clinton Hewitt was appointed Gallery Coordinator for Fresh Gallery Ōtara, a facility of Auckland Council in the Ōtara Town Centre. Clinton studied Visual Arts at Manukau Institute of Technology after working for several years as a carver and interdisciplinary artist both in the Cook Islands and South Auckland. His company Tribal Designz specialises in customised 21st keys and ukulele.

Lana Lopesi
Lana Lopesi was appointed Editor-in-Chief at The Pantograph Punch in July. She was previously the Visual Arts Editor, and had been editor for #500Words from 2012-16.

Anapela Polataivao
Award-winning actress and director, Anapela Polataivao has taken on the role of Director of Performing Arts at Nathan Homestead, a multi-use facility of Auckland Council in Manurewa, South Auckland. The outdoor summer season of Think of a Garden by American Sāmoan playwright, John Kneubuhl opens on January 25th, tickets available here.

2018: it’s on like donkey kong

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The impetus to mount a solo exhibition comes to me at fairly significant junctures in life. My first solo, BLOOD + BONE was almost exactly eight years ago, and now I find myself drawn back to Karangahape Road to stage my second solo, Dark Meat

The Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies Residency at the University of Canterbury gave me time to think, and read, reflect and develop new perspectives on everything from curating to parenting, being a partner, an artist, being Pākehā and being Fijian. The extreme whiteness of Christchurch was at first intriguing but slowly started to feel suffocating. I returned home to South Auckland after three months and realised only upon returning how the isolation had made me re-value likeness and laughter, the love and light of like-minded artists and friends, and the relative centrality of Māori and Pacific values and protocols in everyday life.

When I was in Christchurch, the invisibility of Pacific Islanders and Pacific Islandness started to wear me down. It started to change my psyche. Since returning to South Auckland, I’ve been consciously healing but realised that the call home to Fiji has become too strong, and after 16 years in Auckland, I’ve decided to reverse migrate and relocate back to Suva in 2018.

Dark Meat comes from this juncture. It reflects on race and visibility, difference and perspective. I’m also re-showing Suva Girl, a photograph originally made in 2007, a symbolic nod to the end of an era.

The PIMPImanifesto, written as an outcome of the Residency, has also been beautifully printed as part of the exhibition, Kaitani at The Physics Room (on until 24 December) and a limited amount of signed copies will be available for sale during the exhibition.


Dark Meat
A solo exhibition by Ema Tavola
PREVIEW: 5.30pm, Tuesday 12 December
13-15 December 2017
Tautai Trust Office, Level 1, 300 Karangahape Road, Central Auckland
Opening Hours: 9am – 5.30pm

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My beloved land forever beckons
Go Fiji Go
Until my last breath

~ English translation, lyrics from Vanua Domoni

In Fijian, kaitani refers to one who is from outside or from another community, province or country.

I’ve been a visitor in Christchurch for three months, dreaming about home. I came with the intention of writing a manifesto about curatorial practice but hadn’t realised how much the distance and isolation from my community and my community of practice would affect me.

I came to understand how much the people of my practice come first.

Being based at the University of Canterbury, I took the opportunity to participate in the Fijian Students Association. We worked together to produce a celebration for Fiji Independence Day on October 10th, a programme of talks and an exhibition in the Pasifika Lali Room within the School for Māori & Indigenous Studies. Our Fiji Day event included reflections on Fiji history and language, an item by local Fijian youth who performed a meke (traditional Fijian dance), chicken curry, a Fiji Day cake and the singing of Vanua Domoni by some of the active members of the Fijian Students Association.

At our Fiji Day event, the lyrics of Vanua Domoni from FijianLyrics.com were displayed on a projector screen for the students, and the audience, made up of fellow students, staff and members of the local Fijian community, to sing along. The lyrics of Vanua Domoni speak of a love and longing for Fiji, the beloved land. As an unofficial anthem of our Fijian rugby teams, the song evokes the pride and identity of Fijians both at home and away. The unifying act of singing together is collectively uplifting, a sharing of common purpose, a form of devotion.

