Daniel Michael Satele – 6 December, 2012
In years to come artists and thinkers of the future will be able to analyze this volume in ways precluded by our present culture's limits. Indeed, I wager that the Home AKL book will have more value once it begins to look out-of-date, occupying a moment within which it is not at home.
Home AKL - Artists of Pacific Heritage in Auckland
Contributors: Ron Brownson, Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai, Albert L Refiti, Ema Tavola, Nina Tonga
144pp, contains over 65 full-colour illustrations.
Publication date: August 2012
ISBN: 978-0-86463-290-6 RRP:$40
An exhibition is seen at a particular venue for a finite number of moments, but a book may be viewed in multiple places at once, over a far longer period. For this reason the work performed by Auckland Art Gallery’s publication Home AKL: Artists of Pacific Heritage in Auckland - that of documenting much of the content of, and discussions surrounding, its exhibition Home AKL (7 July - 22 October, 2012) - is important work. In years to come artists and thinkers of the future will be able to analyze this volume in ways precluded by our present culture’s limits. Indeed, I wager that the Home AKL book will have more value once it begins to look out-of-date, occupying a moment within which it is not at home. If artists and thinkers do their jobs well now, perhaps they can cut down the time it will take for Home AKL to cause the cringe I would like to hope it someday shall, as a document into which are encoded some of the limited and limiting expectations placed on Pacific people and Pacific art in New Zealand today.
Home AKL: Artists of Pacific Heritage in Auckland is a well-presented volume, including high-quality colour reproductions of most of the works seen in the exhibition. The largest portion of the book’s value lies here. It is divided into short sections profiling each artist featured by the Home AKL exhibition. Each such section includes a few paragraphs of text along with images of the artist’s work. At the back of the book is a section of artist biographies. The short essays relating to each artist profile were written by either Ron Brownson; Nina Tonga; Julia Waite or Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai. Offering basic biographical information about an artist as well as background information about their work, these texts do not yield strong analyses of the artists or their artworks.
Interspersed between the sections profiling individual artists come longer essays written by some of Home AKL‘s curatorial squad: Albert L. Refiti; Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai; Nina Tonga; Ema Tavola and Ron Brownson. Refiti’s essay “Building the House of Noa Noa and Lave Lave: A Possible Theory of Pacific Art” (pp.10-13) is well-written and intellectually rewarding. This essay deserves to reach a wide audience. The first part of Refiti’s essay situates Home AKL in relation to the exhibition often pegged as its direct predecessor, Bottled Ocean curated by Jim Vivieaere in 1994. The second part of Refiti’s essay proposes ‘a theory of Pacific art’ based on Pacific concepts of relationality: mana; tapu; noa; fa’alavelave and va. Only one of Refiti’s points I question: the assertion that Home AKL operated in accord with the theory he so brilliantly sets out for us. My reasons for questioning this point are implied throughout the later part of this essay.
Mahina-Tuai’s “Looking Backwards into Our Future: Reframing ‘Contemporary’ Pacific Art” (pp. 54-58) and Tonga’s “From Home to Home Page: Pacific Art in the Digital Age” (pp. 75-81) each help us engage the two key questions raised earlier in the book by Refiti:
1. What does it mean for Pacific art to claim a Pacific identity today?
2. If [Pacific art has] already taken a place in the house of contemporary art, then what have we lost and gained, and what of the future? (p.12)
Mahina-Tuai critiques the binary categorization of Pacific artworks as either “contemporary” or, as the contemporary’s other, as “traditional” or “heritage” art. Drawing on examples from the Tongan way, she shows how epistemologies originating in the Pacific allow us to appreciate the contemporaneity of artworks produced in this region’s ancient genres, by artists educated through ‘cultural art institutions’ rather than Western art schools (p.36). For Mahina-Tuai the use of the term “contemporary” to describe all the artists in Home AKL, regardless of medium, ‘is the first small step in addressing the problems associated with imposing Western art definitions on Pacific arts’ (ibid). Meanwhile, Tonga’s essay highlights the increasingly important role of the internet in contemporary Pacific art as both a site for the exhibition of works and as a tool for making them. She draws attention to the radical significance of the advent of the social web, or web 2.0, which allowed social networking and user-generated content. It appears that Janet Lilo is the contemporary Pacific artist who has most astutely engaged the implications of the social web in works such as Top 16 (2007-2010).
Tavola’s “Urban Pacific Art and the Role of Fresh Gallery Otara” (pp. 54-58) reads unlike any other piece of her writing I have come across. While functional as a source of information - detailing aspects of her curating Fresh Gallery Otara over the last six years - this essay has none of the good qualities characteristic of her prose. Tavola usually produces sharp analytical texts that - in keeping with an anti-elitist politics - are accessible and appealing for a non-specialist readership. I relish new opportunities to read her work, not only for the incisiveness of its content, but for the lessons in form and style frequently offered there, because she usually makes her arguments come alive through a canny deployment of non-academic words and figures of speech. Yet even the uncharacteristically clinical title of her essay in the Home AKL book indicates a sanitized, deadened version of her voice.
