Let’s be honest, Howick can be terrifying for a young person of colour. Everything about me is West Auckland, which is a community I feel very comfortable in. I blend in, and anyone would, really. Howick, however, feels like another world.
Regardless of diversity, across our supercity is evidence of our council’s love of multi-purpose arts facilities. These hubs of creative activity have mandates to appeal, serve and reflect their local community. Maybe that’s the reason my West Auckland self never ventured to Uxbridge —perhaps I was not the desired audience?
Walking into the once Presbyterian Church, turned gallery space and theatre, we are greeted by the black and white analogue photography of Joyce Campbell. Te Taniwha and The Thread are two series created by Joyce in collaboration with Ruakituri historian Richard Niania. Through photography, Joyce captures various sights across Wairoa exploring local mythology, history and ecology.
This exhibition is a significant mark for Uxbridge (soon to be called Malcolm Smith Gallery), reflecting the turn of a programming era headed by the newly appointed curator Balamohan Shingade. I can’t speak about Uxbridge prior to Balamohan, because, to be honest, it never entered my social media art radar. Maybe Balamohan pools in more of the Elam crowd (of which I’m a part), but I think especially there is an increased emphasis on contemporary art. At first glance, an Elam trained curator exhibiting a conceptual photographic practice by Elam’s Associate Head of Postgraduate could be easy to dismiss, but the choice of Joyce Campbell as Balamohan’s first exhibition is very political and equally thoughtful.
Uxbridge has a long history as a former church, obvious in its early 1900’s architecture. More potently, Uxbridge can be seen to reference a small bridge on the property physically connecting the arts centre and Te Whare Wānanga o Ōwairoa. This wharenui sits on Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki and is operated by the Auckland Council’s Māori Strategy and Relations wing, Te Waka Angamua. This symbolic connection to the Tangata Whenua has been at high risk with the arson of the original wharenui in 2004 in what is thought to be a racially motivated attack. Due in part to council bureaucracy, it took another 10 years for a new whare to be built in its place.
Picking up on the metaphor of the bridge, Balamohan has programmed a symbolic commitment to the Tangata Whenua. Through the practice of Joyce Campbell, we see the start of racial mending—a bond which has been neglected in previous years. Not only has Balamohan referenced this complex, long standing history in a single exhibition, he has also appealed to his applied arts community through tangible process laden photography.
Balamohan’s brave curatorial hand highlights a prioritising of audiences and whole communities, over engrained institutional racism. In many ways Balamohan is Te Taniwha. His subtle infiltration, diligence and dedication to the community and the Malcolm Smith Gallery is exciting not only for the residents of Howick but also anyone questioning and examining meaningful engagement. I look forward to looking on and seeing how through curatorial practice meaningful models of audience engagement can be achieved in East Auckland.