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Auckland's Unlikely Arts Suburb

22 Mar 2022
Known for its industrial focus and outlet shops, Chris Forster turns the spotlight onto the creative energy flowing through Onehunga and art's role in inspiring its future.

A striking series of portraits has taken centre stage as the gritty Auckland suburb of Onehunga bares its artistic teeth.


Isaac Trebilco has chosen his home town to publicly debut an arresting selection of his evocative Ihumātao works for the first time at Toi Onehunga, a free exhibition of local artists in the heart of the main street which launched in early March and is set to be extended until May.


It’s a public beacon for the surprising and inclusive arts scene for a part of Tāmaki Makaurau that’s more associated with its industrial blocks, its history and geographical position on the isthmus than its creative exploits.


Trebilco is also the curator of the pop-up event, which swiftly took shape late last year due to the vision and decision making of the local business association’s Town Manager, Amanda Wellgreen.


“Applications {for funding} were due on the 18th of December and I came up with the idea on the 17th. I pulled it together really fast,” she laughs. 


“I’d worked with Isaac a lot. I met him through the 2019 exhibition and admired his work then - it’s beautiful.


“I contacted him, and said I thought of you as our curator, how do you feel about that? And he was quite excited. I knew he’d done the series inspired by Ihumātao and he had been looking for an opportunity to display that.”


The gallery is a visual bonus for an already innovative arts scene for the local community that encourages creativity and political awareness, including the 312 Hub youth centre and a new venture by one of the famous locals.


It’s a boutique showing of around 30 works, dominated by Trebilco’s brooding, powerful portraits. He describes his art form as “distinguished by fluid lines, obsessive attention to detail and best-practice methodologies.”


They’re captivating. The Māori subjects are vivid and stare out of the canvas, with determination, character and passion. 

Some might draw parallels between the occupation of the historic stone fields of Ōtuataua to the unruly mob who occupied the grounds outside of Parliament for three weeks.

But there’s no comparison with the campaign across and beyond the lower reaches of the Manukau Harbour from Onehunga. Trebilco wants to use his position to honour the people involved and “rectify past injustices.”


Isaac Trebilco. Photo: Supplied.


Ihumātao inspired


The Big Idea caught up with him after his day job at a bespoke furniture business, on a sweltering afternoon near his adopted home in Grey Lynn, to talk about his art, and the captivating portraits. For this understated genius, they’re truly a labour of love.


Trebilco explains “I’ve been working on it for about three years. It was kind of before the big protest happened. They were occupying the land but it wasn’t necessarily a protest orientated situation. 


“I gave a talk organised by a fellow at the 312 Hub…Pania Newton took us for a hikoi around the land. Just hearing her talk - there’s a reason why she was the face of it.


“She was so passionate and so knowledgeable, eloquent - she’s the perfect face for it.


Like everyone else, I was so inspired by her and wanted to get involved.” 


Newton’s portrait Mō nga uri Whakatipu - meaning 'for the next generations' - is the centrepiece of Trebilco’s exhibition. 


Isaac Trebilco, Mō nga uri Whakatipu. Photo: Supplied.


Trebilco’s artworks draw you in and don’t let go. 


The textures and empathy for the people involved in the detailed portraits leap out of the canvas with a three dimensional quality. It’s transfixing and you find yourself immersed in the personalities, their self belief and their determination. 


The painstaking hard work has paid off.


“They’re portraits, in a style I’ve been working on for maybe five or six years. I have a pattern design, I take photographs and create stencils. Layer it up with paint. It’s quite a procedure, it takes a lot of time.


“I’m showing seven pieces but I’ve done 10. We’re going to have another gallery show at  Ihumātao with Pania involved. So I’m going to do another four, to make it 14 and I'm showing around half in the show.”

Isaac Trebilco, Protect Our Land. Photo: Supplied.

The Onehunga exhibition is a chance for local artists and budding amateurs to make some money on their mahi but Trebilco states his Ihumātao inspired work isn’t for sale.