Tavola’s stifled prose-voice in the Home AKL book is analogous to the absence of her curatorial voice from the Home AKL exhibition. While it is true that ‘almost 40 percent of the artists in Home AKL [were] Fresh exhibitors’ (p.57), the exhibition’s curatorial style was dissimilar to the one belonging to Tavola as seen in the more-than-sixty exhibitions of her curatorial career. Had Home AKL been curated by Tavola alone it would have appealed more actively to a younger audience, and turned the gallery into an unapologetically Pacific-friendly space, two things Home AKL did not do, for which I have already criticized the exhibition. (1.) While having the credit for Home AKL’s curation shared amongst a group is on one hand an inclusive act exploring the possibilities of collaboration, on the other it masks the provenance of curatorial choices. No one should doubt that we did not see the three very different “contemporary Pacific art” group shows that Tavola; Mahina-Tuai; and Tonga would each have shown us if given free reign. It will be a shame not to see what these shows look like in the future.
Brownson’s eponymous essay (pp. 98-103) does a fine job of detailing the rationale and back-story behind Home AKL‘s conception and curation. Rather than summarize what Brownson already documents with his essay, I wish to draw attention to another, related, issue. For while, realistically, one might not expect Auckland Art Gallery to mount any particularly harsh criticism of its own work within its own publication, it is a pity that this book - as the most substantial and well-presented documentation of the Home AKL exhibition - does not include an appraisal of its founding conceits. For example, the curatorial choice of “Home” as the theme for this “contemporary Pacific art” show is discussed only in terms of its being a rational and appropriate one. This naturalizes an association between “Home” and “Pacificness” that deserves interrogation.
Similarly problematic, there is no account of the contemporary Pacific artists excluded from the exhibition. Hence the Home AKL book reflects the necessarily partial view of contemporary Pacific art in Auckland offered by the exhibition, yet without acknowledging this partiality as much as it could have. An account of the Home AKL‘s exclusions would have identified some of the most exciting contemporary Pacific artists working in Auckland today; Luke Willis Thompson and Kalisolaite ‘Uhila, for example, come to mind immediately.
Works shown at Home AKL often portrayed “home” as an ambivalent, or even hostile, space; for example, Edith Amituanai’s “shame” photographs, and the works by Siliga David Setoga, Lonnie Hutchinson and Andy Leleisi’uao. However, Home AKL was framed overall as a feel-good affirmation of Pacific people’s “at-home-ness” - which is to say, their belonging - in Auckland, and of Pacific artists’ belonging within an Auckland art scene. This repeats the rhetorical gesture, too often made in New Zealand, of asserting that non-white ethnic groups feel “at home” here in a way that serves, ultimately, to affirm the white settler community’s sense of belonging on this land.
Communal identity relies on exclusions marking the conceptual boundaries between “our group” and “others.” In unconsciously white-supremacist societies, such as New Zealand, one of the social functions of non-white ethnic groups, including Pacific people, is to be a group of visibly included others. The white settler community celebrates the inclusion of non-white others because this underlines these others’ ultimate excludability. The implicit message of such celebration is: “We whose belonging is not in question celebrate your optional inclusion in our society.” By contrast, the white settler community never figures itself as an optional inclusion, an additional extra, to New Zealand society. For this reason I doubt that an ethnically non-specific art show would take the theme of “Home” in this country, where, by the way, anything ethnically non-specific is likely to be a predominantly white affair.
The choice of “Home” as a theme is also typical of the way New Zealanders tend to imagine Pacific people having nothing important or serious to say. This line of thought gives rise to the fantasy that Pacific people have worthwhile things to say only about themselves and each other. Yet we have much to offer wider discussions about Auckland and New Zealand, not to mention the big philosophical and ethical problems posed universally to humankind. Some themes I enjoy imagining a contemporary Pacific art show engaging are: “Philosophy,” “Pestilence,” “The Internet,” “Power,” “Fame/Notoriety,” “Time Travel,” “Money,” “Fate,” “Secrets,” “Science” and “Sin.” Imagine if the theme had been “The Papalagi,” as a play on the 1920 book bearing that title by Erich Scheurmann. Why not? To see a marginalized ethnic group given privileged public space in which to articulate their perspectives on Auckland’s white settlers would be a truly radical event.
My imaginary exhibition, “The Papalagi,” would offer tourists an experience genuinely unique to New Zealand. For - and this is a point that the “AKL” in Home AKL misses or masks - Pacific identity is tied to a collectivity for which municipal and national boundaries are irrelevant. Like other diasporic groups we define ourselves primarily by ancestry, not by geographic location. My being Samoan, for example, depends on my Samoan ancestry. It does not derive from my place of birth or residence. Likewise Maori, who enter into profound relationships with their whenua, privilege ancestry over location in defining their identity. The so-called “Pakeha,” on the other hand, are this land’s peculiar cultural feature.
(1.) Daniel M. Satele, “Who’s Home? Home AKL at the Auckland Art Gallery,” Art New Zealand, Number 143, Spring 2012, pp. 42-7; 81. See p. 81.
Daniel M. Satele
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