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.

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HUMP DAY ART TALKS: The Art Game

Speaking at the exciting dialogue event, HUMP DAY ART TALKS in South Auckland this week, I decided to write a presentation based on a song I love called Ten Crack Commandments by Notorious B.I.G, who would have turned 40 this week. HUMP DAY ARTS TALKS was presented by MIT Faculty of Creative Arts with special support from Ngati Arty, the Maori and Pacific student association. Thank you for the opportunity!

I also had to speak before John Tui, the Tongan actor from South Auckland who has just starred in the Hollywood blockbuster, Battleship alongside Rihanna!


WARNING: THIS PAPER CONTAINS OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE.

[Intro music: Ten Crack Commandments by The Notorious B.I.G]

I fell in love with hip hop when it felt like an angry but empowered voice coming from young black men and women, living through hardship and inequality inextricably related to their histories as oppressed, enslaved, displaced people.

Hip hop has evolved and stratified beyond recognition in many cases. Mainstream hip hop today, which has merged and morphed in the centre of popular culture, is something I am not in love with. Over the past few years, witnessing the change and my love dissipate, I’ve become nostalgic for the hip hop era which feels real to me.

To cut a long story short, I’m going to give you my Ten Crack Commandments, based on, inspired by and loosely interpreted through this song.

I love the Notorious B.I.G but we have differences. Firstly, I am not homophobic and in fact have zero tolerance for homophobia in any part of my life. Secondly, I have never and do not currently sell crack.

However, I am not without my faults. I have been known to be a little bit racist, and I am also known in some circles as Pimpi, reflective of the way in which I represent, advocate and endorse artists in the visual arts industry here in Aotearoa.

To introduce the Commandments, Biggies says:

I been in this game for years, it made me an animal
Its rules to this shit, I wrote me a manual
A step by step booklet for you to get
Your game on track, not your wig pushed back

Like Biggie, I’ve been involved with art for years. It was the only thing I excelled in at school, and eventually, I made it to University. I’ve been studying, living and working Pacific art here in South Auckland for the past 10 years.

I’ve made mistakes: trusted the wrong people, been indulgent with… everything, been hospitalised, traumatised, I’ve stabbed backs and been backstabbed, had fights, caused fights, broken hearts, blown budgets, thrown shit, written shit, fallen over but gotten back up. Every time.

My manual is about what I’ve learnt from making mistakes and watching other people make mistakes around me.

Rule nombre uno: Never let no one know,
How much dough you hold, cause you know
The cheddar breed jealousy ‘specially
If that man fuck up, got your ass stuck up

I interpret this in two ways, the first being – never put all your cards on the table at once. Leave people guessing, to some extent – leave them anticipating your next move. Whether this is in terms of networking or arts practice, you want to sustain relationships in this game, so you need to be memorable and be someone who people want to see more of, hear more about… get to know.

Secondly, people with good ideas attract all sorts – some want to help you, some want to drain you. Be careful who you discuss your ideas with – remember when it’s just an idea, anyone can take it and make it their own. Just be careful who you trust.

Number two: Never let em know your next move
Don’t you know Bad Boys move in silence or violence
Take it from Your Highness (uh-huh)
I done squeezed mad clips at these cats for they bricks and chips

When Biggie says Bad Boys, I think of agents of colonial infrastructure maintaining power and control over indigenous people and minority communities. Institutional racism is rife in New Zealand – it is so ingrained that it is silent and so harmful that it is violent, even more so under National Party leadership.

I have never killed for my cause, but I take great pleasure in intellectually knee-capping bureaucrats around board tables in the ivory towers of both local and central government.

Number three: never trust no-bo-dy
Your moms’ll set that ass up, properly gassed up
Hoodie to mask up, shit, for that fast buck
she be layin in the bushes to light that ass up

Whilst my mum is my biggest fan, this one is about trust.

On a positive note, you only need to be burnt once, maybe twice to really think hard about who you trust.

Everyone has their own agenda and it’s a dog eat dog world. Even in the arts.

Number four: know you heard this before
Never get high, on your own supply


One of my personal learnings is to not try and wear two hats at the same time. It’s hard to be a curator and be an artist in your own show. As it would be hard to produce and direct or star in dance, theatre or film. It’s best to focus on doing one thing well, and surrounding yourself with good people who can be trusted to do the work that needs to be done to your standards.

