Vunilagi Vou gallery in Ōtāhuhu. Image supplied.

‘Art belongs to us’: Behind the scenes at Ōtāhuhu’s first-ever art gallery

Earlier this month Vunilagi Vou opened in Ōtāhuhu, the first art gallery the south Auckland suburb has ever had. Its director, curator Ema Tavola, is passionate about centring South Auckland communities and art makers in conversations around contemporary New Zealand art.

Ōtāhuhu is home to a large migrant population, more than half are from Pacific Island nations, but a lack of investment for years by the council means that its residents aren’t focused on fine arts as a community issue.

A well-established curator of mixed Fijian-Pākehā heritage, Ema Tavola rejects the idea that art should be confined to rich, white areas. She says moving to New Zealand to study a visual arts degree in Ōtara highlighted the huge difference in expectations of rich and poor suburbs.

“It was just the most extreme thing to be talking about fine art from Europe and walk out the gate into a community that was 70% Polynesian. I really wanted to find out what art looked like that lived in communities like this and create space where our communities can find value in the things we love to do, which is make work in this fine art context.”

Ema Tavola. PHOTO: Pati Solomona Tyrell

That contrast pushed Tavola to work with Pacific communities and after a time volunteering at a community-run Ōtara gallery, she moved into a full-time role at Manukau City Council. While there she established Fresh Gallery Ōtara, a gallery that celebrated local and South Auckland artists. After curating 66 shows there, she made the move to Ōtāhuhu.

While the concept is very similar, Tavola says there is a huge difference between the areas.

“Ōtara is a very connected community, and they’ve got together and done a lot of things as a group, they have agency and they participate a lot in things that affect their lives… Ōtāhuhu has very siloed cultural communities, big Vietnamese community, Sikh community, if you go to any local board things here… the participation levels are quite different to Ōtara”

Vunilagi Vou is a Fijian name, vunilagi meaning ‘horizon’ and vou meaning ‘new’. Tavola says the name represents the life-giving energy of the sun. “The sunrise and sunset is that metaphor for projects, in the way that I work methodologically, that I love when things have a beginning and an end.”

The gallery’s opening exhibition is made up of works from 13 different artists, and includes weaving, photography, painting and printwork. Tavola aims to highlight female artists in the space, and says in her experience, they’re less likely to be pushing their own work into these galleries.

“Since I’ve become a mum it’s made me realise how much mother-artists completely put their practise on the back burner. My daughter is almost five and for the last five years I’ve really tried to enable women and mother artists to have opportunities because they’re not out there so much, they often get overlooked.”

Of the 13 artists on show at Vunilagi Vou, eight are women. But Tavola says it was an exercise in questioning her own biases. She curated a show in the International Biennale of Casablanca last year, and says most of the artists she initially thought of taking were men.

“I had to really take a step back and say who are the women artists doing great things but not out there on the front lines showing it off all the time… You have to check your biases. It’s definitely easy to work with male artists when you just do a quick scan and forget to think more deeply about it, but I have a lot of intention to enable women artists.”

“Mind That Māori” (2019) by Melissa Cole in collaboration with Rudi Robinson. PHOTO: Vunilagi Vou.

Tavola curates her art carefully, selecting pieces for her shows that speak to the heart of the community she’s involved in. Looking straight through the doors from the tiled arcade is a portrait of social media star Boom Bullet, by artist Niutuiatua Lemalu. He’s well known in the Pasifika community, and the work is a prime example of how when art is taken out of its societal context, it can lose meaning.

“A lot of people have come in and wanted to ask questions, the thing I love about curating in this kind of setting are the themes and how they resonate with these audiences… [Boom Bullet’s] famous for his tattoo, he gets heated in videos and takes his shirt off and smacks his chest, and here, people are like ‘ohh Boom Bullet!’ they know it straight away, and that opens up a conversation.”

A dark portrait placed in the corner of the room was a late selection for the gallery. Tavola says she chose it after hearing the news that Sāmoan actor Pua Magasiva had died.

“That had such an impact on our community and it just makes me think about the darkness that sits within our communities. Every group of Pacific Islanders have this behind the surface and its things that we don’t want to look at and we don’t want to confront.”

That kind of conversation is what’s missing from other, more traditional galleries. Tavola wanted to make a space for Pasifika art not just to bring the art to the people, but to make the people more comfortable with seeking out art that resonates with them.

“This is about accessibility, and I’m not going to sell a $2000 painting to my average customer here, but it’s about seeing that our work is part of this community, reflects this community, and hopefully bring the art community to us.” 

“Octopus Dream” (2019) by Daniel Weetman, “Boom Bullet” (2019) by Niutuiatua Lemalu and a photograph by Julia Mage’au Gray. PHOTOS: VUNILAGI VOU.

She’s worked all over the world and says one of the barriers to lower income or minority communities enjoying art is the walls of the galleries themselves. Vunilagi Vou has a glass storefront, which is one of the reasons the space stood out to Tavola.

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“At lots of gallery openings, you’ll find Pacific people outside. They’ll be outside because they don’t often feel that comfortable inside. I love that we can say this is an inside outside gallery. The arcade makes it sort of a safe space as well, you don’t have to have an intention to go to an art gallery, it’s just here as part of our landscape.”

It’s probably no surprise that most of the artists in Tavola’s show have jobs outside their creative pursuits. The arts have always been seen as an elusive way to make money, and there is no difference here. “One of Daniel’s jobs is being a musician in the Black Seeds, but like most creative pursuits, there’s often a need to subsidise creative incomes with other work.”

But exhibitions like the one at Vunilagi Vou do create moments where more established artists and new artists can take a space on a wall next to each other. Tavola says this exposure can help both of these groups in different ways. “It’s really good having the likes of Daniel Weetman who’s never exhibited before, be able to say his first exhibition was alongside Andy Leleisi’uao, who is one of our most successful contemporary Pacific artists. It’s beneficial for emerging artists, and it’s really beneficial for Andy as well because, in the art world, success is about selling work mostly to people not in your community.

“Our artists are our prophets, they connect us to our past and present and future and they hold a special place. It’s about bringing it back and not letting art be held and seen as a palagi thing because it’s not. It belongs to us, it sits in our communities, it should sit and be accessible to our people.”


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