I'm an occasional visitor to busy Saturday morning Otara, but the market's not my magnet. Part of Otara's distinctive neighbourhood culture is that on Saturday, market hours are also business hours. The council-run Fresh Gallery opens a whole two hours earlier on Saturdays than on weekdays, at 8am. The attractive Otara library, which includes fabulous Maori and Pacific sections, is open 9am to 1pm.
No other Auckland suburb boasts a public art gallery, public library, and public recording studio (at Otara Music Art Centre) side-by-side in an open air mall. The arts are the heart of cosmopolitan Otara - this is what I go for.
And that heart keeps getting bigger. Earlier this year, Fresh Gallery, known for its community relevant, contemporary shows, expanded from one poky shop front into a large peninsula of window walls, with doors on three sides and even a cafe.
Over winter, Fresh hosted 1970s Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, among others, for the Auckland Triennial. Douglas told locals he was happy to paint his mural there rather than in town. Maybe because, in Otara, the art is in your face. You don't even have to step into Fresh to enjoy what's on display. (The gallery is modelling a refreshing lack of roller doors - apparently the police don't like roller doors because they screen thieves who break in through ceilings.)
Nor does the art stop with the gallery glass. Last week, as part of Otarafest, programmed by Ema Tavola inside the Southside Arts Festival, a traditional performance by Tongan dancers and singers from P.O.T productions led spectators from inside Fresh Gallery to the courtyard stage outside. (The nearby sausage sizzlers stopped shouting their wares for half an hour.)
More permanently, the OtaraCube, an outdoor installation space near the bus interchange, was opened last week. Close by, three art windows line the health centre, currently showing clever, confronting adornments by Luisa Tora. A series of lightboxes are yet to come. Voila, several new outdoor sites for revolving exhibitions: if you mistakenly visit Otara after everyone's left on Saturday afternoon, you'll now have more than fried chicken and roller doors for company.
All this is thanks to funding from the Otara-Papatoetoe Local Board and co-operation between the Otara Business Association and neighbouring Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT). Being managed by MIT rather than Auckland Council, the sites are a little bit rogue, outside the centralised "curation" of public art. "I don't see this as a step to Venice for Elam graduates," laughs MIT executive dean of creative arts, Grant Thompson.
Of course a Cube artist could go to Venice, but it's not the site's goal. The international focus here is via the community, not away from it. Otarafest's Fafswag ball, a competitive showcase of Pacific queer performance, was based on 1980s New York balls. The OtaraCube's inaugural 24-hour exhibition by Emily and Vea Mafile'o shows photographs of two young Tongan men, one living in Tonga and the other in Auckland. Otara is not a stepping stone to Venice or anywhere else; it's a destination.