Posts tagged ‘Safe Space’

It is going on a month since I relocated my life to Ōtautahi Christchurch with the aim of producing a manifesto of Pacific curatorial practice as the outcome of my residency with the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury. 

In living between suburban Rolleston and inner city Tuam Street, I’ve now settled into an office space at the School of Fine Arts, where I spend my days. It is everything I need and more, and I keep thinking about the blessing and privilege residencies present to creative practitioners.

My friend Margaret Aull is currently at the Gathering of Indigenous Visual Artists of the Pacific Rim at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington (USA). She travelled with a delegation of Māori artists and they’ve spent days sharing knowledge, making work, experiencing the world of the mana whenua. It looks amazing. I keep thinking what a privilege it is to have time to make, and share, and exchange stories with other like-minded creative people.

In comparison, my residency has been quite a solitary experience so far, apart from my little companion, who is keeping my heart warm.

I set myself an ambitious task in writing a manifesto. I felt it needed to be structured academically being that this is a research residency, so I made a plan of the areas of enquiry I would pursue using the library collections here at the University.

I’ve had a lovely introduction to the Macmillan Brown Library. In the Library’s special collection stores, surrounded by old paper and hand stitched spines, the smell of the books was intoxicating; a sensory experience of literary history. There seem to be books about everything, but it makes me think about the things that are not written, the language of culture and knowledge that exist in oral histories and in people, in time and space.

Being in the School of Fine Arts has thrust me down memory lane, thinking back to my first year at art school in 2002, aged 19. Last week I sat in on a seminar of postgraduate presentations, invited to offer up critical insights as a visiting “academic”. The experience was invigorating, and revealing; I felt and continue to feel somewhat vulnerable and philosophically lonely in this environment. Not for my lack of professional experience or intellectual capacity, but for the lack of relevance and reflection I see and feel, as a Fijian and Pacific Islander, in the art world and its schools of thought.

Last week, I transcribed almost the entire talanoa which took place at #RealTalk: Safe Space / Best Practice, an event I produced as part of ARTSPACE’s Amor Mundi programme. The concept of safe space and best practice underpin my work, and the idea of writing a manifesto of curating Pacific art. Listening to the insights from panellists Tanu Gago, Leilani Kake and Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai, along with significant commentary from Hūfanga Dr ‘Okusitino Māhina, has been emotional, affirming and uplifting.

This week, I’ve ben trying to consolidate my position… 

The lack of presence of Pacific people and ways of seeing in the mainstream art world should not be a revelation to me; I’ve spent the last decade creating and fostering an unapologetic alternative world that decentralises the gaze and re-authors the narrative of our presence.

In this process of finding space to stand in between academia and art, missing my community, and trying to articulate why the mana of the visual language that resonates with me sits with the people/audience, and the time and space it belongs to, I’m starting to get some traction.

The image above is by Jeff Banube for The Pew Charitable Trusts. It depicts Vietnamese fishing boats that were burned miles off the coast of Palau after they were caught illegally fishing in the country’s waters. Read more here.
Photo by Raymond Sagapolutele

Photo by Raymond Sagapolutele

We sat on a Fijian mat, beneath a Tongan barkcloth, opposite a Cook Islands Tīvaevae. I invited three respected peers, friends and colleagues into a safe space to discuss the notion of safe space, within the arts and cultural sectors that we work within here in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Photo by Raymond Sagapolutele

Photo by Raymond Sagapolutele

#RealTalk: Safe Space / Best Practice was an event developed upon invitation from ARTSPACE, a Creative New Zealand funded contemporary art gallery in central Auckland. The event sat within the Amor Mundi conversation series, ours was the first event to take place outside of the Karangahape Road / central Auckland environment. In an opening address, outgoing curatorial Director Misal Adnan Yıldız spoke about the purpose of our discussion in a wider arts community context, referencing the exhibition, U Can’t Touch This, part of the 2015 PIMPI Winter Series, as an example of dislocating and relocating art and exhibition making.

The old Ōtāhuhu Library was the ideal location for this talanoa. Now used as a mixed use community facility, the building is currently leased to the Ōtāhuhu Māngere Youth Group who coordinate free programmes from vogue workshops to homework sessions and music classes. It is safe space embodied.

Photo by Ema Tavola

Photo by Ema Tavola

After a round of introductions from the audience, the conversation started with a knowing of the presence in the room. The panel talked story, sharing experiences and insights of safety and conflict, risk, passion and frustration. The discussion went from: advocating in museums and symposia around the world, to the simple gesture of inviting people to step inside at community galleries in South Auckland, to personal safety, and the real, physical, harmful behaviour which affects the lives of Pacific Rainbow communities every day.

Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai spoke of tā-vā theory of reality in relation to the conflict, chaos and harmony in the space between real talk / unreal talk, safe space and unsafe space, best practice and worst practice.


Photo by Raymond Sagapolutele

In conversation with the audience, the panel unpacked the meaning and mana of tears, of emotional intelligence and the problematic translation of emotional responsiveness to weakness and the problematic dichotomies of reason versus emotion, thinking versus feeling.

On tokenism and the risks of audience participation as superficial social experimentation, on the recognition of Tangata Whenua at the core of any discussion of diversity, and the safety provided by peers and those who stand side-by-side in times of conflict, and order.

There was so much value in this discussion. It was rich and insightful, poetic and emotional.


Photo by Raymond Sagapolutele

Many thanks to Caroline and the team at Ōtāhuhu Māngere Youth Group and to Christine O’Brien from Māngere-Ōtāhuhu Local Board for helping to get things moving! Thank you to ARTSPACE and the vision, courage and appetite of Misal Adnan Yıldız, thank you for creating the platform for this kaupapa, I really hope the important work you have done will continue and evolve, and we all wish you so much good luck for the next chapter.

Photo by Ema Tavola

Photo by Ema Tavola

Thank you to the panel, Tanu Gago, Leilani Kake and Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai – thank you for always bringing A-game, doing what you do, always advocating hard, representing our broader communities with passion, and changing the game in small ways every day.

Thank you to Raymond Sagapolutele for recording the event beautifully, as always, thank you for your generosity of presence. And thank you to Claudia Rakoia of Lime Espresso Bar & Eatery, who nourished us heartily with a beautiful spread.

Vinaka vakalevu.

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