The Paradise Economy

From the Fresh Gallery Otara exhibition catalogue for “Foreign Objects”…


In Foreign Objects, Samoan multimedia artist Angela Tiatia creates a new museum of objects and imagery sourced from the Internet. Through searches using words like “Polynesia” and “Pacific”, words that are used to describe a region and complex interwoven communities of people, the material sourced paints an intriguing picture of the economics, power and politics of representation of Pacific Islanders and Pacific Islandness in popular culture.

Recently, many museums have evolved to foster dialogue and meaningful engagement with indigenous communities. But museum collecting has historically represented the beliefs, values and disciplines of the collectors, and further, seen as objective representations of people and cultures. In the context of colonialism, history from the perspective of one party is problematic.

Tiatia uses the museum as a medium to identify and investigate the language of collecting, encouraging us to question who the collector is and what is the context of their enquiry. In her re-imagined museum space, she reverses the gaze, assuming the position of the collector and not the collected.

These symbolic objects of representation form a pseudo-anthropological investigation of pop culture and e-commerce, tourism and the trade and exchange of Pacific Islandness. Using the exhibition language of the museum, Tiatia centralises the vitrine[i] putting cultural ideas and perceptions under a microscope.

As commodities “made in our image”[ii], this assemblage of readymade objects is an indirect homage not to the hands (or machines) that made them, or the economic context they represent, but to the cultural references, inspiration and intellectual stimulus that created them. The fact that nothing here is physically made by the artist perhaps represents the distance and dislocation of these representations of the Pacific.

The items in Tiatia’s collection have been purchased largely from the American online shopping website, ebay. Not only are the objects themselves rich manifestations of cultural cringe, the terminology used by buyers and sellers represent a further layer of continued stereotyping and misrepresentation, particularly with regards to the commercial delineation of authenticity.

Foreign Objects is a continuation of Tiatia’s recent interest in the post-colonial dynamics of the tourism industry. Her recent video installation, Neo-Colonial Extracts (2010) is a poignant and raw look at the reality of tourism in the Pacific. Featuring the derelict site of the Sheraton Resort in Rarotonga,Cook Islands, the work identifies the significant economic gain for local communities, and the scale of failure when tourism ventures collapse.

Tiatia’s 2010 video work Hibiscus Rose-Sinensis confronts viewers upon entry at Fresh Gallery Otara. In an exhibition formed largely from readymade objects, the work is in a sense a contextual statement. In a performance featuring the artist herself, a perfect red hibiscus flower is slowly consumed, revealing the face and penetrating gaze of the consumer – a Pacific Islander becomes visible, present, dominant. The red hibiscus, a common motif in contemporaryPacificIsland visual culture, potentially represents the historical and ongoing misrepresentations of simplicity, beauty and the Western concept of paradise. Here it is considered and slowly but surely devoured.

Tiatia’s first site-specific solo exhibition is repatriation of sorts. Her museum of paradise is steeped in the politics of a post-colonial hangover. There is a sense of nostalgia, in the memory of Oceania at the early stages of our relationship with the West, but equally a sense of disempowerment. Stereotypes and colonial ideas, views and framing of the Pacific endure and continue to inform misrepresentations in film, mainstream media and popular culture.

Fresh Gallery Otara is a constantly evolving site for the consideration and commentary on contemporary Pacific Island experience in Aotearoa. Presented here, Foreign Objects promotes a process of reflection, empowering viewers to consider the power play of representation and the politics of museums.

Ema Tavola
September 2011

[i] A glass display case commonly found in museums.

[ii] In conversation with the artist, Grey Lynn, August 2011


Fiji women were 100% present at the recent UNICEF Youth Congress held at Te Manukanuka o Hoturoa Marae in Auckland. I spoke in a panel about art as a platform for social activism, after sessions by Sainimere Veitata, Co-chair of the Econesian Society at the University of the South Pacific (Suva, Fiji) and Merewalesi Nailatikau, UNICEF Regional Goodwill Ambassador. Merewalesi was crowned Miss Hibiscus and went on to be the first Fijian woman to take out the Polynesian-dominated Miss South Pacific beauty pageant in 2009. She is brains + beauty in a big way!

My South Auckland comrade, Luisa Tora, came to support. Luisa and I are working on an upcoming project to commemorate Fiji Day in the South Auckland suburb of Otahuhu. In an exhibition of posters featuring artwork by 7 Fiji women artists, diasporadic679 will be installed in the windows and public spaces of 6 venues over 9 days. The numerical reference is to Fiji’s international telephone prefix.

The exhibition will be part of the newly re-branded Southside Arts Festival (previously Manukau Festival of Arts) which runs from 14 October – 6 November 2011.

diasporadic679 takes its name partly from Luisa Tora’s made-in-South-Auckland zine, diasporadic and represents an ongoing relationship between Fiji women artists Sangeeta Singh, Margaret Aull, Torika Bolatagici, Dulcie Stewart, Tagi Qolouvaki, Luisa and myself.

