Value, values and #HomeAKL

For the past several months, I’ve been part of the curatorial team for the upcoming exhibition, Home AKL at Auckland Art Gallery opening Saturday 7 July. Under the leadership of Ron Brownson (Senior Curator – New Zealand and Pacific Art, Auckland Art Gallery), Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai, Nina Tonga and I have been the Associate Curators.

The experience has been exciting and rewarding, challenging and eye-opening. It is always satisfying to see artists who show at Fresh Gallery Otara go on to do great things. Having celebrated the gallery’s sixth anniversary last month, and processing mixed emotions about leaving my role at Auckland Council, it is particularly heartening to see that almost 40% of the artists in Home AKL have shown at Fresh since the Gallery opened in 2006.

The entry fee for Home AKL last week got reconsidered, the process of which was reported in the New Zealand Herald (10 June, 2012). Whilst an entry fee potentially limits accessibility to some audiences, it also builds value. The value of Home AKL is significant: for the artists, their work is shown in a landmark exhibition, in an award winning building over three months. Their work will be hung on the same walls as the European masterpieces in the recent Degas to Dalí travelling exhibition. Artists benefit from extensive media coverage, in-depth essays and exhibition writing, public programme events and talks. For audiences, Home AKL is a massively varied insight into Pacific lives and experience here in Auckland. The Pacific community is diverse and dynamic and this exhibition is a highly considered reflection of that. The works in Home AKL push the ‘identity’ cliché beyond recognition.

The upcoming Advance Pasifika: March for the Future event on Saturday 16 June is an effort to make Pacific people visible in Auckland. I’m excited about this event because I’ve seen so much change in the past three or so years that has systematically reduced the input and participation of Pacific people in decision making at local and central government levels. It’s heart breaking to feel so powerless in Aotearoa.

I’m proud that Home AKL comes at a time when Pacific people are starting to stir and expect and demand more of our leaders. I know that an entry fee for an art exhibition is considered by many to be unreasonable and even a deterrent. I understand the costs, particularly when coming from South Auckland. Transport and parking alone is expensive. I can only say that the experience of Home AKL will confirm for Pacific audiences that our lives, identities and multifaceted contributions to Auckland are recognised and honoured in this exhibition. We will be visible and present; our issues and perspectives, our communities and environments – Home AKL is a celebration of Auckland through a Pacific lens.

Importantly, myself, Kolokesa and Nina have ensured that Pacific input has been present and considered at every stage of the exhibition’s development. For me, this is an important point of difference. I hope that this input has informed a new way of looking at and considering art made by Pacific people.

I’m looking forward to the show opening, the various public events, and importantly, the reviews and responses from the Pacific community and beyond.

Resignation and Change

By the time I leave my job, I will have given six years and six months of service to local government in South Auckland.

Whilst the organisation I work for has been in the throws of corporate transition,  change and transformation for almost half of that time, I now find myself deep within my own personal transition. I am filled with clarity and determination, emotional with nostalgia and excited and scared to step boldly towards the unknown.

Nostalgic and emotionally bonded through literally blood, sweat and tears to Fresh Gallery Otara. What many term, my ‘baby’ – Fresh has been my everything for six years. By the time I leave, I will have overseen 66 exhibitions and too many gatherings and events to count.

It is the right time to leave. The last show I will curate will be WWJD – the Gallery’s 6th anniversary exhibition that honours Jim Vivieaere. I’m really proud of this show – I know it will be visually exciting and conceptually strong, but most importantly, the community will love it. It opens on Thursday 10 May, and whilst I’ve said it for many years now, there ain’t no opening like a Fresh Gallery Otara opening, I envisage that this opening will be really, really special.