Number five: never sell no crack where you rest at
I don’t care if they want a ounce, tell em bounce

This is a personal one, concerned with work-life balance. Art can be all consuming – sometimes you might realise that you go to school with the same people your making work with, who are the same people you drink with, and sometimes the same people you fight with and sometimes sleep with. Great projects can come from this kind of commitment, but from my experience, it’s good to spend some time outside of this world. Thinking differently, relating to people differently… seeing differently. I think it’s healthy to have boundaries of where art stops and the rest of your life can breathe.

Number six: that god damn credit, dead it
You think a crackhead payin you back, shit forget it

Don’t do shit for people who aren’t going to reciprocate. Sometimes reciprocation is just an acknowledgement, a genuine gesture of thanks and appreciation. Sometimes it could have more value – professionally or financially.

Don’t get used, your creative services and skills have value especially once you are trained, disciplined and qualified. If you’re unsure about your value or the value of things you’re doing for other people, talk to artists who have been around for longer.

Seven: this rule is so underrated
Keep your family and business completely seperated

Money and blood don’t mix like two dicks and no bitch
Find yourself in serious shit

Minus the homophobia, I like to extend this rule from family to famz. I don’t have any direct family here in New Zealand, so my close friends are famz to me – they have my back, support me, encourage me, cry with me and pick me up from prison / hospital / court whatever. I love them. Thing is, I have a condition that I love to help people out and will invest myself fully in this task.  And this doesn’t work well with art projects. Friendships and relationships in general are affected when expectations and reality drift too far apart and two parties are not on the same page.

For me, money and blood don’t mix like the National Party and Good Leadership.

This rule also applies to nepotism. When you’ve been burnt by two people who are genetically or emotionally loyal to each other over you or a project, you grow weary of working with siblings or husbands and wives. Bottom line, relationships in a project should be clear and free from personal baggage, as much as possible.

Number eight: never keep no weight on you
Them cats that squeeze your guns can hold jobs too

Keep your practice clean and transparent. The arts industry in Aotearoa is small and bad reputations, shady practices, debt and dishonesty are like bad smells that follow you around. For middle men like me, working as a curator and advisor on decisions about who gets opportunities and funding, it’s important that what is known about you online and off, is not going to compromise where you want to go in this industry. For people like me, it is my business to know about artists – I talk, investigate, enquire, google, tweet – and I call on other people like me who expand the knowledge catching net even further.

Number nine shoulda been number one to me
If you ain’t gettin bags stay the fuck from police (uh-huh)
If niggaz think you snitchin ain’t tryin listen
They be sittin in your kitchen, waitin to start hittin

So… sometimes the relationship between crack and professional practice in the art world gets a little thin! Not snitching, staying away from Police… well, you should just try and do these things in life in general!

Number ten: a strong word called consignment
Strictly for live men, not for freshmen
If you ain’t got the clientele say hell no
Cause they gon want they money rain sleet hail snow

If someone asks you to do something, be realistic – you have to learn from projects truly going pear shaped for this one to be really  real, but if I can just drop any words of wisdom, I would just say think within your means.

You can rely on funding when you have a solid project and you’re backed up by people in the know, with standing in the community, but if funding is a blind shot – be realistic. Don’t commit and get commitment on a project that will cause serious problems if it goes ahead without the funding.

Or worse still, if you get funding and the project doesn’t happen and the money gets spent in other ways, your reputation can get discredited. If you don’t repay money to lenders or funders, you can get dragged through Baycorp or Court… you don’t want that.

Thanks for listening.

Conversations about life and death

As I try to prepare something of a final speech to deliver at my last opening at Fresh Gallery Otara next week, I’ve been reflecting on the people who have been influential and significant in my curatorial practice and life in general since the Gallery opened in 2006.

This is a piece of writing about Leilani Kake that didn’t quite work out for its intended destination.  I have a conflict of interest with Leilani because I suspect she is my muse, and I will always sound ‘advocatey’ for her, because I am in fact, her biggest fan!

Leilani Kake is an artist who hasn’t been around for a long time, but she knows where she stands. Her work is informed by a distinct and intimate relationship with her past and her role as a caretaker for the future. She is grounded, firmly and profoundly. A heightened sense of self and place is perhaps a result of her bicultural heritage: Kake is of both indigenous New Zealand Māori and Cook Islands Māori descent. Whilst culturally connected, colonisation and displacement has evolved the relationship. As a resident of New Zealand, Kake straddles two worlds; that of being indigenous or tangata whenua, and also classed as a Pacific Islander, the community of Pacific Island people living in diaspora, once migrant and now predominantly New Zealand-born.

