The Welcome Mat
The exhibition of Pacific Island art in Auckland is growing hugely, writes Mark Amery, but in many ways it still gets treated as an ‘other’.
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“Twenty years ago,” recalls Victor Rodger in a powerful and personal article in the latest newsletter from Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust “ a nervous 25-year-old Samoan-Palagi man from Christchurch sat on the stage of the Maidment Theatre.” That was Rodger, at a reading of the first draft of his first play at the Oceania Playwrights Conference in Auckland. He sat in the middle of circle that included a number who would go on to bring us Bro Town and Sione’s Wedding, part of an ushering of a Pacific Island voice both onto the mainstages and into the cultural mainstream.
I was there also, at the beginning of a different kind of writing career. Twenty years later that play, Sons is currently being produced by Auckland Theatre Company. That it self is no longer remarkable: Rodger has been well supported by major theatres and festivals - he beautifully, distinctively responds to his own background working the gap between Palagi and Pacific Islander in terms of cultural perceptions, with provocation and razor-sharp wit, in an idiom white audiences recognise.
What is remarkable now is that ATC are producing it not in the Auckland CBD to their traditional audience base but at Mangere Arts Centre - part of their wider Southside Programme. Since its institution four years ago, with major community support, the Centre has been one of several important flashpoints for both the recognition and development of Pacific voices across the visual and performing arts.
Most of us visitors arrive in Auckland in Mangere. Few actually visit. You hit the motorway. I’m sure Mangere Arts Centre is helping change that, but its early days.
Any perception that the proposed Te Papa North will move into some contemporary ‘cultural wasteland’ (as you sense some critics do) is ignorant and uninformed. Auckland South and East is home to a remarkable set of arts venues that over recent years have been going from strength to strength in the professionalism, distinctiveness and diversity of their programming. They are a new contemporary force changing the Auckland cultural map. Alongside Mangere Arts Centre, they are Te Tuhi in Pakuranga, Papakura Art Gallery (reopened significantly revamped in 2010) and Otara’s Fresh Gallery (opened 2006, and revamped in 2013).
In terms of community engaged models for contemporary art, they’re in many respects setting the pace for the likes of big daddy Auckland Art Gallery, the about to open new Lopdell House - Te Uru - out West and an imminent new home on the waterfront for ATC and others. And the match of the contemporary and community is also now being met elsewhere in Auckland – witness the recent Whau Arts Festival (October 16-19) in Avondale.
Twenty years on from that Sons reading and Rodger’s White Faggot joins South Auckland’s Kila Kokonut Krew with The Factory at Edinburgh, that production fresh off seasons in Australia. Ten years ago when I visited KKK they could get a gig in the comedy festival but struggled to find a half decent venue out home.
Perhaps take my viewpoint with a grain of salt – I am a regular Palagi visitor to Auckland. I don’t pretend to be part of the scene. My broadbrush introduction is as an outsider. But I’m one of a new kind of audience who finds the growth in vital new art from artists rooted in Pacific Island community inspiring.
Out south makes a nonsense of cultural mapping that puts the CBD as centre. Yet, trickily, each venue is on their own transport spoke out of town. Not actually that far apart, to visit them still feels as if you’re going cross-country. Doing a little carbon-fuelled dance against the flow. (A passage art is accustomed to making, right?)
The change out south in the visual arts has been exhilarating. Yes there has been investment in the arts in tertiary education (AUT and Manukau Institute of Technology likely making great impact) and from Auckland Council - the geographical mindshift is something local authority amalgamation appears to be assisting. But it’s the passion and self-production skills of the artists, curators and writers that have been inspiring to glimpse from afar.
We can look back 10 years – to new impetus with the opening of Fresh in 2006, with its first curator Ema Tavola and artists like Janet Lilo, with a strong interest in bridging the community and contemporary. Now each year I see new determined, courageous and energetic independent voices coming through with a similar ethos. Take Lana Lopesi (whose hashtag500 Words website with Louisa Afoa has added welcome new media). Amongst current projects hashtagIsland Time, running 25 October in Otara Shopping Centre and 2 November Mangere Arts Centre explicitly sets out too “attempt to break down the gap between Pacific time based art and a Pacific audience.”