“That’s because it’s part of a greater collection, getting funding for something else. We wanted to keep it altogether and it’s part of the agreement.”


Onehunga represent


While the events in nearby Mangere mean the world to Trebilco, Onehunga is clearly a big part of the fabric behind his development as a unique artist.

It’s a multicultural town within Auckland City and a former borough, with deep Māori history mixed in with its colonial past and industrial present, with students from more than 30 different ethnicities attending the local high school.


“I think it’s a nice diverse community. There’s a lot of positive stuff happening there with the Hub, and there seems to be quite a socially conscious group who live there,” Trebilco expands.


“Diversity is something that really attracts me to the place. You don’t really see that in Auckland - that level of multiculturalism.”


His Whale Tale interpretation is called “Our Hands” (below). There are signatures of local identities and their prints plastered on the protruding tail of the sea blue and molten red whale sticking out of the main street sidewalk, right outside the old Anglican church, St Peter’s, built in 1848.

“It’s a great way to get people to go to different parts of Auckland. It’s a great cause too, Especially in New Zealand, surrounded by oceans. I’d like it to stay - it’s about Onehunga isn’t it?

“All of the hands are from people in Onehunga. Future generations can come and look at it and connect with family members, with their hands.”

He sees the role of curator for this project as getting the flow going through a diverse collection, in the mainstreet space, to ensure all of the artworks from more than 15 locals goes in the right place.  There’s some interactive elements and colouring in for kids too.

“Some of the artists are not professional - they just have a passion, probably a bit more fringe. It creates a nice environment. 


“There’s positivity in the air when you see a lot of art around.”


Creatives welcomed


There is another neat local story that emerged from the arts exhibition, with roots in the Philippines, through Catherine Sanvictores and her 17 year old daughter Eliana ‘Yana’ Sanvictores - who live in neighbouring Māngere Bridge.


Creativity well and truly runs in the family.


Catherine and Yana Sanvictores. Photo: Supplied.

Sanvictores’ dad was a renowned artist in her homeland, and the ardent colourist has been creating a diverse range of multi-media paintings since 2003.

She beamed with pride over the whānau’s talent pool extending to her daughter Yana.


“It’s really special to me because I never thought she’d get into art, and in the last year or so she’s bloomed. She’s just come out with this amazing talent.


“Very proud … and I can see she’s going to go way, way beyond anything that I’ve done … which is like ‘yay!’”


The teenager is developing her style, and is launching a Fine Arts degree at University of Auckland this year at Elam.


Yana told The Big Idea “I guess I've always been interested in drawing, and found I was quite good at it.” 


Like many, Yana’s work is done digitally. “I like coloured and doing abstract, but I also like putting realism in it as well, make it recognisable and that’s where I’m at at the moment.”

Yana Sanvictores, The Stag. Photo: Supplied.

Catherine’s own passion came back at the start of the century, tapping into her heritage and creative genes and developing an interest as a mum.

“It started off as a part time thing while the kids were young. I was able to delve into it .. but I became part of some artists groups and we had exhibitions back in 2003.


“Off and on, I picked it up and had a break. It’s sort of an intuitive mix of mixed media. I like using resin, I like the fluid shapes and movement of it. It’s a challenge to control it.”


She feels right at home in the area, and the welcoming community encourages her creativity.


“It's a cool place, we’ve been around this area since 2002. We’ve gotten to know shop owners and the area, and our kids all went to the local schools.


“There’s a lot of very creative people here. And the arts festival (in 2019) is when I kinda realised there were so many artists in Onehunga. I met them and you feel like you fit in.”


There are other impressive works on show at Toi Onehunga. Tim McCready is a digital artist who grew-up at nearby Maungakiekie whose print Landscape of Sleeping Maunga (below) portrays the 53 volcanoes in Tāmaki Makaurau from Lake Pupuke to the Puhinui Craters.