Kake’s experience is even broader still; born in Rotorua and raised in Papua New Guinea, Australia and South Auckland, she has long understood the ways in which the world defines her. Her identity and the shared experiences of people and practices that emphasise connectedness are a running theme in her work. Her family is a primary source of inspiration, and working in the relatively non-commercial medium of video installation, Kake’s family and extended community are a significant core audience for her work.

As inspiration and audience, Kake’s family are often performers and subjects in the artist’s emotionally charged video installations. In Talking Tivaevae (2005), Kake’s in-laws performed and participated in the making of the work, the video component as well as the hand-made Cook Island quilt or tivaevae. Ariki (2007) was the first work of series documenting the development and influences affecting her son, Andre’s life. In 2008, Kake moved from a staged performance based approach to real-life documentary style with her three-channel video installation, Tino Rangatira Tanga, a moving tribute to her late father, Richard Kake.

Since 2007, Kake has premiered her new works at Fresh Gallery Otara, a community gallery in her local suburb of Otara, South Auckland. In every case, the works have gone on to be shown nationally and internationally, but it is her core audience who she gives priority to. Like many Pacific artists who draw inspiration from their communities, Kake places a Pacific Island audience in high regard in terms of presenting new work.  Fresh Gallery Otara’s predominantly Pacific Island and youthful audience exposes artists to opinions and feedback based less on academic paradigms and more on cultural symbolism and meaning, feeling and relativity to popular culture and lived experience from the position of South Aucklandat the centre.

Kake has always thrived on this feedback and audiences have always responded to her work in significant ways. Her 2007 and 2008 works, Ariki and Tino Rangatira Tanga, about her then 5-year old son and the impending separation of his parents, and the life and death of her late father, have moved many viewers to tears. Kake’s 2011 work, Ngā Hau E Whā – The Four Winds, inspired high levels of awareness of the disproportionate statistics of Māori and Pacific Island women and cervical and breast cancer related fatality.

Whilst Kake’s work is at home in South Auckland, it loses nothing when exported. Curators have been drawn to the insight and intimacy her work offers. With work being shown in Taiwan, San Francisco, Paris and Hawai’i, Kake’s connectedness, familial relationships and conversations about life and death, transcend cultural contexts.

In 2012, Kake juggles teaching, post-graduate studies and preparation for a significant new work that documents her son’s traditional Cook Island hair-cutting ceremony. The artist’s 2007 work, Ariki, has also been re-made for a showing at Auckland Art Gallery in July.

Water and Politics

I try to swim at least four times a week. My local recreation centre has a reliably cold outdoor pool and in South Auckland, we have been fortunate to have free access to swimming pools. I swim as the sun is setting, I like the light, and the quiet; I often have the pool to myself.

After I’ve warmed up, and my body stops struggling against the cold, I start to observe my own silence. Being in between the water and the sky, I’m aware and alert. I hear differently, and smell differently, and think deeply.

Today, the singing from a church group at Otara Music Arts Centre across the road was vigorous. Perhaps a significantly large congregation, or a special occasion – the doors must have been wide open. I could hear individual voices, I could hear their faith.

Last week I could smell an umu. I was interviewed for an article a few years ago and spoke about one of the things I love about Otara being the haze of umu smoke on Christmas day. I think I was probably exaggerating, but the smell of umu or lovo, is happiness – memories of family, celebrations, love, land, home – and all from a smell.

I resigned two weeks ago from my job of more than six years. I’ve worked in the ‘change environment’ for almost half of that time. Considering my future and contemplating my own ‘change environment’ has effected my outlook in a big way. At times, everything is different – how I walk in different spaces, my language… my perspective. I’m emotional, and final. I see clearer, but also feel like I’m seeing things for the first time.

With news of a New Zealand local government reform, that will certainly affect the services I benefit from as a ratepayer in South Auckland, and my own professional change environment, it’s the moments in the pool – where I swim for free, every second day – that I reflect on what feels like the end of a golden era.

Sadly, with leaders like this, informing change that will inevitably disenfranchise some of the country’s most vulnerable sectors, migration has never looked so appealing.

 

The 3rd South Auckland Pacific Arts Summit (4-31 May)

I’m excited to be overseeing the third South Auckland Pacific Arts Summit in May, the last project I’ll be involved in before leaving my role. The poster design process has been another thoroughly inspiring creative collaboration with Edgar Melitao at The Kitchen Media.

The Pacific Arts Summit poster brochure will be out by the end of March at Arts facilities around the Auckland region. The Summit is delivered from 4-31 May in the South Auckland suburbs of Mangere, Manukau, Otara and Papakura.

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!