The goal should always be to make the message clear. Ray is noodling on the piano in the corner. He's compact, contained, watchful. He's wearing a blue beanie. The beanie will become important. Kita and Rosie are sitting on the sofas on the other side of the room. They're all in their teens. Everyone else in the room is 10, 20, 30 years older, except for Emory Douglas, who looks maybe a little over 50. He's 71.
Douglas was Minister of Culture for America's Black Panther Party from 1967 through to its dissolution in 1982; he's a lifelong activist for social justice. We are sitting in the Green Room of the Mangere Arts Centre, a long corridor and a few twists and turns away from an exhibition space filled with a mix of local art and Douglas' iconic poster-style images.
As you go into the exhibition, you pass his list of artistic principles. "Create art that recognises the oppression of others, and considers basic quality of life concerns and basic human rights issues. Create art of social concerns that even a child can understand. The goal should always be to make the message clear. Make an effort to not create political art dealing with social issues just because it's a cool thing to do. Know the rules before you break the rules. Do not lose sight of what the goals are."
"It's gonna be a group thing," Douglas says to me while we are waiting for the kids to arrive. "I'm just gonna be hanging around."
The kids are enrolled in South Auckland's Nga Rangatahi Toa programme, which aims to unlock the artistic potential of young people who have fallen through the cracks of the mainstream education system. Douglas is spending this week working with them, creating a mural which will be unveiled as part of the Auckland Arts Festival, alongside his other work.
Auckland traffic is weaving its usual magic; the teens are coming from Otara by car, and the wait stretches out. Douglas walks with me through the exhibition space. Gun-toting pigs. Martin Luther King. Lots of slogans. "Power to the People!" A two-headed snake, one head each for America's major political parties. Many of the images go back decades; some are more recent. One features Obama, his hand a devil's claw, writing names on a paper labelled "Kill List".
"Everyone was up and voting to get him elected, first African-American president. There was black folks got lynched, lost their lives for the right to vote; of course they voted for him. But when they gave him the Nobel Prize he didn't talk about peace, he talked about war. He's got Guantanamo Bay still open. And there's the Kill Bill, where he signed into law that they can go around the world with their targeted assassinations. For every so-called terrorist they kill with their drones, they kill at least 28 innocent people. You're creating more resentfulness and terrorists than you are resolving the issue."
This is Douglas' third visit to New Zealand. He was here in 2013, collaborating with local artist Wayne Youle, and in 2009 he was Elam's International Artist in Residence.
"It looks like people are trying here, at least ... it's not too much different from what I see elsewhere, really, in the social sense. Those folks who are incarcerated, who are unemployed, infant mortality rates; it's heavily disproportionate. You see that in the United States, Australia, Portugal, everywhere. Same thing. What I do see here is people who still have strong links to Maori culture, Pacific Island culture. The way they greet you if you come on to a marae. Lot of folks with a strong sense of identity."
The kids arrive. We all head to the Green Room. Nga Rangatahi Toa have sent along an art teacher and an artist, as well as Sarah Longbottom, their creative director; when you add the journalist and the photographer, the adults in the room outnumber the teens two to one. Douglas chats quietly with them. He met them for the first time yesterday, and they agreed on a theme for the mural: "Engage in Change". He pulls out a drawing, passes it around. Two gang members are leaning in to hongi each other. Each one has the word "peace" worked into his moko.
"I did it on a little tablet the other day, matter of fact," Douglas says. "Just playing around with it."
"In terms of the kids having to be artistic," Longbottom tells me, "they don't have to be. We work on the premise that all humans are creative.
"We unlock and support that. Our main focus is transitioning kids into mainstream education or tertiary education or employment."
Douglas' drawing is black and white. The mural won't be. One of the adults produces some colour charts. Kita and Rosie start discussing options. Ray's beanie is used as a reference: according to the charts, it's the exact shade of blue the charts call Decadence. Ray raises an eyebrow. Decadence goes on the list for the mural, together with Turbo (yellow), Havok (red), and Shady Lady (grey). Rosie argues for some black.
The group moves over to the exhibition space, to look at the mural boards. They're 2.5m a side. "We get the paint, we can start on this tomorrow," Douglas says. They have three days. "We'll get it done."
Auckland Arts Festival
Where and when:
Mangere Arts Centre, to April 19, Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm; Saturday-Sunday, 10am-4pm