In 2008, a young art school graduate named Nicole Lim joined the Fresh family. Nicole and I went through the University of Auckland Bachelor of Visual Arts programme delivered by Manukau School of Visual Arts, now the Faculty of Creative Arts at Manukau Institute of Technology. We clicked and were on the same page from day one. I always joke that Nicole is my right brain – the logical, the mathematical, the long-term memory – I have most probably got that scientifically confused, but in essence, Nicole has become the ying to my bureaucratic yang. With Nicole on board, Fresh went into second gear, and then third… we work so well as a team, I will miss that so, so much. I am filled with pride and happiness to see Nicole curating her first show outside of Fresh Gallery Otara, 2 for 1 opens next week at St Paul St Gallery 3:

I know I will call Fresh, just to hear her say “Fresh Gallery Otara, speaky Nicole!” in her sweet fobby voice! LMAO! Sorry Nicole :’D You’ll probably just hear deep breathing then a quiet sob.. I promise I’ll try not to do that everyday! 😀

This transition time for me is half grief, half happiness, total love and respect for what has been, and superb clarity in who I am and why I do what I do.

I’ve been sitting in meetings recently, feeling like a wolf in sheep’s clothing – being a “curator” but thinking like an activist. Speaking up for artists, but asserting a firm position on [post-]colonial power struggles and institutional racism. Taking the hits, fighting the fight, doing the work of too many individuals… I’m so tired.

I had to speak to my father yesterday morning, to give me some words to get me through another day. We discussed anger, and calmness… being positive, being part of a solution, not a problem. He told me to read the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi, that he has often recited to me. I put it on my phone and read it throughout the day. And it helped.

Last night I attended the opening of Identi-Tee – a new exhibition about T-shirts at the Auckland Museum. I was so impressed – those in attendance represented such an excellent cross-section of the Pacific community here in Auckland right now. I loved the video Janet Lilo was commissioned to create – it reminded me how much I’ve loved working with Janet over the years. Janet’s cousin, Lorna, who has become a great friend, and Lorna’s partner Peter being part of this project made me smile from ear to ear.

I love being around the objects in the Pacific collection at the Auckland Museum – the feeling of closeness to one’s past, land, history, ancestry, is real. I love the Fijian war weaponry and the way it’s displayed. It felt nice being there for an event like this, the main atrium area was filled with Pacific people, voices, laughter and music, and we were surrounded by our objects and our history.

I ended the night sitting on Mission Bay beach with my colleague and dear friend, Nigel Borell. The air was cool, the moon was full and the water was completely calm. Nigel and I have worked closely for three years and getting SOUTH off the ground this year was a great achievement. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, I’m so proud of what we have achieved together.

I’ll post more on my plans moving forward… my next chapter is looking pretty exciting!

Congratulations MIT Faculty of Creative Arts graduates!

I was asked to be the guest speaker at the Manukau Institute of Technology Faculty of Creative Arts 2011 Graduation. A massive privilege… I thought back to my own graduation in 2006. And feel grateful for the loving support of my parents.

This was my speech:

Ni sa bula vinaka,

I feel most privileged to have the opportunity to address you on this prestigious occasion. I don’t remember the keynote speaker at my own graduation because I was so overwhelmed on the day; my family had travelled from Fiji and I was surrounded by the same excited and anxious energy emanating from all the graduating students around me. I have since then supported many of my friends at their graduations, listened intently to the speakers and shared that moment of complete satisfaction. No matter your struggles and challenges in your years of study, getting through, getting here, to this point, is all that matters.

Tonight we celebrate your achievement. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate you all on the small things that have got you to this day. Small as they seem, it’s the baby steps which count. Congratulations for waking up on time. For attending class. Congratulations for thinking, responding and investing in your mind, and congratulations for taking the bold step of making art, wanting to be an artist, and energising your innate creative ability.

There are things we learn on our tertiary journeys that only become truly valuable when we enter the world and the workforce after art school. You have learnt how to meet deadlines, to develop, implement and review projects. You have learnt skills in research and analysis, and you have developed and honed your voice. To be taught and to learn are skills that will enrich your life. Art school is a wonderful mix of personalities and perhaps unconsciously, you have developed in small ways your communication skills, open mindedness and tolerance.

It’s important to know that qualifications alone will not open doors to dream jobs. A qualification can demonstrate commitment and a specific skill set, but doors open for people with plans. I encourage you all to think about where this qualification sits in your big picture. What would you be doing in this life if money wasn’t an issue – what makes you happy?

If a qualification in creative arts is a step in the right direction, what else needs to be done to get you to where you want to be. Think big, write it down, create goals and put your head down and work. Before you know it, your plan will be manifesting before your eyes. There will be highs and lows on your journey, but for every failure there is momentary pain and long-term learning. Believe me, this is true.

