Home AKL: Celebrating Pacific art

By Adam Gifford

Auckland Art Gallery's new exhibition Home AKL celebrates the energy, range and relevance of Pacific Island artists in Auckland.

Artist Paul Tangata, with some of his work on display at the Auckland Art Gallery. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Artist Paul Tangata, with some of his work on display at the Auckland Art Gallery. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Home AKL for Paul Tangata is now the Grey Lynn bungalow his father bought in 1957 for £12 10s. It's here he's been living what he calls a "subterranean" existence, with few aware it houses Porima "Paul" Tangata, a one-time rising star in Cook Island politics who went down in flames only to emerge again as that country's senior public servant.

Even artist contemporaries don't realise Paul Tangata, the first Pacific Islander to graduate from Elam, had returned to live a stone's throw from them.

Tangata's story is one of the many surprises of the Auckland Art Gallery's first, and long overdue, survey of work being done in the world's largest Polynesian city. The conflict between "art for art's sake" and the expectations and responsibilities of community are still there for many of the younger artists in the show.

Tangata was born on Atiu, but moved around as his father, a minister in the Cook Islands Christian Church, was posted to various islands. His father eventually hung up his vestments and got work in New Zealand, first at a Rotorua sawmill and then in the tannery at Hellaby's Auckland meatworks.

Tangata's art teacher at Seddon Technical College was struck by his talent and convinced him to enrol at the school of fine arts across the road. "I never looked back."

Not that it was easy. The expressive, painterly style he developed was at odds with Elam's then-orthodox highly ordered, flat compositions. It's not a great leap from Lois White to his classmate Don Binney, but Tangata's paintings stand apart.

"You've got to move out of that cocoon. That's why I moved my studio to Freemans Bay [while still at school]. I felt much better and I was exhibiting as well," he says.

Tangata says there wasn't the same awareness of being a Pacific Islander as might be evident today because there were so few around.

"The only darkies I was with there were Elizabeth Mountain who was married to Robert Ellis, and Mere Harrison from Ngati Porou. We used to get together sometimes. It helped."

It was at Elam that the only son of a preacher got his start in politics, serving as president of the Elam students' association and on the main student union. "That was my first foray into politics, along with Winston Peters from the law faculty."

Halfway through his studies, Tangata won a scholarship to the East West Centre in Hawaii, an experience which seems to have left him less than impressed with the American education system. Back home he completed his fine arts degree and teaching diploma.

"Art for art's sake does not work. You've got to get your supplies and pay the rent on your flat. When I was at varsity, at Christmas I would go to the meat works and work like mad, it was good money, or go down the wharf, anywhere you could sneak a job.

"Getting a scholarship for teaching, that was the easy way out. I didn't want to be a teacher but I ended up being one."

His teaching career included a year back in Rarotonga and a spell in the new Auckland Technical Institute, housed in his old school. He also had exhibitions, which his relatives knew nothing of. "I wasn't part of their world. I made a point of it. It was hard enough to do art."

That doesn't mean the art doesn't speak of where he is from. "My father had Tahitian roots and my mother was Atiuan, so I feel it is more the Tahitian connection, those lush green beautiful colours, as Paul Gauguin brought out in his works [even though he never finished the job]," Tangata says.

I put to him that one of the works in Home AKL reminds me of the American abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell, with violent brush strokes and bright colours that create a pictorial surface charged with energy.

"Fundamentally my paintings are energised, but where you see a huge splash of red clay for instance, like the one in the gallery, that to me is where my roots come from, the red clay all over Atiu, all over Polynesia.

"On top of that clay is the vegetation, the frangipani, the plumeria and the beauty thereof."

In 1968 the Cook Islands was having its second election under self-government. Tangata was approached to stand for Atiu.

He accepted the call to politics and put a comma, "not a full stop", under his art career.

"I didn't want to mix my art with my politics. Art for art's sake yes, but you have to remember it is also personal, private, otherwise you can't evoke what is truly you the artist. I always have been personal with my paintings. That's why I disappear and do things on my own."