The diasporadic679 blog has just been established and will be updated daily leading up to the project which runs from 17-25 October.

WWJD: What Would Jim Do?

I took this photo in 2009. I was visiting Tracey Tawhiao’s salon on the first floor of St Kevin’s Arcade to get specs for two exhibitions I produced there that year. And Jim popped in, and we sat in the afternoon sun and caught up.

Jim Vivieaere passed away on Friday 3 June 2011. I heard through cell phones and text messages and I cried all afternoon. Jim was pivotal in my life and thinking, my work in exhibitions, advocacy and curating.

Under Jim’s guidance, I got my first taste of curating assisting him to produce a show called Niu Dialogue in 2004 at The Edge in central Auckland. I remember feeling so excited after that gig, because I felt like he gave me the trade secrets, the ‘how to’ of curating… I observed how he selected works, considered them in the space, his gracious hosting, his beautiful themed catering, his aura. He was awesome. I feel like that experience ignited my fire for curating and the artform and importance of representing artists.

During my undergraduate studies, I researched Jim’s curatorial and visual arts practice; it represented to me a bold and articulate statement about Pacific diaspora experience. His work and its recognition in mainstream institutions, publications and communities, was so empowering and validating. At the time, Jim was also supporting the exhibition of student work from Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate at Otara’s Artnet Gallery (now Fresh Gallery Otara). I witnessed him working with the same measure of professionalism and artistic integrity at the grassroots as he did in major art institutions.

In 2010, I organised the Curating Pacific Art Forum and Jim spoke with such eloquence about his practice and the struggles and opportunities of working as an independent curator.

We all acknowledged Jim that day. An absolute leader in curating Pacific art.

I loved how hard Jim would fight to impress a point, whether at an exhibition opening or a Tautai Trust gathering… he was such an inspirational, passionate advocate for Pacific art and artists.

This year, I was so humbled that even in ill-health, Jim attended the 2nd Curating Pacific Art Forum. It was noted that we all have ‘Jim stories’ – the many, many ways Jim has influenced our lives and practices as Pacific curators.

Jim’s passing has made me reflect hard. I’ve been thinking about how everything matters… the legacy that is left from the work we do will influence and inspire those that come after.

I feel like my curatorial practice is the product of Jim’s influence, and I want to honour his work and fight in everything I produce.

I think I’ll always think of Jim, in every show that I curate and ask myself, What Would Jim Do?

A beautiful tribute to Jim on Tagata Pasifika [TVNZ] aired on Thursday 9 June 2011

Ngā Hau E Whā – The Four Winds ONLINE

Norman Edgerton, Ema Tavola, Douglas Bagnall and Leilani Kake

Leilani Kake’s 2011 solo exhibition, Ngā Hau E Whā – The Four Winds is a project I’m very proud to be part of. Creating this work and curating the exhibition was a massive team effort. It opened on March 3 and runs until 16 April at Fresh Gallery Otara, South Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand.

I just started a blog for the exhibition here:

Follow Fresh Gallery Otara on Twitter!

Leilani Kake + Tanu Gago // Tagata Pasifika

TVNZ’s weekly Pacific Island affairs programme, Tagata Pasifika aired this story about two artists I work closely with, Leilani Kake and Tanu Gago on 18 November 2010. At the time, Leilani was showing her 2010 video work, Kia Ora 2 Kia Orana in manu toi; artists and messengers curated by Nigel Borell for Mangere Arts Centre – Nga Tohu o Uenuku, and Tanu’s solo, YOU LOVE MY FRESH was showing at Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts in Pakuranga.

YOU LOVE MY FRESH has been extended one week and now will be shown until 12 December 2010.

Next year, Tanu is involved in a group exhibition curated by Reuben Friend for Deane Gallery, City Gallery Wellington opening in January. I am curating Leilani’s next solo exhibition, Nga Hau E Wha – The Four Winds – a four-channel video installation at Fresh Gallery Otara for the 2011 Auckland Arts Festival in March.

Leilani and I are trying to generate funds to participate in the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania Symposium in Hawai’i in February. We have proposed to discuss the construction and context of Nga Hau E Wha – The Four Winds in a session entitled, Refashioning the Body: Building Critical Theory Across the Pacific. A 2011 Colour Me Fiji fundraising T-shirt is in production!

Curating the Space Between

I used to call myself a self-proclaimed curator, because I didn’t train to be a curator. I curated my first exhibition in 2004 (The Artists are described as…Polynesian Males, Artnet Gallery), and have since overseen over 50 shows – not curated, but overseen. I’ve curated less, but in this time, have developed a framework for doing the work I love to do as an artist-writer-advocate-administrator-social-networker… aka curator.

I have developed my curatorial practice through lots of trial and error, mistakes and successes, with very little guidance – largely it is DIY curating. The only opportunity to be mentored or experience transmission of curatorial knowledge was the experience of assisting for Cook Islands curator Jim Vivieaere’s exhibition niu dialogue in 2003 for The Edge (Auckland). Jim is an excellent curatorial role model whose work I admire hugely. The exhibition was staged by Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust and this opportunity was significant in the development of my curatorial practice.

