COLOUR ME FIJI >> My name is Ema Tavola, I am a curator, writer and sometimes visual artist of kailoma Fijian and New Zealand Pakeha ancestry, currently living in South Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand.
I curate and work at Fresh Gallery Otara as the Pacific Arts Co-ordinator for Auckland Council (previously Manukau City Council).
I’m always on the look out to connect with clever visual artists and thinkers. I work towards developing the profile of Pacific Arts for Pacific audiences within Pacific contexts, artistic self-determination, in New Zealand and in Suva, watch this space…
From the Fiji country profile page, ArtAsiaPacific Almanac 2008 Issue 03 (p. 171)
Abroad, young artist and curator Ema Tavola celebrated the first anniversary of her Fresh Gallery Otara in Manukau, New Zealand, which has worked to raise the profile of contemporary Pacific arts. One of the gallery’s highlights was “Buy Spend Save Now” (3/22 – 4/14), a collaboration between Tavola and New Zealand-based Samoan artists Shigeyuki Kihara and Leilani Salesa featuring a multi-media installation using found materials and shopping carts loaded with nationalistic overtones.
Tavola’s efforts were officially recognised in July when she was appointed for a three-year period to Creative New Zealand’s Pacific Arts Committee, responsible for allocating grants and developing initiatives such as awards and international residencies. Additionally, her urban photographs were included in “Longitude” at The Art Studio, Rarotonga (9/10-30) – an edgy look at contemporary Pacific art across its geographic breadth curated by Giles Peterson.”
From Keeping Fresh by Innes Logan, Spasifik July/August 2007 Issue 21 (pp. 62-63)
The University of Auckland’s Manukau School of Visual Arts (based at MIT – Manukau Institute of Technology) where Ema Tavola studied, is just around the corner from the Fresh Gallery Otara where she is now based. But the Fijian, who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree (majoring in sculpture), says the contrast between the two could not be more diverse. “Studying institutionalised art in an academic environment and being a Pacific person in a space like Otara often brings conflict,” she says. “I see a place like this as a mediation space. We’ve got one foot in the art world and one in the community”….
‘Ema Tavola Lays Down Her Art Roots in Otara’ by Naomi Singer, Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust Newsletter (December 2006)
Ema Tavola’s latest work is of the familiar (and provocative) South Auckland structure, the power pylon, standing in a bright red sky. Its struts and supports criss-cross and jut out at different, blocky angles. It contains geometry and life. The hill it stands on is the firm earth; the red sky behind it is 2-dimensional and bold.
Ema is an artist, curator and member of Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust (she’s also a former member of the board) and has recently been an external assessor for Creative New Zealand‘s Pacific Arts Committee. Tautai’s strength as a network is invaluable; it’s “…so effective for young emerging artists to share the experiences of established artists,” she says.
Coming from a background in painting and sculpture, Ema’s art practice is as influenced by her art training as it is by the South Auckland environment where she lives. She regularly returns to the idea of taking contemporary art purposely to Pacific audiences.
“I started to look at the placement of contemporary art, and how art is looked at differently by the institutions than by the more public audience, and specifically the Pacific audience… I then tried to bridge both audiences; but for me, the Pacific audiences always should come first.”
Of Fijian (Dravuni, Kadavu) and Pakeha New Zealand descent, Ema began her art training at the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. Moving to Auckland, she went on to major in sculpture, completing her Bachelor of Visual Arts degree through the University of Auckland at Manukau in 2005. Her final project there was a series of sulu vakataga (formal Fijian wrap-around garments), which was a chance to combine textiles and sculpture and still address the persistent issues of art and accessibility that concerned her. With motifs such as the hibiscus flower and stag, it’s as if the sulu are affectionately ornamented with oversized (and politically-charged) travel patches.
While at University, Ema’s interest grew into installation art, and the work of ‘social sculptors’ – artists that work with people, activities and communities. Her involvement in exhibitions and curation continued and the last five years saw her involved in 16 exhibitions, whether as contributing artist, curator or commentator.
May 2006 saw the opening of Fresh Gallery Otara, a new community facility of Manukau City Council. As Pacific Arts Co-ordinator, her role there is spearheading the gallery and promoting local artists links in seamlessly with her long-standing interest “…in spaces where Pacific people can value and understand contemporary art.”
Bridging the Pacific Gap
This year has also seen Ema launching artworks and ideas to and fro across the Pacific Ocean – taking works by young New Zealand Pacific artists to the Pacific proper and bringing Pacific art back to New Zealand.
First she took the July 2006 exhibition (Re)Locating Home to be displayed in Suva, Fiji during the conference Vaka Vuku: Navigating Knowledge – Pacific Epistemologies Conference. The artists featured were Elisabeth Alani, Junior Ikitule, Leilani Kake, ‘Ahota’ei’loa Toetu’u, Vinesh Kumaran and Dean Purcell.
“(Re)Locating Home was my first independent curatorial project” says Ema. Installing the artworks in Fiji linked the works directly to the conference discourse as “… a way to acknowledge who we are and where we are in the world. It was like a visual depiction of a lot of the issues being discussed.”
In The Real Fiji, shown in Mangere, Manukau City in October 2006, she brought together the work of Fiji artists from Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. Ema aimed to portray something real and diverse about Fiji and not just the common perceptions filtered through the tourism industry and news media. “There are different levels and ways to express Fiji identity. One part of that was to highlight that Indo-Fijians have a distinctly Pacific experience in Fiji, alongside Indigenous Fijians.”
The exhibition featured Australian Fiji artists Salote Tawale and Torika Bolatagici, John Lake from Wellington and Craig Marlow from Fiji, and a collection of photography from the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement ELF (Emerging Leaders’ Forum), a young women’s leadership programme.
Otara and Painting
Ema’s red pylon painting asks the viewer to look again at the layers of social issues that surround the communities in South Auckland. “It makes us think about the environment where we live, the context of being here, of all the people that have migrated here. These areas full of pylons weren’t built for our health or well-being, but more for us to fulfil a role in society.”
Taking up painting again, means that Ema can create work that’s immediate and marketable. People look at them and respond. The paintings are also about Ema making art that’s rooted in Otara. “They are like drawings where I can capture my ideas in a raw way.” And after all these explorations of people, place, art-making and ideas, Ema’s next project is to apply for postgraduate study at the University of Auckland.
“All my experience has been very grassroots and I really enjoy that level of engagement. To have the Pacific community understand and acknowledge what Pacific artists are doing is the best!”
© Naomi Singer
Photo by Naomi Singer