Last night was the launch of the Southside Arts Festival programme at the Fale Pasifika, the University of Auckland’s Samoan fale – a symbolic commercial events space attached to the Centre for Pacific Studies. I gatecrashed with a friend; we left Papatoetoe in South Auckland around 5pm and sat in peak hour traffic and rain for an hour discussing the confusion of travelling almost 20 kilometers from South Auckland to central Auckland to celebrate the arts and culture from our neighbourhoods.

The theme of this year’s Festival is seemingly Pasifika – the mythological amalgamated brown state of watered-down Polynesia. The aura of cultural awkwardness is palpable upon arrival.

Whilst artificial flower lei or garlands are commonplace greeting protocol at ‘Pasifika’ events in New Zealand, guests were gifted beautiful hand-made ribbon garlands; a different but problematic shift in materiality and meaning. For me, the gifting and receiving of garlands, particularly those hand-made by a Pacific artists, carries significance and mana that far outweighed the cultural currency and credibility of this event and its efforts to represent Pacific arts or culture or even, ‘Pasifika’.

The speeches, performances and rabid back patting of Council’s arts team were background noise as I glanced upwards towards Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi‘s intricate woven lalava that adorns the internal structure of the fale. This is also the place were Cook Islands curator Jim Vivieaere was farewelled in a beautiful and poignant funeral service in 2011.

Experiencing this launch with a critical eye is informed by my history of delivering and advising on Pacific art events in South Auckland. My involvement with the Southside Arts Festival is also deeply engrained, personal and political. I sat around the concept table to develop the first Manukau Festival of Arts in 2008 and delivered events that contributed to the annual Festival’s identity until I left the role in 2012. When Auckland Council was formed, the Festival was rebranded as Southside Arts Festival and is now delivered by a group of regional programmers who are presumably aiming to build and evolve the Festival’s brand and identity.

Thinking about the history of the Festival, the situational dislocation of this launch and this year’s superficial cultural referencing lead me to reflect on the value of understanding relevance, audience and artists. I’m somewhat amused that the artist employed to contribute original artwork to this year’s Festival look and feel is also well-known amongst certain audiences for his explicit pornographic references and borderline misogynistic messages. When Jacob Sua made his ‘South Auckland’ work for the 2005 Vodafone Digital Art Awards with his vectorised hibiscus and electrical cabling, it was really fresh and new.

The 2013 Southside Arts Festival programme itself is forgettable. When so much has been seen before or can exist in any space, the relevance to South Auckland audiences is weaker than ever. I’m involved in the OTARAfest event – a stand-alone programme of events happening in and around the Otara Town Centre, and have lots of love and respect for Painting for the People (PFTP) who are delivering the Mangere Library Mural Project; interestingly, OTARAfest and the PFTP event are listed under ‘Community’ and as someone noted, featured on the brown pages of the printed programme. Lol.

The Pacific Arts programmer role at Auckland Council has been advertised and re-advertised for months and the lack of cultural advice and/or leadership in the delivery of an event that is based on the promotion of Pacific art and culture, is quite evident.

This kind of thing should be done better, or not at all. Perhaps public money is better spent on empowering local communities to create and deliver their own events, developing capacity and leadership and promoting sustainable business models informed by and symbolically rooted in South Auckland spaces. #JustSaying