Pacific Art for Pacific Audiences: Grassroots Curating in South Auckland

A paper delivered at the Pacific Arts Association 11th International Symposium at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver (6-9 August, 2013). Part of the session, Curating Pacific Spaces: The New School of Contemporary Pacific Art from New Zealand, moderated by Susan Cochrane.

Pacific Art for Pacific Audiences: Grassroots Curating in South Auckland
Ema Tavola

As a Pacific Islander, the most important element of Pacific art, for me, is Pacific people. Academic theories, buying, selling and mainstream institutions are peripheral to my central purpose and drivers as a Pacific Island curator.

I’ve spent the past ten years curating and producing contemporary art exhibitions in Auckland, New Zealand, specifically in South Auckland, a region with the highest density of New Zealand’s Pacific Island population.

I have lived, worked, studied and taught in the suburb of Otara. Located in the heart of South Auckland, Otara’s population is over 70% Polynesian with over 40% of the population under the age of 21. Here, Samoan, Tongan, Niuean and Cook Islands communities are supported by rich family and village networks, churches, commerce, language, arts and culture.

Pacific people make up less than 8% of New Zealand’s national population; South Auckland is quite literally a back-to-front New Zealand reality where Pacific Island worldviews are central and influential and Pacific people, thought and action are visible and important. However, on the whole, the Pacific community in New Zealand is still marginalised and disproportionately affected by systemic inequalities in measures of health, education, poverty, employment and income[1].

My interests in art making and curating are entrenched in a desire to affect change and contribute to the social development of Pacific people. I believe wholeheartedly in the process of artistic and intellectual decolonisation and I position my curatorial practice as a platform to empower my communities. Ultimately, I aim to contribute to the re-framing of Pacific lives and experience through creating exhibitions that respectfully honour social histories, inspire discussion and awareness, and build confidence around the culture of contemporary art appreciation.

In 2006, I took on the role of Pacific Arts Coordinator for Manukau City Council, the local government authority for the area better known as South Auckland. The role was part of the Council’s Community Development unit governed by progressive social and cultural policies influenced by the 2002 Local Government Act. The Act heralded a new era for Local Government in New Zealand introducing four cornerstones of community wellbeing including social and cultural measures in addition to economic and environmental sustainability.

The health of the creative industries of South Auckland was seen as a measure of community wellbeing and the position of Pacific Arts Coordinator represented a commitment to the development of South Auckland’s unique and robust Pacific arts sector. Within this role I was able to drive the establishment of Fresh Gallery Otara, an exhibitions gallery dedicated to Pacific art and artists; I managed the facility and its programming until leaving the role in 2012.

Curating within that context enabled me to formally centralise Pacific art and ideas, and construct a space where Pacific audiences felt engaged with the language of contemporary art. Furthermore, curating as a public servant was a framework that emphasised the curatorial function of manaakitanga. Ngati Raukawa Rangatira, Professor Whatarangi Winiata, described the Māori concept of Manaakitanga as, “Behavior that acknowledges the mana of others as having equal or greater importance than one’s own, through the expression of aroha, hospitality, generosity and mutual respect. Displaying manaakitanga elevates the status of all, building unity through humility and the act of giving”.[2]

Responding to its site and primary audience, Fresh Gallery Otara developed an environment where the equilibrium between art, artist and audience prospered. The Gallery began to attract artists who were interested in consciously engaging Pacific audiences and the challenges and politics of presenting often boundary- pushing ideas within a safe Pacific space.

Fresh Gallery Otara artists were and are comfortable with the often scrutinised label of being a “Pacific artist”. Whilst there is ongoing dialogue in the wider arts sector about the apparent burden and limitations of being labelled as ‘Pacific’, Fresh Gallery Otara attracted practitioners who recognised the privilege and opportunities of their Pacific heritage.

For local Cook Islands artist, Leilani Kake, exhibiting at Fresh Gallery Otara presented an opportunity for her themes of ritual, tradition, life and death, family and connections to be experienced and interpreted within a Pacific worldview. Kake has for the past eight years been making and presenting her work in South Auckland drawing inspiration and strength from her lived cultural experience, her environment and family. She has become a major figure in the community of contemporary artists articulating South Auckland experience in dynamic new art languages.

For Kake’s solo exhibition, Ngā Hau E Whā – The Four Winds (2011), Fresh Gallery Otara was converted into a blacked-out room to accommodate for a four-channel video installation. On each of the room’s four walls, a life-size projection of a Pacific woman, floating and submerging from dark water, faded in and out of view. Entirely nude, the subjects’ fixed gaze on the viewer created a range of responses from Fresh Gallery Otara audiences.

The work was inspired by the disproportionate statistics of preventable cancers amongst Māori and Pacific women. It invited viewers to consider their own and society’s attitudes towards the Pacific female body, to nudity and privacy. A daily experience for the Gallery’s staff was listening to the recounting of stories and memories about mothers, aunties, grandmothers, sisters – women whose absence and suffering had affected everyone around them.

As the curator of this important project, the artist and I discussed the safety of the work; its representation of real women, most of which were from or worked in the local area and the presentation of nudity within a community entrenched in strong Christian values. The exhibition was well received both within the South Auckland community, and amongst the Auckland arts sector. Its highly considered approach to what was potentially a controversial topic and its site specificity and audience consciousness complimented Kake’s well-honed craft of creating art experiences with video, light and space.

Similarly, Samoan photomedia artist, Tanu Gago in his solo exhibition Avanoa O Tama (2012), prompted audiences to respond to the acceptance, prejudice and limitations of Samoan gender identity and sexuality. The exhibition was a suite of staged photographs depicting film-like stills; each image telling a story with multiple facets of truth, narrative and symbolism.

