Behind Janet Lilo's fruity new work lighting up Auckland's K Rd

by Lana Lopesi / 13 September, 2017
PHOTOGRAPHY / Michael Lewis

Artist Janet Lilo.

Bananarama

Earlier this year, the light poles on the Karangahape Road overbridge changed their casings from black and white lalava designs (by artist Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi) to yellow banana bunches towering six metres over the street. At night, the poles light up, each of them blaring a blue neon phrase. ‘Wait for me’ is written on one pole, while the others say, ‘Don’t let them win’ and ‘You make me better’. They are artworks by Janet Lilo (Ngāpuhi, Samoan and Niuean) with the collective title ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ – a bold public statement from an increasingly important artist.

As well as being an artist, a member of arts collective Whau the People and proud mum of three sons, Avondale-based Lilo adds ‘PETROL STATION ATTENDANT 2002–2006’, to a long list of accolades on her CV. It was her “favourite job of all time,” she says, “filling petrol, making bad coffee and learning about people from all walks of life.” It’s a comment that illuminates some of her artistic approach, too: warm, observant, wry and non-judgemental.

“Avondale only offers cream or pies,” Lilo claims, as I grab a cream-filled lamington at Avondale Community Centre Playgroup. While following her youngest son Manaia, who is speedily crawling across the wooden floors, Lilo stops to hold a two-week-old baby, congratulating the mum on how together she seems. She hugs her “mum crush”, who she has taken family portraits for, and runs to her crying son. Among the chaos, we talk about art.

One of the light poles, which reads ‘Don’t let them win’, in Janet Lilo’s installation ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ on K’ Road.

When I ask Lilo what lead her to art, she turns the question around. “Art leads me to people, places, experiences and alternative ways of thinking,” she says, “that help me to humbly observe, question or appreciate in a time we are living in.” Suddenly the inclusion of petrol station attendant on her CV – a line which many artists would have removed by now – seems to represent her sincere interest in people, and her need to connect with them.

Lilo is known for her experimental approach, using overlooked technologies like 6x4 photographs or Polaroids, to present overlooked images of the urban environment. She likes to present what is familiar as something extraordinary. Her work is full of references to popular culture, such as backyard party songs like ‘Winner’ by Samoan R&B singer Ria, and banal suburban imagery such as tarpaulins and road cones or, in this case, the vibrant yellow of her Karangahape Road bananas acting as a people magnet in the urban landscape.

Bananas are not a new feature in Lilo’s work. She uses them to riff on an Andy Warhol pop culture aesthetic, and likes them for their ability to express many meanings, being universal to many cultures through the Pacific, Asia and South America. They are iconic, relatable and familiar. She originally pitched the banana light poles to Auckland Council under the project title ‘Don’t Worry, Be Hape!’, a pun paying homage to the Tainui tohunga (priest) Hape, who the street is named after. Hape was getting ready for the journey from Hawaiki to Aotearoa when some men from his hapū played a trick on him: after he went to sleep, the windows and doors of his house were covered up so that he never saw the sun rise. When he woke up, it was too late and the waka had left without him. However, after a couple of days praying to his tupuna, Tangaroa, a stingray arrived on the shore to take Hape to Aotearoa. Hape climbed on the stingray’s back and eventually arrived in Tāmaki Makaurau before the waka. When the elders finally arrived, they saw Hape standing there and called out to him for forgiveness. Hape replied with karanga (a welcome call), hence the name Karangahape.

Two more of the light poles in her installation, with different messages.

It’s not just Hape that the original pun pulls from, but also Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 hit ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’, a phrase which I got tattooed across my feet when I was 19. The cheerful pun, however, didn’t win favour with council advisors, who suggested that it would reinforce to the mispronunciation of Karangahape (Karangahappy), a point Lilo was trying to make. In response Lilo changed the neon to read ‘Don’t let them win’, an empowering reminder for passers-by, and also a lyric from the 1986 classic ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, by Crowded House, an ode which is continued in the title of the project. Exactly who she’s referring to as ‘them’ is open for interpretation.

Across the Karangahape Road bridge from ‘Don’t let them win’ is a pole which reads ‘Wait for me’, a homage to another neon artwork by Claude Lévêque that Lilo saw while exhibiting in Rouen, France, titled ‘Attend Mois’ (wait for me). When I attended Auckland Girls’ Grammar School, I waited on that bridge every day to catch the 154 bus to Henderson. Lilo’s title picks up on the context of the bus stops where people wait, while also signalling a meeting spot, literally and romantically. Lilo herself also attended central city schools: the bridge was a meeting point on her way to play basketball at the YMCA.

The last pole in the series – the “lonely post” in Lilo’s words – sits in the least noticeable spot on the bridge and reads ‘You make me better’. The emotive slogan is a cheerful, welcoming message to the lone Karangahape Road walker, the night workers and those out and about on the town. The relatability of these neon sentiments and the bananas gives her works a charming accessibility, making them social media honey pots, so seductive that you can’t help but pull out your phone and take snaps.

One of the light poles, which reads ‘Wait for me’, is fittingly set beside a bus stop.

The same pop sensibility is evident in another new work of Lilo’s currently on exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Named ‘Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner’ (a line borrowed, of course, from the film Dirty Dancing), it combines references to Whitney Houston lyrics (such as “somebody who loves me”, suggesting that we are all searching for love) with references to public space, such as swimming pools and gymnasiums. It’s a lively, intelligent meditation of the boundaries between our public and private lives, and the ways we manipulate our private lives for public consumption on social media.

The popular appeal of Lilo’s work places it at the centre of the conversation: Lilo’s sister had to wait half an hour at the gallery while gallery-goers arranged themselves for selfies before she could take her own photo of the work. Ironically, Lilo herself has mostly withdrawn from social media, with a private Instagram account that follows only 18 people and has the same number of followers. She says she bailed on social media when she noticed it affected the way she was taking photos.

Back at play group, a fire drill is taking place. We all scoop up a child or two and walk outside. As we’re standing on the grass in front of the community centre, I think about how I have Instagrammed both ‘Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner’ and ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’. I was seduced by Lilo: I want my followers to know that I have seen her work, that I have consumed the latest piece of culture and, most importantly, to give me ‘likes’ for it. “Humanity has developed this tragic condition of wanting to be liked or followed,” Lilo says. Thanks to her smart, exuberant works, more and more of us are happy to embrace this tragic side of ourselves.

Some works by Janet Lilo

‘Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner’, an installation currently on show as part of Shout, Whisper Wail: The 2017 Chartwell Show at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

‘Janet Lilo: Status Update’, an installation at Te Uru gallery in 2016.

A digital image manipulation.

‘Hit Me with your Best Shot’, an installation at The Physics Room, 2013.

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