When you have a plan, getting through the day, facing challenges and braving the unknown become manageable. Everything you do becomes part of a focused trajectory. You will work harder, invest yourself fully and emanate an air of drive and determination and THIS is what opens doors.

The reality is that jobs in the creative sector are few and far between. This is why it is crucial to acknowledge that your tertiary training isn’t ‘teaching you how to be an artist’, but teaching you how to hone your creativity, empower your voice and practice universal skills applicable to the workforce. Your challenge after art school is to turn your skills and creativity into currency.

Innovation and innovative thinking is in hot demand in many industries. Creative minds are curious and have the potential to think about problem solving in new and valuable ways. The key to making a creative arts qualification work for you is to find ways that your creative thinking can be applied to money-making or career-building opportunities. We only hone our abilities by experience, and opportunities to do this come in all forms.

Within the context of your big picture plan, I encourage you to maximise on every opportunity that crosses your path. By building our experience – personal, professional and artistic – we learn what we’re good at and what we’re not!

Jobs may be scarce – we often have to simply do what we can. If a 9 to 5 job isn’t feeding your creative soul, invest your personal time in projects that develop your creative practice. Exhibit as much as possible, keep drawing, writing, blogging and performing. Attend openings and events and hone your networking skills. If you don’t have a blog, start one immediately! Document your practice, your experiences, your influences, engage people with your creative journey. Remember, opportunities to develop your creative practice aren’t always formal, or in the case of visual arts, in galleries – church banners count! Illustrations in zines count! Online exhibitions count! Document it all and grow a community of appreciators around you.

From one graduate to another, let me assure you that when the IRD start taking your student loan payments out of your pay, it stings. When you’re working 9 to 5 and having a significant part of your wages automatically deducted to pay for that qualification, you think a lot about art school. Take it from me, after 6 years of paying off my student loan, art school is not a time to mess around. I feel old saying “We didn’t have Facebook in my day”, but it’s the truth and I acknowledge the new modes of procrastination can be seriously addictive.

Don’t waste this time. You can fall in love, be heartbroken, party hard, experience loss and pain, but don’t waste time. You’re at school to learn, not to socialise. You’re at school to increase your opportunities in life, to give hope to your family. And art school is a privilege.

We live in a country where artists can apply for public funds to make art; exhibitions and arts events happen almost every day of the year, much of which is free. We’re a small country with a big reputation on the world stage and opportunities to travel, engage, participate, show and develop your creative practice are abundant. But the competition is fierce.

Getting an arts education in South Auckland is a double-edged sword; on one hand, we are geographically and socially dislocated from the wider creative sector. On the other hand, we have a competitive advantage – what we make and develop in relative isolation is bold and innovative, informed often unconsciously by our unique socio-political and cultural context.

Armed with your qualification and a foundation in thinking creatively, I challenge you to treat tomorrow as Day 1 of the next chapter of your creative career. Write down your goals, dream big and reflect on what makes you happy. Be open to advice and opportunities. Be confident. Be nice – the art world is small, reputations often precede you. And perhaps most importantly, be hungry – hungry to get to where you want to be, hungry to be heard, hungry to keep developing and learning. Know that wherever you go, in whatever field, your creativity is within you, and has enormous potential. Remember South Auckland, remember Z Block – and don’t be a stranger.

Good luck and go well,

Vinaka vakalevu.

Nimamea’a: The Fine Arts of Tongan Embroidery and Crochet


Nimamea’a: The Fine Arts of Tongan Embroidery and Crochet is derived from an exhibition first shown at Fresh Gallery Otara in April / May 2010. Very proud to see it reframed within the context of Objectspace, a very exciting gallery in central Auckland dedicated to craft, applied arts and design.

Well done curators Kolokesa Uafā Māhina-Tuai and Manuēsina ‘Ofa-ki-Hautolo Māhina and HUGE RESPECT to the fine artists involved, Lingisiva ‘Aloua, Kolokesa Kulīkefu, Lupe Mahe, Tu’utanga Hunuhunu Māhina, Falesiu Siu Noma, ‘Ofa-ki-Nu’usila Talakia’atu and Manuēsina Tonata.

