A Fresh look: Home AKL

by Anthony Byrt / 28 July, 2012
Auckland Art Gallery’s big new exhibition of Pacific art owes a lot to a small gallery in Otara.

Auckland has the largest Polynesian population in the world, so it’s amazing that Auckland Art Gallery (AAG) has, until now, never generated a substantial exhibition of contemporary Pacific art. Home AKL – a major show about Pasifika artists living here – is a better-late-than-never acknowledgement of this oversight. It’s also a show that had to happen now: over the past few years, South Auckland has become a signifi cant force within New Zealand art; not just a feeder community but a confi dent scene in its own right. There has also been a shift in outlook – where so much Pacific art in the past seemed to defer to homeland or the art market’s need for a bit of colour, a new generation is making brave, tough, intelligent work.

Central to this change is Fresh Gallery in Otara, which until recently was run by Ema Tavola. Working alongside AAG senior curator Ron Brownson, she is one of three associate curators who have contributed to Home AKL (the others are Nina Tonga and Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai). Tavola is a force: a talented curator, a gifted writer and one of the New Zealand art world’s savviest users of social media (she is @ColourMeFiji on Twitter). Under her leadership, Fresh created a prototype community for the AAG exhibition: young, ambitious artists refl ecting – not always comfortably – on what it means to be Pasifika in Aotearoa. Tavola also brings a much-needed outsider’s view to the Pacific art scene.

In 2002, she moved to New Zealand from Fiji to study art, after encouragement from artist John Pule. “He could tell I was a shit-stirrer,” she says, laughing. “So he said, ‘Go shit-stir over there.’ What I saw when I first got here was a reinforcement of the ‘What is Pacific art?’ question by organisations that were set up to support and promote Pacific art. But when we build those walls, we get into an awkward polarisation of who’s more Pacific. I think the growth of our sector has enabled us to think more critically about what we’re doing and what good art is.”

This highlights Home AKL’s elephant in the room: that despite the need for the exhibition, and although it includes a lot of very good art, it is still a show based on ethnicity. “It’s a double- edged sword,” Tavola says, carefully. “I thought about this a lot when City Gallery in Wellington established its Deane Gallery. It’s a great opportunity for Pacific and Maori artists, all year long. But it’s very small. And I wondered whether it made it easy to put all the brown people in the corner and not have any obligation to include more than the usual sprinkling in mainstream exhibitions. But then we’ve had a lot of artists from Fresh show there, and it’s been great for their profiles.” There’s no question about AAG’s expansive commitment to Home AKL, with a substantial catalogue on the way, support from wealthy donors, and several new commissions. Leading Pacific academics Caroline Vercoe and Albert Refiti have been brought in as patrons. And Albert Wendt opened the exhibition with an eloquent, subtle address that managed to congratulate the gallery for its ambition while also prompting the audience to ponder how a community that produces such great creativity can still be so grossly over-represented in negative social statistics.

The whole feel is one of Pacific “shock and awe”; a grand coalition of creative forces assembled by AAG to give the exhibition currency, relevance and mana. For all that, there is nothing earth-shattering about the show, which takes the format of a sturdy survey, running through three generations of Auckland-based artists. There are some nice surprises, like the strange paintings of Teuane Tibbo, as well as reminders of how much ground was broken by second-generation artists Ani O’Neill, Greg Semu and Pule. And then there are the young ones. For most, this is their first institutional show, but that, too, is a complex issue: “For us, our context is these people,” Tavola says, pointing out the front window of Fresh. “People who don’t necessarily go to AAG. I’ve always said that at Fresh we’re a parallel art world. We have one foot in the mainstream but at the end of the day this art is accountable to the kids who come in after school or the guy going to buy bread in the morning. In Otara, 70% of the population is Pacific. Here, we are the mainstream: a Pacific way of seeing is the norm.”

The best of the young artists in Home AKL – Leilani Kake, Siliga David Setoga, Tanu Gago and Jeremy Leatinu‘u – have a consistent aesthetic running through their work: a highly finished, post-art school approach that looks as much to international technologies and art world trends as it does to local content. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to define this as a “Fresh-ness”: something with its roots in the Pacifi c dialogues Tavola has helped establish; and that uses photography, video and installation to challenge stereotypes in much the same way Peter Robinson, Michael Parekowhai and Lisa Reihana did for Maori art 15 years ago.

Home AKL does have its tricky elements, though. A lot of beautiful brown bodies are on display. Granted, they’re often used to confrontational ends, but they occasionally run the risk of just being beautiful brown bodies. AAG is also using images of the artists as a promotional device (and some of them, let’s face it, are pretty beautiful). Then there is the issue of the entry fee, which has already brought AAG negative attention. Charging people to see local content is always a gamble for art galleries, and in this case it could well prove a hurdle for many – particularly South Aucklanders. There are things in Home AKL that would look as at home in Berlin, London or New York as they do here. So it’s important to hold that work up to international levels of scrutiny. And there are moments where the local politics become cloying, and where the technical qualities of the work are a bit disappointing. Not that it isn’t good; just that it could be even better.

This show is a chance to redress some of the mainstream art world’s imbalances, but there may also be a bigger prize at stake: the opportunity to understand what it really means to make art in the South Pacific, in an international art world without borders.

HOME AKL, Auckland Art Gallery, until October 22.
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