Gago’s work exposed attitudes and inspired discussion. Like Ngā Hau E Whā – The Four Winds, audiences responded with personal stories and anecdotes but also asked questions. Media coverage, foot traffic and ongoing opportunities for the artists are common measures of ‘success’ but in actuality are dependent and affected by a number of external influences. Listening and engaging in discussion with audiences, at the interface of where art meets people, was and remains to be a measure of relevance and impact at Fresh Gallery Otara.

At the Curating Pacific Art Forum, part of the 2010 Manukau Pacific Arts Summit, Professor Konai Helu Thaman from the University of the South Pacific delivered the keynote speech entitled, Creating Cultural Diversity: Curating the Pacific. Professor Thaman discussed the ways in which the emergence of the Pacific Island voice in literature could provide a pathway for the emerging Pacific curatorial movement.

The Forum brought together both independent and institutional curators including Fulimalo Pereira (Auckland Museum), Sean Mallon (Te Papa Tongarewa), Faumuina Maria Tufuna’i, Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai and the late Jim Vivieaere. I acquired my first curatorial experience working under Jim; his teachings have been the backbone of my curatorial practice for the past decade.

PAA Presentation ETavola Aug2013

The Forum generated awareness for the different values Pacific Islanders bring to the curating of Pacific art. We all work in different fields and social contexts, and make exhibitions for different communities and purposes, but the relationship and accountability to Oceania is our constant.

By considering a relationship between Pacific art and Pacific audiences, a relationship is negotiated between Pacific Islander and Pacific Islander.

When I introduce my Fijian identity framework;

Na yacaqu ‘o Ema Rosemary Vasemaca Tavola.  Na tamaqu ‘o Kaliopate Tavola.  Na tinaqu ‘o Helen Goodwill Tavola mai Palmerston North, Niu Siladi.  Na noqu koro ‘o Dravuni, mai na tikina ‘o Ono, na yasana ‘o Kadavu. 

Na noqu Yavusa ‘o Natusara. Na noqu Mataqali ‘o Navusalevu. Na noqu i tokatoka ‘o Samualevu se ‘o Naisaumualevu. Na noqu i Cavuti ‘o Natusara, vua na Gone Turaga na Ramalo, na Tunidaunibokola. Na yaca ni noqu Vu ‘o Ravuravu.  Na nona waqawaqa na dadakulaci. Na yaca ni noqu Kalou-vu ‘o Tuni.  Na marama watina ‘o Rokowati, se ‘o Bulou. 

Na kau se vunikau ni noqu i Cavuti  oya na vesi. Na manumanu ni noqu i Cavuti oya na secala. Na ika ni noqu i Cavuti oya na vonu. Na noqu vakacaucau ni valu oya ‘Nuku yara ni siga’.

I place myself in a geographical, political, cultural and ancestral context. Through my father, I am inextricably connected to my vanua, my land, my people, my air, seas, rivers, non-living and all living things, spirits, religion, history and kinship to my clan.[3]

The value of contemporary Pacific art to a lot of Pacific audiences is not associated with education or intellectual capacity, but with relevance and purpose. Pacific art is about relationships, people and audiences. In the context of grassroots curating, the process of encouraging Pacific audiences to actively engage with contemporary Pacific art is a process of activating the work.

My role as a Pacific art curator is constantly evolving; I am a collaborator, an enabler, a hype woman, a promoter. I get involved with artists – in their lives, their minds, their making. I spend time with their work and their process, and then try to translate their value to other people.

In supporting the professional development of Pacific artists, the engagement of audiences outside of the Pacific and South Auckland communities is inevitable and exciting. My privileging of Pacific audiences is not exclusive. I just cannot subscribe to an art history that marginalises Oceania.

‘Epeli Hau’ofa’s Sea of Islands prompted a reconsideration of Oceania’s scale, power and potential. Making art and exhibitions outside of mainstream academia, its institutions and market is in a sense a further reconsideration of the power, perspectives and purpose of both Pacific art and Pacific audiences.

Niue-based artist, Mark Cross calls this, “hyper-decentralisation and the dissolution of art frameworks in the Pacific”[4]; for me, it is as simple as creating value, honouring shared experience and empowering Pacific artists and audiences to engage, to connect and reflect on the collective potential of contemporary Pacific art.

[1] Salesa, D. (2013, March 21). Rethinking Pacific Auckland. Retrieved June 11, 2013, from

[2] The University of Waikato / Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi. (2011). He Kākano: Te Awe O Ngā Toroa. Retrieved August 4, 2013, from

[3] Baba, T. (2005). The way the world should be: Vanua and Taukei. Speight of Violence (pp. 20-30). Auckland, New Zealand: Reed Publishers.

[4] Cross, M. (2002, June). Hyper-Decentralisation and the Dissolution of Art Frameworks in the Pacific. Retrieved August 4, 2013, from

5 Responses to “Pacific Art for Pacific Audiences: Grassroots Curating in South Auckland”

  1. hukacanhaka

    Bula Ema, it was a pleasure to hear you represent South Auckland Moana voice at the PAA Symposium. You were eloquent, and your paper was thought provoking, especially in the context of the other ‘papers’ presented on you panel. I feel that your paper encouraged dialogue surrounding the changing nature of Indigenous art as a communicative tool; in the sense that I feel contemporary creative practice from Moana artists, is in a state of reclamation by our own communities. Congratulations on successfully speaking with authorised voice from within a community, to an audience who more often than not, speaks with perceived authority about communities. Nga mihi nui ki a koe xxx



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