ArtMay 6, 2022

Don’t miss Auckland Art Gallery’s breathtaking Pacific feminist exhibition


Declaration: A Pacific Feminist Agenda features work from 12 artists – including one stunning piece being performed live one time only.

As water slowly fills the huge glass tank, the type you’d expect to see at a magician’s show, performance artist Latai Taumoepau sits cross-legged inside, her arms moving gracefully in the air. Taumoepau uses the choreography of different Pacific dances. The water continues to pour in, and she is buoyed by bright, yellow “floaties”. When the water nears the top, her dance movements become urgent and thrashing. Her body becomes land.

I stand in Auckland Art Gallery, watching with tears gathering. It would be difficult to find a climate analogy more profound or visceral than Taumoepau’s dance in the rising water. The familiarity of her dances speaks to me of journeys home, and her masterful timing reimagines rising sea levels and the time running out for climate action. Taumoepau’s homeland is the Kingdom of Tonga, and she grew up in the Eora nation, Sydney. Her work, Repatriate, was first performed in 2015 and is part of the show Declaration: A Pacific Feminist Agenda.

A sense of urgency defines the works within Declaration: A Pacific Feminist Agenda, which brings together 12 prominent artists from across the Pacific engaged with feminist concerns. The exhibition includes works by Jasmine Togo-Brisby, Marti Friedlander, Jessicoco Hansell, Taloi Havini, Lonnie Hutchinson, Ioane Ioane, Sione Monū, Suzanne Tamaki, Latai Taumoepeau, Molly Rangiwai-McHale & Luisa Tora and Kalisolaite ’Uhila.

Declaration runs until July 31, with the works by the 12 artists available to view on level two at Auckland Art Gallery. The artworks include photographs, installations, moving image and performance works. Taumoepau says she was moved by the dignity of those fighting for climate justice while they face losing their island homes. “It is about dispossession.”  

She was inspired to create works about climate change when she met Pacific climate delegates at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Indonesia in 2007. While she was there she learned the choreography of the Pacific delegate’s dances, and it is these she represents in Repatriate.  She uses the dance “to convey a spectrum of emotions”.

Repatriate by Latai Taumoepau (Photo: Supplied)

While Pacific voices are often disregarded in climate change discussions, Taumoepeau’s message is urgent. The most recent IPCC report revealed 3.5 billion people are highly vulnerable to climate change, particularly Indigenous communities. 

Curator Ane Tonga says she sought to move beyond narrow definitions of the Pacific, and instead “look at what Pacific means in terms of connections and disconnections to place”. 

The exhibition will enable New Zealanders to see some international artists who haven’t shown their work here; an opportunity for talanoa and cross-pollination. “That was pretty exciting,” says Tonga. “The highlight of the show was that we were able to bring art like that here.”

While artists were given timings and a budget, they weren’t given a brief, she says. “I’ve never known any artist that works like that.”

Commissioning works allows artists to create at a scale they might not otherwise, by giving them resources and time for new directions, she says. “For some, these will be key works in their practice.”

One such work is Open City (In Suspension) 2022 by fourth generation South Seas islander Jasmine Togo-Brisby, who depicts the pressed iron tiles of the Wunderlich family. The Wunderlichs enslaved her great-great-grandparents from Vanuatu during the Pacific slave trade era, colloquially called “Blackbirding”. The tiles bear images of her, her mother and grandmother alongside sailing ships, sugar cane, and blackbirds. Standing beneath it, in the darkness of the gallery, is to bear witness to unbearable loss.

Open City by Jasmine Togo-Brisby (Photo: Supplied)

Another new work commissioned for the exhibition is a giant, inflatable PVC teddy bear by artists Molly Rangiwai-McHale (Ngāti Porou, Te Aupōuri, Chinese, Scottish, Irish)  and Luisa Tora (Kadavu, Fiji). The work, Decolonise your Tongue, is more than three metres tall and holds a red love heart that reads “Decolonise your tongue”.

Tora recognises it is playful despite the serious message: “Quirkiness sometimes speaks more to people.” 

The looming black bear addresses how Pacific names are “cutified” – either anglicised or turned into an easier-to-pronounce nickname. “We were thinking about how something so fierce is being reduced to the most unthreatening version of itself,” says Tora.

A plastic fabrication company in East Tamaki constructed the PVC bear. A “pretty gung-ho” fabricator talked through the concept with them and came back with 3D models. “It was awesome. They did a great job. And it kind of stands out,” she says.

Decolonise Your Tongue by Molly Rangiwai-McHale (Photo: Supplied)

Both artists have had their names and the names of their whānau mispronounced. Rangiwai-McHale’s whānau experienced their names being anglicised, and Tora says mispronunciation of names is “every brown person’s struggle in this country I imagine”.

Pacific and Māori names recall namesakes and are ways of carrying whakapapa, says Tora. “Names are maps, with signposts along the way. They are maps home.”

In Taumoepau’s work, home is both tangible and out of reach. While the exhibit at Auckland Art Gallery is in video form (she is performing live on May 7 only) the performance itself is demanding, and involves being in the water for up to 90 minutes. It is, she says, an “endurance work”.

Taumoepau has travelled between Tonga and Australia often throughout her life, and is already mourning the loss she knows will come to the places she calls home. In the meantime, she is prepared to put her body on the line.

Latai Taumoepau performs Repatriate (2015) live at Auckland Art Gallery at 3.30pm on Saturday May 7. Declaration: A Pacific Feminist Agenda runs until 31 July 2022.

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