I’m interested in space that is created when Pacific ideas, voices, culture and language are central. I’ve built my curatorial practice around the interventions that can be manifested in New Zealand art galleries and museums to challenge Eurocentric cultural norms for ways of seeing, interpreting and valuing visual language. In the current climate within the arts and cultural sector, diversity measures are increasingly part of the arts funding paradigm but thinly veiled programming efforts towards social inclusion still too often reinscribe power inequalities. The act of enabling Pacific artists and audiences, and other minority communities, to participate and contribute to publicly funded spaces and events, is an act of sharing power and decolonising the time and space around our arts, cultures and people.

Kulimoe’anga ‘Stone’ Maka and I spent time during my residency discussing the influence of the Pacific on Western fine art since Tonga’s first encounter with Europeans in the 17th century. We shared origin stories and unpacked the clues of re-imagined historical narratives and their Biblical parallels. In sharing my anxieties of working in such Pākehā dominated spaces and places, our discussions on danger and beauty, metaphor and symbolism in Tongan and Fijian arts and culture, helped ground my thinking.

In his signature style, Maka’s large-scale smoke painting entitled, Mafoa e ata (Dawn), reflects everything we had shared. It is imbued with the memories of his Tongan childhood, of watching his mother mastering the method of smoking barkcloth to achieve deep, dark colour plains. It is all the tensions and synchronicity of his relationship with Western abstract art. And it is the messy space between the polarised worlds of darkness and light, white and black, us and them.

My theory of curating is grounded in the transformative act of reflecting the world I share with Pacific people, creating safe spaces for real talk about the complexities and deviancies of contemporary life. Curating is, in essence, building protections and modes of transmission around our narratives. Kaitani has been a restorative process of re-valuing the principles that guide me, the artistic enquiry that excites me and fresh air for encountering new ways of seeing.


Kaitani runs from 25 November – 24 December 2017 at The Physics Room, 209 Tuam Street, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Ema Tavola has lived and worked within the creative sector in South Auckland, New Zealand since 2002. Her research is practice-based and concerned with curating as a mechanism for social inclusion, centralising Pacific ways of seeing, and exhibition making as a mode of decolonisation. She was the founding curator of Fresh Gallery Ōtara, where she produced satellite projects for ARTSPACE and Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, in addition to advising on exhibitions for Auckland Art Gallery and Auckland Museum. She was the first curator awarded the CNZ Arts Pasifika Award for Contemporary Art (2012) and recipient of the 2017 Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies Residency at the University of Canterbury.

Kulimoe’anga ‘Stone’ Maka was born in Patangata, Tonga and migrated to New Zealand in 1997 aged 26. During his studies at Manukau School of Visual Arts, he began exploring traditional Tongan mark making techniques using smoke as a medium. His ambitious and experimental painting practice has evolved into a unique form of Tongan abstraction earning him numerous accolades and acquisitions in both public and private collections. Whilst balancing the demands of parenting a young family, Maka has been working from his East Christchurch-based studio for the past decade.

The University of Canterbury (UC) Fijian Students Association was officially affiliated in 2017. There are just over 80 students of Fijian heritage currently studying at the University. The students featured in Kaitani are Akili Namuaira, Peni Apisai, Curtis Fatiaki, Josefa Tabua, Sai Saukuru, Filimoni Waqainabete, Isei Vuluma, Epeli Bogitini and Filipe Batiwale.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Professor Steven Ratuva, for opportunities to flex my thinking and understand wider contexts for my work. Vinaka vakalevu to Lydia Baxendell for support, tips and understanding of balancing curator life with toddler mum life. Thank you to the University of Canterbury staff who helped me feel welcome. Ofa lahi atu to the Wong famili, the Aniseko famili, and the grounding energies of Lanuola Mereia Aniseko. A big thank you to Jamie, Fiona and Hope, and the spirits of The Physics Room – it has been a privilege. 

Works List

Mafoa e ata (Dawn) (2017)
Smoke on canvas
Kulimoe’anga ‘Stone’ Maka

Vanua Domoni, Fiji Day 2017, Canterbury (2017)
University of Canterbury Fijian Students Association
Video by Ema Tavola

PIMPImanifesto (2017)
Written by Ema Tavola with support from Tanu Gago, Leilani Kake and Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai. Graphic design by Nicole Lim.

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Detail, “Untitled” (2017) by Kulimoe’anga Maka | Photograph by Hōhua Ropate Kurene

Kaitani

Featuring the University of Canterbury Fijian Students Association and new work by Kulimoe’anga Stone Maka
Curated by Ema Tavola

24 November – 24 December 2017
The Physics Room
, 209 Tuam Street, Christchurch


In Fijian, kaitani refers to one who is from outside, or from another community, province or country.