When Tom Davis returned from the United States in 1971 to form the Democratic Party, Tangata joined up. He says that though Davis, a former Nasa scientist, may have been a brilliant scientist, he was not a good politician.

As deputy leader of the opposition, pressure was coming on Tangata to take charge. The Davis camp, which included a couple of medical doctors, responded by getting him certified as insane in 1977 and packed him off to Auckland's notorious Oakley psychiatric hospital. "It was skulduggery."

It was six weeks before a reporter from the New Zealand Herald wrote a story that he was in Oakley, and he was released the next day. But he was not able to convince a judge back in Rarotonga to unwind the actions that led to his seat being declared vacant.

He went to work in government rather than politics, and ended up as secretary to the government before retiring and returning to Auckland.

His physical movements are constrained by damage to his legs from being poisoned by tainted fish from Rarotonga - the same thing he says that killed Davis - but the itch to paint is still there. "I'm ready to go."

It was another decade before other Pacific Island artists started to emerge, some of whom are represented in Home AKL - including work first commissioned by the late Jim Vivieaere for his ground-breaking Bottle Ocean show from the 1980s.

The curatorial team of Ron Brownson with associates Kolokesa Uafa Mahina Tuai, Nina Tonga, Ema Tavola and assistant Julia Waite have also tried to assert that the traditional arts remain contemporary. But it's Tavola's selection of the cream of the artists she has shown over the past six years at Fresh Gallery in Otara that points the way ahead. Fresh - in a former laundromat in the town centre - started as a community gallery, which she revived when she was hired by Manukau City Council as Pacific arts co-ordinator.

"It's unique among council galleries in that Fresh was set up on the basis of a memorandum of understanding with the community, with the first point being that Otara was the audience for the gallery," Tavola says.

Her curatorial framework was set by the fact that the community was predominantly Polynesian, with 40 per cent aged under 21.

"We would identify artists who use their Pacific heritage and their identity as important factors in why they make the work and what influences them," she says. "For artists like that, exhibiting in a gallery where Pacific people are actually your core audience becomes a natural attraction."

Many of the artists came out of Manukau Institute of Technology and AUT, with a sprinkling from Elam and Unitec. They seem drawn to multimedia and conceptual modes rather than traditional painting or sculpture.

"I think it is hard for a lot of Pacific students because in a Pacific Island context, art school doesn't equal jobs, it doesn't equal a salary and so they are really going on these journeys a lot of the time very unsupported. We had artists coming to us who had been at places like Elam who didn't have much support at home and in their families and when they go to an institution like that where Pacific Island-ness isn't really embraced and supported, they just fall through the cracks. We had a lot of Elam dropouts coming to us for shows."

She says Fresh broadened the Pacific art sector by putting a spotlight on the people who weren't getting the central Auckland shows "and the more we worked with those artists, the more other artists like them would come out of the woodwork." Tavola points to Ariki by Leilani Kake, a video, projected on the floor, of the artist's now 10-year-old son floating in a pool, as an emblematic Fresh piece.

"It was originally made and shown in 2007, about the time there was a lot of finger-pointing about child abuse around the murder of the Kahui twins.

"Leilani wanted to make a work that spoke to the community in south Auckland, to please just look and honour and reflect on children.

"The gaze in the original work was such a profound moment between a child and its mother, and people got it immediately. I think Leilani made that work because she wanted to make a difference in her community, she wanted Pacific people and Maori people to use art to reflect on ourselves and our lives and the people around us.

"The same thing with Tanu Gago, he wanted to make his community reflect on the way Samoans treat f'afafine and think about gender identity. He knew that when you put that work on at Fresh it is going to generate conversations and opinions."

Tavola says by thinking about their role in terms of service to the community, Fresh artists have been able to make change.

"I see it in the way kids come in and talk about the work.

"We have had some kids come into every exhibition for six years and they remember the issues the shows bring up and we literally change lives just in the way they think about the world around them, just because of what they have seen in an art gallery."

Exhibition
What:
Home AKL
Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery, to October 22

- NZ Herald

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