I campaign hard for more Pacific Island curators, but seemingly, the act of curating / role of curator / technical requirements of curatorial work, within the Pacific visual art sector, is still shrouded in mystery for many.

Three recent experiences have inspired me to develop these thoughts. Firstly, I was involved in the international Twitter event, Ask a Curator Day on September 1 which was totally inspiring. Secondly, I wrote two essays for the catalogue manu toi; artists and messengers curated by Nigel Borell for the opening of Mangere Arts Centre – Ngā Tohu o Uenuku, on two artists who I love: Rebecca Ann Hobbs and Leilani Kake. And thirdly, my involvement in a botched art project in Fiji – a sad and infuriating process.

I want to shed some light on the work I do – my curatorial process.

What is a curator?

As a curator, I’m concerned with the spaces between artist, artwork and audience. I’m concerned with the making of the work, and the artist, the space and the audience, the experience of the work and its surrounding information. I’m concerned with the artist, and where she or he is moving. I’m concerned what the work is inspired by, what informs it, and what it is connected to. The people who see the work, is important to me.

I care about artists. I think curating is caring about artists. About their lives and what affects them.

And I love to create opportunities for artists, whether through sales, or further opportunities to exhibit… jobs, gigs, media spots. When artists are written about and reviewed or interviewed for radio, TV or print media, I am a happy curator.

What do you do?

Essentially I administer and implement an event – the exhibition, which in itself is a marketing platform for the artist’s practice. It is the space where art meets audience. A very important part of any marketing initiative is to know what you’re promoting – knowing the artist, their context, their background, and knowing the audience – who the work will be seen by, who the work is important to and what kinds of media platforms can be accessed to broaden the artist’s audience.

A theme is extracted from the artists or artworks, and as curator, I use this to link artists and artwork to wider socio-political ideas. The writing or curatorial text around an exhibition is a contextual statement. I write artists into a socio-political context, to give audiences leverage to understanding the significance of artwork and artists beyond the visual vocabulary that the work presents.

In many cases, I support artists in the development of their work by providing feedback and discussing other artists, exhibitions, ideas; organising opportunities for group critiques and facilitating meetings with other artists. It’s in my interest that the artist is fully engaged in the process of making work, feels empowered and committed to the exhibition. This approach is largely suited to early career or emerging artists – the sector I work with mostly.

I promote and advocate for the artists and artwork. I network and spread the word, I invest myself fully and aim to influence and inform people – I become the ambassador for the artists and artwork. I write, blog, post and discuss the exhibition to draw interest to the artists and artwork. I myself represent the artists and artwork, so aim to be visible and memorable.

Once the artwork is in the gallery, the works are considered in relation to each other, the space and audience engagement. Sometimes, this involves a process of editing and refining what is shown. In this area, I subscribe less to inclusivity and more to exclusivity. I feel the work is hung to create a kind of spatial narrative – I want to create strong, clear statements so if there is an opportunity to give work more space, I will often opt for this over cluttered walls.

Openings, previews and receptions are important platforms to host a dedicated group of interested and influential individuals. Hosting is about creating an environment that acknowledges people’s support, their time and energy. For me, providing an offering of nourishment – food, and celebration – drinks, is a basic protocol, but often overlooked. Best practice exhibition opening is surely to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable.

I facilitate whatever needs to be done to promote and extend the audience of the exhibition, whether that is school visits, opening the gallery after hours for special tours, gallery floor talks or media interviews. I promote and endorse the artist and artwork whole-heartedly, armed with knowledge and consciousness of their significance.

What are some attributes of a curator?

I believe that a curator must have a broad knowledge and strong contextual framework for viewing, understanding and interpreting artists and artwork. They must be confident in their intellectual position, and invested in the job and the role. They must be someone who can represent and perform an ambassadorial role with strength, charm and conviction, and someone artists can trust will always prioritise their best interests.

Communication skills are essential – curators need to understand what needs to be said in different contexts, and adapt fluidly to situations and audiences.

Patience and understanding is also essential when working with visual artists. There is no show without them, so it is in my best interest to have artists informed, empowered and motivated and to constantly learn and be open to learning about the needs of artists. I also maintain my own visual arts practice and try to exhibit as much as possible, to keep my knowledge of the creative process current.

What core skills do you draw on with curatorial work?

The bottom line is the ability to organise, administer and project plan strategically, effectively and within timeframes.

Excellent communication skills – in person and in writing – are essential. Financial forecasting and budgeting is important. And the qualities of being genuine, informed and trustworthy are also valuable.

I had a foundation of customer service skills from working in retail, reception, admin temping and mentoring before I got into this line of work. My tertiary training gave me discipline with regards to time management and insight into bureaucratic hierarchies of power and influence.

Strength of conviction and intellectual position is vital. Whilst curators are opinionated, it comes from knowledge and awareness of context.

Want to know more?

Ask me! or