As the culmination of curator, Ema Tavola’s residency with the University of Canterbury Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, Kaitani interrogates the presence of Pacific art in the contemporary gallery space.

Accompanying her curatorial manifesto, a short video made during her residency reflects Tavola’s long-held interest in the creation of safe space and genuine engagement of Pacific peoples, their ways of seeing and being, art histories and cultural narratives.

In the work of East Christchurch-based painter, Kulimoe’anga Stone Maka, multisensory memories of Tonga are embedded in his mark making technique. In recent paintings, paraffin lamp smoke-stained canvas captures the ephemerality of time and space in brooding, galactic landscapes of blackness and whiteness and everything in between.

The exhibition’s soundscape pays homage to the unifying act of singing as a group. The Fijian song, Vanua Domoni was sung on the occasion of this year’s Fiji Independence Day by students and community members at the University of Canterbury. The song lyrics reflect a deep love and longing for Fiji, and evokes the pride and identity of Fijians both at home and away.

Tavola’s curatorial manifesto has been written as a result of her residency and copies will be available for the duration of the exhibition. She will discuss her manifesto in the context of the exhibition, along with exhibiting artist Kulimoe’anga Stone Maka in a talanoa / conversation at 1pm, Saturday 25 November.

  • More about Kulimoe’anga Stone Maka here
  • More on Ema Tavola’s curatorial practice here
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I organised a small-scale exhibition of three Fiji artists for Fiji Day here at the University of Canterbury. It was a make-shift effort in the Pasifika Lali Room where we held three Fijian Language Week inspired talks. The works framed the events including a Fiji Day celebration hosted by the Fijian Students Association where a meke was performed by Christchurch Fiji community kids. I’m grateful that the works of Joseph Hing and Margaret Aull gave these events and their audiences an opportunity to consider different ways of seeing Fiji and Fijian identity. This is the text I wrote to accompany the works:

To mark the anniversary of Fijian Independence from British colonial rule in 1970, Fijians celebrate ‘Fiji Day’ on the 10th of October. In Aotearoa, the Ministry of Pacific Peoples instigated the Pacific Languages Framework in 2007 to encourage the skill and fluency of Pacific language use amongst New Zealand’s Pacific communities. The week surrounding Fiji Day is acknowledged in New Zealand as Fijian Language Week.

Stimulating Pacific language development and retention has become a government initiative presumably because language is a key factor in cultural knowledge and identity. Communities who see themselves as strong and resilient, culturally rich and meaningful, have potential and agency. The opportunity for wider New Zealand society to engage and interact with Pacific cultures is an important process of interculturalism and so whilst Pacific language events can be and often are tokenistic gestures of social inclusion, there remains to be some value in the conscious awareness of different ways New Zealanders see and experience the world through language and expressions of identity.

In this small collection of photographic and mixed media works, three artists offer insights into their worldviews as Fijians.

Photography by Joseph Hing

Both within and beyond his professional capacity working as Senior Communications Assistant for Unicef Pacific, Joseph Hing has developed an astute knack of talking story through his social media presence (Twitter: @Viti_Kid, Instagram: @joseph_h84). In an era of citizen journalism, Hing’s photographic snapshots and cleverly crafted captions about events, places and observations of culture and flux have deepened and engaged international interest in the lesser seen sides of life in Fiji and Oceania.

Hing’s Suva is big skies and busy streets, textures of forgotten urban surfaces in stark contrast with the flowing curves of their natural landscape. In moments of balance between climate, commerce and culture, Hing draws references and traces of our past into the present, highlighting the precarious thrusts of Suva city, Fiji and Oceania into the future.

In our rapidly changing world, Hing’s work makes an important contribution to the digital visual archiving of Suva from the perspective of local eyes on local vistas. Void of any specific editorial narrative, Hing’s work is about appreciation; there is a romanticism to these records of everyday life. Hing speaks to the casual beauty and natural swagger of Suva city, the ‘New York of the Pacific’, a welcome and refreshing subversion of the stereotypical visual rhetoric of tourism, rugby and natural disasters

Full Tide (2017) by Margaret Aull

Margaret Aull is a Waikato-based painter, curator and arts manager whose Māori (Te Rarawa, Tūwharetoa) and Fijian ancestries frame her interests in the notion of tapu / tabu, a cultural construct embedded in most indigenous frameworks. Catholicism and totems, tohu / signs, warnings and ritual are mashed up in photo[copy]-graphic detail and hand-made brush strokes. Aull mixes acrylic paints with Fijian ochre and gold leaf, paper and found textures to create deluxe dreamscapes, which are as rich in the flesh as they translate through screens disguised as careful digital collages.