It’s interesting to consider how this community-facing work sits in relationship to the CBD. I’ve written previously briefly on the significance of D.A.N.C.E Art Club’s recent DJ marathon at Artspace - part of curator Ahi Rands exhibition at the end of her Tautai Artspace internship. It was nicely named – Welcome. I understand that Lana Lopesi on October 1 curated a night of performance on the doorstep of artist space Fuzzy Vibes in K Road. The situation of doorstep, with its ‘welcome mat’ was interesting, telling.
Pacific Island curators at this stage remain invited into buildings, rather than in positions of permanency. When Auckland Art Gallery held a major show of Pacific Art Home AKL in 2012 it brought in Assistant Pacific Island curators Tavola, Nina Tonga and Kolokesa Mahina-Tuia. This was of course a good thing, but spoke spades as to the situation. As did the lumping together of a diverse set of work across different cultures and histories into one tick-the-box show. Is this as Pacific as we get?
This has been the norm. Pacific Island work as a boxed ‘other’. Nina Tonga is now Curator Pacific Cultures at Te Papa. When will we be grown up enough to see a Pacific Island curator in a general curatorial position? (Or did I miss it?). The wealth of talent is there. Do we unconsciously tick the ‘other’ box? Equally we have seen a great growth in Pacific Island writers on art – lets see more commissioned to write on other work - just as I write here on the Pacific. And while we’re at it, perish the thought a curator of Maori extraction might take a general curator role in a public gallery (Or, again, did I just miss it?).
Meanwhile Kalisolaite ‘Uhila has, with his enormously affecting Walters Prize finalist work Mo‘ui Tukuhausia, been living as a homeless person around the perimeter of Auckland Art Gallery. I found the small pile of evidence of his habitation in a doorway area at the art gallery the other weekend both smart and powerful. Another excellent artist of Pacific Island descent, the Walters winner Luke Willis Thompson has exposed the complexities of the membrane between institution, community and cultural norms in different strong ways through a handful of projects.
There are gutsy moves out on the periphery of the so-called centre that break the circuit. The institutional story behind Mo‘ui Tukuhausia as told here by Te Tuhi curator Bruce E Phillips for example. His introduction to ‘Uhila was through fellow curator James Pinker at Mangere Arts Centre, where ‘Uhila’s Pigs in the Yard performance was staged back in 2011.
Psychically rather than geographically Mangere is a long way away from Pakuranga. As Phillips notes Te Tuhi had a Maori assistant curator Shannon Te Ao at the time Te Tuhi staged Mo‘ui Tukuhausia (that word assistant starting to bother you yet?). Phillips beautifully contextualises the reception of the work in in this traditionally white suburb: “On a daily basis Kalisolaite’s presence ignited responses that could have been produced by a 1950s social science experiment where the very best and worst of our local constituents were eked out.”
On a recent Auckland visit I popped into the latest show Pinker has curated at Mangere, Part Two of a survey of the practice of Tongan Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi. I’ve let it illustrate this article because it is simply beautiful. In his use of the gallery the curator rises to the challenge set by Tohi’s majestic articulation of space through the weaving of form. Tohi isn’t exactly an art historical household name - Pinker offers due reappraisal. Perhaps it need not be said, but there’s nothing regional about this show.
For over 30 years Tohi has researched the practise of lalava or lashing, and explored how it might be demonstrated through art as a resonant abstract language of communication. I was familiar with Tohi’s large aluminium sculptures, but it is the smaller works that are a revelation. Small balsa wood maquettes boldly explore lashings as form soft skeletal body, with elegant shadow play. Wool weavings and digital print works glisten and shimmer like a networking of thoughts across a wide expanse of ocean or sky. With the exception of the acrylic work on canvas (which I found far less dynamic), Tohi brings new optical life to the familiar. From a European art perspective the work strongly evokes the op art of the 1960s, yet Tohi’s take from his study in an ancient Pacific craft shifts this into new ground – the old centre is displaced.
Also highly recommended on your drive across the south is The Heraldry of Presence, an exhibition by Fiona Jack at Fresh Gallery until 8 November, in collaboration with many contributors, collaborators and lenders from the local community. Jack presents a collection of banners, exploring the potency of visual imagery in protest and bringing about social change. It’s a show embued with love, pride and positivity in a future made collectively - rather than ragged response to change enforced by others.
In fact The Heraldry of Presence is the sort of socially charged show that empowers the role of the artist you wish Te Papa with its enormous collection and resources would commission. And it’s already started here, in Otara.