10 Questions: Ema Tavola, Natural Selection (Issue #7) Winter 2010

What did you have for breakfast?
Scrambled eggs + toast.

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Suva, Fiji and raised in London and Brussels. I finished my secondary education in Wellington, New Zealand.

How has your thinking changed / what have you learnt?
I do a lot of looking, observing from the outside… I have a lot of questions, and am often plagued with contradiction. I have learnt to own my position of enquiry, and not dissect it to fit into other people’s boxes.

What would you consider your greatest achievement?
Leaving Fiji to manage life solo in Aotearoa.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I definitely overuse ‘potentially’. And ‘strategically’. And I swear a lot.

Who do you admire and why?
I admire people who work hard, because they are inspiring and make me want to work hard too. I admire people who embed their lives in service to their communities. And I admire mothers, because it feels like shaping a child’s life and experience is the most important job in the world.

What book last made an impression on you?
Musrum by Eric Thacker and Anthony Earnshaw.

One thing you wish you had?
The ability to live in two places at once.

On what occasion would you lie?
I have issues with honesty.

Which piece of art really matters to you?
A painting called 4 Women (2008) by Sangeeta Singh; I bought it in Suva.

Who are you listening to at the moment?
Birds… I had bronchitis recently and my ears were semi–blocked, I somehow tuned into the bird frequency, and since then have not stopped hearing the birds. There are tui in my garden, who always make me smile.. on the inside.

What do you like around you while you work?
A cup of tea, reference material, snacks and Blu–tack.

What is art for?
To reflect the human condition.

Read more from Natural Selection here

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.

Changing the Game and Junior Seau

I have been so moved by the story and tragic death of Junior Seau. My sports obsessed partner has told me at length about the important pathway Junior created for other Pacific Islanders to play professional football at the highest level. He said Junior was a game changer. I’m not generally interested in sports, but I am interested in Pacific people and leadership, Pacific achievement, diaspora and struggle. I watch the YouTube tributes to Junior with a very heavy heart.

I love this version of George “Fiji” Veikoso’s Sweet Darling dedicated to Junior Seau.

#TeamPoly in solidarity.

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.

An opportunity to make Pasifika people VISIBLE in Auckland

ADVANCE PASIFIKA – MARCH FOR OUR FUTURE!

Saturday 16th June 2012 – 9.00am start at Albert Park, Auckland City

Advance Pasifika is a deliberate movement of Pasifika communities in Auckland signifying our collective voice. We know through painful experience that a fair and equal New Zealand society is never voluntarily granted. It must be demanded. Today we demand equity.

Our future is at risk. The education system is failing our young people; our health is deteriorating; our people are being locked out of affordable housing; mothers and fathers are dying alone; our incomes are disproportionately lower; our communities are being fragmented and our ideas ignored.

It is time for change. It is time for action.