In two small works made specifically to honour Fiji Day at the University of Canterbury, Aull makes reference to the Fijian ritual of mourning for one hundred nights, and the colloquial language and centrality of yaqona (kava) drinking in building relationships and strengthening familial bonds.

Ema Tavola is the 2017 Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies Artist in Residence. She is a South Auckland-based practicing curator of Fijian and Pākehā heritage, and currently researching and writing a manifesto exploring modes of decolonising Pacific art curating.

Tavola’s curatorial approach comes by way of a visual arts practice. She has worked in painting, photo media and collage in recent years and has been fixated on the Fijian forms of civavonovono (breast plates) and war weaponry, and the politics of their visibility in international Museum collections. Through both curating and making, Tavola interrogates shifting value systems, power and ownership, and symbols of mana and presence for Pacific people as both artists and audiences.

This small exhibition was produced with support from the artists, Margaret Aull and Joseph Hing; Peter Sipeli (ArtTalk); Fiji Students Association, University of Canterbury; Steven Ratuva and Lydia Baxendell.

 

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I wanted to visit the Henri Matisse show at Christchurch Art Gallery because I’ve loved his work since I was a child. We had a print of the iconic Icarus in our home growing up and I was raised in Belgium where European painters and sculptors of the 20th century dominated my ideas of art and making. 

The exhibition showcases Matisse’s illustrated art book, Jazz (from the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales), and includes 20 colour stencil works and over 70 pages of hand-written text. Christchurch Art Gallery locates the collection firmly within an Aotearoa frame of reference by positioning Matisse’s work alongside two Cook Islands Tīvaevae and an installation of New Zealand artist, Richard Killeen, each of which employing a similar ‘cut-out’ aesthetic.

In the case of the two tīvaevae, the reference of this seemingly simple juxtaposition is a significant one. Matisse travelled to Tahiti in 1930 and spent a month in Papeete where he took photographs, drew in his sketchbooks, swam in the lagoons and acquired Tahitian textiles for his collection. His Tahiti trip is said to be the strongest influence on his art book, Jazz, which was first published in 1947.

In positioning these Tīvaevae in the context of Matisse, considering one was made in the 1890s, and the other in the 1980s, we see Matisse as part of a Pacific art continuum that is punctuated with exchanges and borrowing between Oceania and the West, Eastern Polynesia and Aotearoa.

There is an equalising effect that happens here. Curatorially, this is a nod to Moana aesthetics that gently subverts the problematic idea of primitivism, and the politics of ‘heritage arts’ and their place in the realm of the Gallery and the contemporary art world.

I’m particularly inspired by this curatorial positioning of Matisse in the context of where we are in the world because this felt like a significant oversight and lost opportunity in Auckland Art Gallery’s recent showing of The Body Laid Bare, an exhibition which also originated at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and co-curated with Tate. Auckland Art Gallery didn’t present any curatorial offerings that positioned the exhibition in the South Pacific, and whilst the show was full of important and interesting work, it felt isolated and elitist. This is an interesting review.

There was however an outreach effort by Auckland Art Gallery to create some form of localised commentary about the exhibition in the form of video interviews with Pacific artists. The series was produced for online circulation and Leilani Kake and I used the opportunity to offer some insights towards how this exhibition and its themes could have been programmed in a way that genuinely engages non-traditional audiences:

Christchurch Art Gallery, CoCA and The Physics Room have been creative sanctuaries on this trip. I’ve visited again and again, and the experiences have been rewarding and affirming. Thank you to all the staff who have engaged me, and my daughter, in conversation, greeted us warmly, given us time. It means a lot.

I’m one month into my residency at the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury.

One month into the thinking and research, reading and sharing that is informing my manifesto. Having been extracted from my comfort zone, removed from my community, the feeling of somewhat isolation, sometimes loneliness, has underpinned and magnified my thinking around the people of my work.

I’ve been asking myself, what is the whakapapa of your practice?

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