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Return to Sender at Papakura Art Gallery

Return to sender curated by Cora Allan Wickcliffe.
Papakura Art Gallery. 20 April – 1 June.

I walked into the room and she was standing there, capturing my attention, and holding my gaze. I was drawn to her.

There was something about her that I could not escape and it took me a while to really put my finger on exactly what that was. Then it struck me: Power.

I become unaware of my surroundings, it was just she and I.

I wondered if that was how she felt standing there, in that moment, if she was aware of them. They awkwardly walked past her.

I was very aware of the other. I was othered. Was she?

Artist. Storyteller. Writer. Inquisitive mind that notices the little things.

I am drawn to that which is often overlooked. It is for this very reason that what I take from a show is more often than not a series of sporadic thoughts that send me off on a tangent. It is for this very reason that the way that I write about art and about shows is a little unconventional. Think of it as musings.

It was two weeks ago that I walked into the Papakura Gallery on my way home from work and as you can appreciate, my mind has wandered a lot since then.

Return to Sender offered me that freedom. I am yet to shake off that overwhelming feeling of pride that I felt as I walked through the gallery doors and why would I want to?

Sometimes what I get from a show isn’t instant; just like a story it slowly and eloquently unfolds, weaving itself into the everyday of my life.

I am interested in the conversation that stems from a minute and often-overlooked whisper of an idea that is subtly played out in a work. I am open to leaving everything else behind and grasping that one thread with all of my being.

There is something beautiful about the subtly of the Return to Sender, it echoes the subtle nature of hegemony and it confronts its problematic authority.

Acknowledging the past, reclaiming the present and taking ownership of the future.

I didn’t expect to be confronted with such intense conflicting feelings. It is this internal confliction that causes me to now hesitate, it makes me very aware of what I write coming from a pakeha perspective. A pakeha who grew up in South Auckland, who has two mums, one of which is Maori. Yes I understand that sense of ‘other’ but I can’t escape that sense of privilege.

A lot can be said about privilege.

Privilege is a reason that difference exists.

A lot can be said about difference.

Difference is a common thread that is displaced by a sense of community.

Difference promotes a sense of individual and collective empowerment.

Difference is unapologetic.
Privilege is inescapable.

There is no ‘us’ without a ‘them’, but at the same time that we are ‘us’ we are also and ‘them’. We cannot be one without the other. Difference is unapologetic.

There is a lot to contemplate.


Set a little further out from the beaming city streets of Tamaki Makaurau, Return to Sender opens for it’s first day at Papakura Art Gallery, South of Auckland.

Curated by Cora-Allan Wickliffe, as a part of an exhibition series set by Tautai Pacific Arts Trust to allow opportunities for Pacific Artists to curate exhibitions such as this.

Return to Sender was a given. Call me bias but my intentions were surely to support, to be educated and to experience.

I am very glad I did exactly that. Attending Return to Sender struck me with these Postcards I had been seeing all over my social media news feeds and through constant conversation with art contemporaries.

Not only did the images scream ‘Pasifika, history, immigration and culture’, they sentimentally hit home and touched the heart for me personally, culturally and nationally.

The post cards created by Lana Lopesi set the mood and was an ice-breaker for this exhibition. The images would tug on a memory in any Polynesian persons memory bank.

They remind you of ‘the motherland’, of your ancestors and stimulate ‘that discussion’ constantly spoken of, about how we as Pacific Islanders ended up in New Zealand and if New Zealand is the right place to be and how we continuously compare the two places.

The images on the post cards prompt conversation that require us to question pacific and non-pacific peoples perceptions of New Zealand and the migration of Polynesians who came from the islands.How has society shaped peoples thoughts about what the islands are really about? How has commercialism in New Zealand affected the way Pacific people are treated, looked at?

Lana demonstrates powerful notions of distortion, identity and displacement with the use of candid text implying what her images mean.The use of text over her images has a commercial device to it. Having the navigates us to be persuaded to comprehend this exhibition a little deeper. Then when I step back and look at what the Post cards are, the purpose of a post card is used a communication tool, to have a short message on it and for one to receive.

This exhibition navigated me through a very touchy and continuously highlighted conversation about the great pacific migration and the experiences of both New Zealander’s and the new comers from the pacific islands.

There is a blend of Pacific artists from Auckland, both established and emerging, who have contributed their responses to these Post cards. I was drawn to Darcel’s performance piece that activated what seemed to be a contemporary ritual of the umu. Like many Pacific traditions, food plays an important role in our customs to some degree. This adds a spiritual element with a contemporary quality to the opening.

Cooking an umu right outside Papakura Art Gallery was something going against the grain.

This ritual reminded me of family feasts especially seeing the audience crowd around just as we do in the family home when everyone’s over.

My expression of ‘going against the grain’ comes from seeing how she gathered a crowd just as a Mama would do with her family in the privacy of her home yet she flips this by relaying it publicly, exposing the audience to something we aren’t so used to having food being cooked outdoors.

This really set the tone that this was clearly about Pacifica, Society and Perceptions.

She brought her umu for one into the Gallery with the Crowd following her back in.

The time it took Darcel to finish eating her meal, I grew curious and I had to confirm what the connection to her piece with the other works displayed was. The room felt alive seeing everyone’s puzzled eyes examine her feasting.As she ate I felt as though I was intruding in her personal space, that these artworks appeared really sentimental and delicate as if they were family portraits of her family home. Here is where I start to develop the significance of the post cards and what they stand for. I grew respectful and this is where my views shape from a busy bee artist making money to someone who has just been reminded of her roots.

Collectively the works displayed by each of the Artists: Salome Tanuvasa, Aaron Unasa, Louisa Afoa,Theo Ah-Wong, Angela Tiatia, Ani Oneil and Lonnie Hutchinson all came to life with Lana’s cards and Darcel’s piece.

Here is where I absorb eachof the artists works and find my own understanding of each. I gather that these are their responses or relate to the post cards.These responses challenge the commercial value of identity found in Pacific Culture.

In Aaron Unasa’s installation, his woven fans made from snapback caps are immediately familiar to me.

Hip Hop Culture is something many Polynesians and Maori draw inspiration from being, of the same racial issues, same historical resemblances that African American people faced, we faced too. The way we dress, talk, act and think is adopted from this culture. I see this is a culture experiencing distortion or lack of identity. I see it.

Absorbing the artists’ responses demonstrate a loud noise of chatter. I hear the conversations muttering between each of these works responding to one another and sharing their views with (as the spectator). I see the questions raised about our identity and where do we see ourselves as Polynesians now in New Zealand? How does New Zealand see Polynesians here and in the islands? How our minds have processed and developed far from what our migrating ancestors set to achieve by coming to this land of milk and honey.

It’s from the questions raised that I am reminded where I’m from and who it is I’m trying to be.


Photo Credit: Louisa Afoa







This entry was posted in: Reviews


  1. Pingback: Return to Sender #500words | whereivewalked

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