Mana Takatāpui: Taera Tāne

I traveled to Wellington with artist Tanu Gago for the opening of Mana Takatāpui: Taera Tāne curated by Reuben Friend for Deane Gallery, City Gallery Wellington. The group exhibition features Tanu’s work alongside Fear Brampton, Richard Kereopa, Dan Taulapapa McMullin and Hoteera Riri. Programmed to coincide with the Wellington Outgames, the exhibition opened in January and runs until late March.

“This work is concerned with the construction of masculine identities among young urban Pacific gay males, exploring notions of visibility, character play, performance, sexuality and gender stereotype.” – Tanu Gago

The series of four A1 size photographs was produced in South Auckland and shot by Indo-Fijian photographer, Vinesh Kumaran under the artistic direction from Tanu Gago. The series is inspired by a poem by Dan Taulapapa McMullin, which is presented alongside the work. Tanu was able to produce this work with the assistance of a grant from the Pacific Arts Committee of Creative New Zealand.

Tanu will be in Wellington on Friday 18 March for, Open City – Out in the Gallery, a special public programme event for the Wellington Outgames that features performances by Richard Kereopa, poetry by Dan Taulapapa McMullin and lots more.

Photos from Mana Takatāpui: Taera Tāne

Photos documenting the making of the work


(L-R: John Ioane, Ema Tavola, MP Carmel Sepuloni, Jim Vivieaere and Aaron Taouma)

Supporting MP Carmel Sepuloni, New Zealand’s first member of Parliament of Tongan descent. Her campaign against Paula Bennett for Waitakere in 2011 should be exciting! Carmel has strong support from the Pacific arts community.

Members of the Creative New Zealand Pacific Arts Committee at the 2010 Arts Pasifika Awards, Wellington (November 2010): Fuimaono Karl Pulotu-Endemann (Samoa), Rev. Suamalie Iosefa (Tuvalu), Frances Hartnell (Cook Islands), Pele Walker (Chair), Ema Tavola (Fiji), Matafetu Smith (Niue) and Taniela Vao (Tonga).

My beautiful new Gary Lee work, Shaba as Billiamook. Thank you Gary! Fresh Gallery Otara is hosting Australian photographer, Gary Lee’s first international exhibition in May 2011 to celebrate the Gallery’s 5th Anniversary and the 2nd Manukau Pacific Arts Summit!

(L-R: Czarina Wilson, Ema Tavola, J Boog, Leilani Kake)

The hugely successful NiuFM Mixer Gig in Manukau City brought an incredible line-up of international Pacific reggae musicians to South Auckland including J Boog, George FIJI Veikoso, The Hot Rain Band, Kiwini + Siaosi… it was the best concert I’ve ever been to in New Zealand!

(L-R: Nicole Lim, Melissa Cole, Tanu Gago, Nigel Borell, Leilani Kake)

Manukau-based Samoan film-maker, Tanu Gago showed his first gallery-based work, YOU LOVE MY FRESH – a 3-channel video installation, at Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts which opened in September attracting a wide community of supporters. YOU LOVE MY FRESH runs until 12 December 2010. Read an interesting review of by John Hurrell on EyeContact here.

Gary Lee and Me

Meeting Australian photographer, Gary Lee was the highlight of my time in Rarotonga. I have had a special love affair with Lee’s work since I bought the 2005 issue of Artlink with his image, Shaba on the front cover. Working with Samoan filmmaker and emerging artist Tanu Gago, we have discussed Lee’s work at length in recent months.

Nigel Borell, Ema Tavola, Maurice O'Riordan and Dan Taulapapa McMullin

The August 2010 issue of Art Monthly Australia, themed ‘OzPasifika’, was launched on Tuesday 10 August at BCA Gallery to coincide with the opening of TOP16 a solo exhibition by Janet Lilo curated by Ron Brownson. It’s an excellent issue that feels very special, including great profiles of Torika Bolatagici, Lisa Hili, Chantal Fraser, Maryann Talia Pau and Eric Bridgeman. It’s refreshing to see another Australasian art publication providing space  for Pacific and indigenous writing and response.

On my knees begging for a show!

Gary Lee, you so rocked my world!