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WWED? In Conversation with Ema Tavola

WW..D? Is an interview segment where we get to know awesome people that are a part of the creative community in New Zealand.

This week we spoke to curator Ema Tavola, of PIMPI (Pacific Island Management, Production + Ideas). She was an instrumental figure for Fresh Gallery Otara, Associate Curator for HomeAKL and major advocate for Pacific arts. Read more for What Would Ema Do?

How did you first get into the art industry?

When I lived in Suva, I got involved with the Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies at the University of the South Pacific. I started painting there and discussing Oceania and art making with the late Professor ‘Epeli Hau’ofa. It was there that I participated in a painting workshop with the New Zealand Niuean artist and writer, John Pule, who told me about Manukau School of Visual Arts (now MIT Faculty of Creative Arts) in Otara, and that’s where I ended up studying. I moved to Auckland and lived with friends in Central Auckland in 2001 before moving to Manukau to study full-time. From those Fiji mates, I met Gina Cole, who told me about Tautai Trust; I got involved with gatherings and opportunities, which opened up the Auckland-based Pacific arts community to me. From there I assisted the late Jim Vivieaere in producing an exhibition called Niu Dialogue in 2004, which sparked my interest in curating. Throughout my undergraduate studies, I got involved with Pacific student support opportunities, and late volunteered with Otara’s Artnet Gallery. All these experiences led me to the role of Pacific Arts Coordinator for what was then Manukau City Council. Through that role, Fresh Gallery Otara was born and many, many more doors opened as a result.

You were the instrumental figure for Fresh Gallery Otara for a number of years, how did you generate community engagement in a council run space?

As a public servant, your work is about providing a service to the public, and in the case of what was then Manukau City Council, to the ratepayers of Manukau City. Therefore, your audience, your service, protocol… language and general framework is defined by the community in which you serve. When the gallery that went on to be known as Fresh Gallery Otara (FGO) was proposed initially in early 2006, the community in Otara represented by the Otara Network Action Committee and Otara Economic Development Trust, wanted Manukau City Council to define some key objectives for the Gallery to ensure that Otara audiences, in particularly young people, were kept at the centre of the Gallery’s vision and business. A series of community consultations were undertaken to understand the community’s expectations and aspirations for the space, naming the gallery was also part of this process and the name was chosen from about 15 suggestions submitted. When FGO was formally opened in 2006, it was that foundation that essentially informed the curatorial agenda for the space; the Gallery catered primarily to Otara audiences, South Auckland / Manukau audiences second and then the rest. The Kaupapa of service and community consciousness kept the programming real… it kept me honest and enabled me to build a parallel ‘art world’ where Pacific youth audiences in South Auckland were the centre.

Is community engagement an important thing to consider for the artist or the gallery?

It depends on the individual artist, and it depends on the business model of the Gallery.

Since leaving Fresh how difficult has it been to sustain a career as an independent curator?

I was spoiled as a curator of such a unique and flexible space for six years. I worked on a show for Papakura Art Gallery after leaving, which was an eye opener, and haven’t done much since then. Partly I’ve been taking a break, and partly I’ve been dreaming about opening another gallery in South Auckland. For me, I’m more interested in where curating and art making eclipses with social development and social consciousness, so audiences and site specificity are a primary concern when considering a curatorial project. I’ve considered producing shows for a range of other venues, but I know from running my own curatorial programme that my ideal space for future shows is another independent and socially conscious art space.

Being a ‘Pacific art curator’ and a ‘curator of Pacific descent’ are two very different things, where do you sit?

I’m a Pacific Islander and a curator; being a Pacific person is who I am – I can’t escape it, and curating is an extension of my visual arts practice, a mode of self-expression inextricably linked to my identity and experiences as a Pacific person. Being a curator is a title, a job, a choice… being a Pacific Islander is not. For me, my Pacific Island identity links me to my land, my sea, my totems, language, culture, people and histories. I’m so proud of these things, and feel privileged to have such connections, consciousness and cultural wealth.

You are a strong advocate for South Auckland being the centre for Pacific Arts, what exactly is it that South Auckland has?

I subscribe to the theory that Pacific audiences in many ways activate Pacific art. In South Auckland, in communities such as Otara where the community is over 70% Polynesian, the potential for Pacific art to be ‘activated’ and to become part of Pacific community consciousness, is strong. Where Pacific audiences are not engaged, the work evaporates into an academic ether… it can exist in books and the minds of critics and art historians, but it doesn’t affect minds and hearts within the Pacific realm. Each to their own, but for me, it’s important that my work as a curator, and the artists I believe in, are relative and reflective of the communities I draw from. Also, the centre for Pacific art is the Pacific Islands; South Auckland is a diasporic hub within a dominant culture host environment.

What would you say to Pacific artists living in other parts of Auckland city or New Zealand?

Go hard! South Auckland is my ‘centre’, it’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. But in terms of general advice, use the internet, blog, share and spread the word. When I started Fresh Gallery Otara, everything I did in the Gallery simultaneously existed via my blog (, via Flickr, bebo, Facebook and later Twitter. The online dimension of your practice is vitally important. You can maintain a rootedness to your site and space whilst simultaneously being open and accessible to the world.

HomeAKL was the first show of Pacific art at the Auckland Art Gallery for 20 years, being a co-curator must have been an interesting process. How was it working on this project and was it an accurate representation of Pacific art in 2012?

Being an Associate Curator on HomeAKL was a process of working with a curatorium; a team of curator heads all contributing to what was to be a shared vision for the show. It was an interesting experience. I think Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai is an exceptional curator and it’s always a pleasure to watch her in action. The exhibition featured a lot of work that had been previously exhibited at Fresh Gallery Otara, and in many cases, made specifically for Fresh Gallery Otara audiences; I was definitely proud of that. The entry fee was prohibitive… and the exhibition as a whole was nothing on what Jim Vivieaere achieved with Bottled Ocean 20 years prior, so did it represent Pacific art in 2012? Probably as much as colonial ethnographic photography represents indigenous people. From my point of view, it probably revealed more about Auckland Art Gallery and its agenda, influencers and business model, rather than a real depiction of the vibrancy and dynamism of the Pacific art world. But for audiences? Who knows… I don’t really know anyone who paid to see it :/

What advice do you have for young Pacific curators?

Be humble. Be brave. Treasure those who have walked the path ahead of you, and listen to their stories whilst they’re still around.

For more on PIMPI and Ema’s work check out her website.

Image Credit: Sean Atavenitia

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