Janet Lilo | Original Gangsta

This artist profile appears in the current Tautai Trust newsletter

Janet Lilo has an acute consciousness of the politics of representation; her work as a visual artist, social commentator and community documenter is a breath of fresh air for the contemporary Pacific arts sector. As an active recorder of lifestyles and landscapes, homes, communities and individuals, Lilo consistently offers informed and respectful insights into contemporary daily life for urban New Zealanders. Combining a savvy conceptual approach with spatial awareness and a clever framework of popular culture and hip-hop, Lilo’s gallery practice makes an impact, drawing crowds and stimulating dialogue.

Since graduating from AUT with a Master of Art and Design in 2007, Lilo has gone on to hold three solo exhibitions and feature in numerous group shows from Hawai’i to Taiwan, New Plymouth to Otara. On the official New Zealand delegation at the 10th Festival of Pacific Arts, Lilo represented a rooted New Zealand flavour and confidence that connected readily with the pan-Pacific audience. In May, Lilo’s hard work and commitment was recognised when she was selected as the first New Zealand artist to undertake a visual arts residency in Sapporo, Japan under the JENESYS residency programme.

Creating a video log archive of people and trends, communities and performance, Lilo’s practice is as steeped in localism as it is informed by global media and music. Her heritage of Māori (Ngāpuhi), Niuean and Samoan ancestry grant her insight and perhaps the innate ability to translate, manoeuvre within and re-present stories of communities that she is part of.

Hip-hop music has been an ongoing influence in Lilo’s life and work. In 2004, in response to New Zealand’s televised version of American Idol, she began a body of work called, On Queenz documenting people on Queen Street in central Auckland on a single night during March. Endeavouring to collate a series of vox populi depicting everyday people performing, singing and rapping, Lilo created her own version of New Zealand rap idol. She continued the work in 2005, on the same night, in the same location. Her interest in performance and interpretations of popular culture are further recognised in her ongoing video documentation of Jigga Jo Thug. Jigga’s passionate performances lip syncing to the likes of Justin Timberlake, Scribe and Tupac Shakur evoke ideas around exhibitionism and the impact of American popular culture on New Zealand young people.

At the core of Lilo’s work is a relationship with her subjects; she is regarded as a trusted and respected documenter which imparts a strong sense of accountability to the cultural languages she represents. In her 2006 experimental documentary, Whipping Boy, Lilo’s siblings become collaborators in the work. Part documentary, part video drawing, Lilo uses sound and narrative to explore the then current trend amongst young people in Auckland of creating loud cracking noises with a whipping motion using a length of fabric. Lilo explains that collaborating with her family and community is a way to give them access to the work she makes, “my work isn’t made purely for galleries, it is shown in homes and it belongs to the communities it represents.”

Collaboration has become a defining characteristic of Lilo’s video works. In 2006, she undertook a project to produce a series of music videos for local hip-hop artists Abrio, Bronze Chyld and Dr Seuss. Whilst the videos were produced on a shoestring budget, Lilo was able to translate the lyrical narratives and direction of the music and artists into beautifully crafted and sophisticated videography. Struggle of an Emcee, a documentary style enquiry produced at the same time provides context and uncovers stories and relationships the artists have with the global culture of hip-hop. This body of work was selected by curator Heather Galbraith for the prestigious biannual Telecom Prospect show at Wellington’s City Gallery.

Lilo’s noted 2007 solo exhibition, TOP16 curated by Louise Tu’u for St Paul Street Gallery 3 introduced the virtual space and phenomenon of Bebo, the social networking site of choice for many Pacific and Māori youth, to a traditional gallery context. The exhibition’s one-week showing attracted much attention; Lilo’s concerns with popular culture and time-based documentation informed a website-like installation where viewers moved from space to space, connected by text and photos, video and sound.

In 2008, TOP16 was re-developed for Fresh Gallery Otara, a Manukau City Council facility servicing a primary audience of local New Zealand-born Polynesian and Māori youth. In a smaller gallery space, Lilo installed four video works, a full-sized picnic table, a sculptural love heart and over 200 photos taken from Bebo profile pages. Over three weeks, the gallery’s attendance records were tripled; as if holding up a mirror to contemporary life, the exhibition inspired rigorous response and dialogue around representation, the internet, accessibility, identity and visual culture.

From international fine arts institutions to local community and public galleries and auction houses, Lilo’s social network website enquiry has proven hugely popular. In her current solo exhibition, MyFace for the Auckland Festival of Photography, the seventh manifestation of the original concept, Lilo has focused on a mass installation of provocative amateur photography commonly found on profile pages of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, in addition to Bebo. With seven showings over less than two years, the popularity of Lilo’s web-based work mirrors the cyclical nature of popular culture; in one moment, out the next.

Like the content of her recent showings, Lilo’s video work is largely available online. Documentation of exhibitions and video works are largely accessible via a simple Google search and Lilo’s official website is planned for 2009.

“I don’t have a selling practice; it’s a sharing practise… Things are collaborative; it’s not really just me.” – Janet’s future collaborative projects including planned works with Monique Redmond and S-AIR artists from Japan as well as an exhibition about hair straightening is planned for August 2009.

As one of the youngest board members, Lilo brings invaluable insight to the Tautai Board; her contribution to the Pacific art sector brings a freshness and realness to our ongoing representation within the New Zealand art scene both nationally and internationally.

Ema Tavola
June 2009