Local Anna Tang uses a paint carving technique for her exquisite works, after layering the canvas with 30 to 40 layers of white acrylic topped with three coats of a top colour.

PJ Lavery is a budding young artist who has two large paintings on show depicting fantasy figures which delve back to his time looking after his dad in Dannevirke, before moving back to Auckland.

“I slammed out a series of 24 pieces I think  .. and it got the ball rolling for me to get back into the art world,” Lavery details.

“I’ve always loved ethereal, fantasy realm characters. They’re very lonely figures .. barren and desolate.”


P.J. Lavery, Amanda. Photo: Supplied.


He’s recently sold a piece to a psychic in Ponsonby for her website.


Away from the exhibition there are famous locals, who are proud of their roots and keen to give back to the community.

The wonderfully entertaining Madeleine Sami has forged an undisputed reputation for her skill as an actress, comedian, musician, writer and director.  She spends much of her time working in Los Angeles but returns to her house in Onehunga, that she shares with her partner Pip Brown, better known as the singer-songwriter LadyHawke, and their daughter.

Sami and Jackie van Beek delivered an entertaining song and video highlighting the country’s tourist attractions in the ‘Do Something New, New Zealand’ video.

Now she’s returning the favour for her hometown, with an amusing take on the town’s hidden gems.

SWIDT (See What I Did There) are a collective of acclaimed hip-hop artists who burst onto the scene in 2016 with their single and video No More Parties in Onehunga in 2016, ahead of their album StoneyHunga.

Their catchy neighbourhood anthem 312 (ooh) Baby Baby which references the bus route into the city featured in the movie Pork Pie.

Jessica Hansell - better known as Coco Solid - has forged her prolific career by championing the causes of the Māori, Pasifika and queer communities. The multi-talented rapper, writer, artist, director, producer and more was made an Arts Laureate in 2019.

After a career including a string of acclaimed independent albums and being part of Taika Waititi’s Piki Films, she now wants to give back to the community with a creative arts space called Wheke Fortress, at the top end of town. 

Hansell is teaming up with another multi-disciplined artist Tokerau Brown and told Onehunga Community News the goal is to set up a  “safe landing pad” where creatives can build organically and connect with everything from pop-up galleries to workshops and underground lectures.

They’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund the venture, which is being supported by philanthropist Kent Gardner, who’s also a trustee for the Arts Foundation.


Onehunga's arts future


Onehunga is not the destination you’d think of when it comes to arty towns and locations around New Zealand. 

There’s a swathe of light and heavy industrial complexes stretching east into Penrose. The town’s main drag is called Onehunga Mall, and features a mix of old buildings, cafes, dairies, bakeries, shops and historic churches.The main attraction for Aucklanders is the Dress Smart retail outlet complex, which claims to be New Zealand’s largest outlet shopping destination.

There are a number of murals on walls including a huge imposing tribute to “Lady Mayor” Elizabeth Yates (above), who became the British Empire’s first woman to be elected to the role way back in 1893.


Modern developments are picking up speed, including a new apartment block right in the middle of town. 


The business association’s boss Amanda Wellgreen is embracing the shift to what she calls “shabby chic”, and the arts will be centre-stage.


Amanda Wellgreen. Photo: Supplied.


“It’s actually one of our strategic focuses, to recognise the creativity of our community  and try to represent that through the diversity of the art as well.  


“I’m a big believer in art representing who we are. There’s been some discussion about a mural competition or exhibition .. getting a group to paint murals together over a number of weeks. That fits very much with who we are.


“It must be the greenery and the ocean, we have quite a lot of people who have creative roots who reside in the area. We definitely have those sorts of people - it’s part of who we are.”


Unique and acknowledging differences within its core of creators, with an ambition to adapt. There’s plenty happening within the old school charm of Onehunga. 


Toi Onehunga is a free exhibition of local artists at 204 Onehunga Mall, on show with vaccine passes required, from Wednesday to Sunday until the 1st of May.