Ema Tavola, is a visual artist and curator of Fijian and New Zealand Pakeha ancestry, currently living in Manukau City, New Zealand. She is the Pacific Arts Co-ordinator at Fresh Gallery Otara in Manukau.
Ema is passionate about contemporary Pacific art and Manukau City. And you can feel this passion and dedication through her work at Fresh Gallery Otara and her web presence as a blogger and on Twitter and Flickr – she facilitates the exchange of cultural and artistic ideas.The last time I hang out with Ema in Auckland in 2010, she took us on a tour of Manukau and I was amazed at her knowledge of the city – she just rattled off statistics like a walking encyclopedia.
I talanoa with Ema about experience as a Pacific artist and curator and Fresh Gallery Otara.
Tell us about your background – what path has led you to what you are doing now? You started off as an artist – what was the point at which you discovered you wanted to be a curator?
At first, being a shy child, drawing was my voice – it showed more character than most would encounter in person. Throughout my primary and secondary education, art became the only subject I excelled in. I was very social and played hockey, but didn’t really like much else other than art and boys. After school I had two years off, working and moving around, partying and painting. Eventually, my mother encouraged me to go to university, where I studied Visual Arts. And that lead to my interest in curating, writing and general art hustling… I could combine the interests in partying, art and the aggressiveness of hockey into… a job!
Tell us a little bit about Fresh Gallery Otara.
Fresh Gallery Otara was established in 2006 as an exhibitions gallery and facility of the local Council. It was established on the basis of a Memorandum of Understanding with a collective of community representatives. As such, the Gallery’s mandate was always to service Otara first and foremost, to be accessible and promote creative development. Curatorially, this foundation has framed what we present to the public, which is always in consideration of Otara, the community the Gallery sits within in, first and foremost. Otara’s demographics are so vastly different from a wider New Zealand context; the Polynesian community is dominant, and in a sense becomes the mainstream. The Maori community follows, and then others. Audience is vital at Fresh Gallery Otara. And this is a consideration often overlooked in traditional gallery contexts, where fine art history and a community of art appreciators, a community of ‘taste’, are merely a given.
Dawson Road Mural Project. 2009. The Dawson Road Mural Project is a partnership between Manukau Parks, Arts and Libraries with Manukau Beautification Trust. The painting took place as an event in the Manukau Festival of Arts 09 programme. designed by Nicole Lim and Ema Tavola for Fresh Gallery Otara.
DRAWING SOUTH AUCKLAND was a user-generated drawing installation that was developed at Fresh Gallery Otara over three weeks in November 2010. The gallery’s community was invited to make drawings to be part of a constantly evolving mural-in-pieces.
Participants at the How To Be A Zine Maker, at Fresh Gallery Otara, 29 January 2011. The workshop was facilitated by Coco Solid and Riki Anderson
Was it hard trying to start out as a Pacific curator? What challenges did you face? Did you have a mentor or any key advice which helped in the early stages of your career?
I was given the opportunity to curate my first exhibition when I was involved with a community gallery in Otara, during the final year of my degree. That gallery is what is now Fresh Gallery Otara. My first show was a joint exhibition of two of my art school friends, Reagan Iosefa Samoa and Samiu Napa’a (who was my boyfriend at the time); they both majored in painting and under the tutelage of renowned New Zealand portrait painter, Martin Ball, were both developing their portraiture styles. The show was called, The Artists are described as… Polynesian Male, which referenced a common phrase from the locally produced Police show, Police Ten-7.
Through involvement with an Auckland arts organisation, Tautai Trust, I was afforded the opportunity to assist in the development of an exhibition curated by renowned Cook Islands artist and curator, Jim Vivieaere. That experience gave me my foundation on the ‘how to’ of curating. Jim is someone I admire hugely.
Nicole Lim, Leilani Kake and Ema Tavola. Installation of “Nga Hau E Wha – The Four Winds” by Leilani Kake (2011)and curated by Ema Tavola at Fresh Gallery Otara.
You recently blogged about your curatorial practice on your blog (Colour Me Fiji) – what was this in response to?
Often challenging situations, which upset me and frustrate me, are the experiences that solidify my conviction. Make me trust myself more. And believe in what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. In that instance, I had been challenged and frustrated by a project that dissolved in Fiji, which had international commitment and created heavy waves of disappointment for most people involved. The situation exposed attitudes which really offended me. So I wanted to clarify my thinking on why the disappointment was real, and what curatorial work looks like, from where I stand. Blogs are a lovely platform for self-expression.
What advice would you have for Pacific artists hoping to find representation and exhibit their work?
Have a strong web presence and be admin savvy: make it easy for people who are interested in giving you opportunities. Be confident and open, communicate with sincerity and be clear about where you want to go, so when people give you opportunities, you can see where they fit into your big picture.
I often say to artists, take every opportunity to exhibit – don’t judge, just do it. You never know who will see your work.
Do you still find time to be creative yourself and work on your own art projects?
Due to work commitments, my art practice is somewhat dormant, but I try to exhibit at least once a year. In terms of making work, my mediums reflect a certain lack of time and space – I have been showing mostly textile assemblages and drawing in recent years. I’ve also tried to theorize my curatorial practice as an evolution of my art practice; it is a mix between being an artist (knowing and understanding artistic processes), loving art and artists, community activism and general art hustle. It is an artform, definitely, and is an evolution of my studies in visual arts theory and sculpture, which is the consideration of things in space.
Identity Complex Identity (An homage to Aotearoa) (2008) by Ema Tavola
Where do you turn for creative inspiration when beginning a new piece?
I keep various records of things that inspire me, through blogging, through my visual diary, whatever gets stuck on the walls in my house. Making a new work is sometimes the process of extracting the things that inspire me from a wide range of sources and just drawing and drawing until something evolves. When I’m making a new work, I think about it constantly, when I’m walking or swimming, or driving… and often the ‘a-ha’ moment isn’t when I’m sitting down with paper and pens.
Do other art forms or artists in different disciplines inspire or have influenced you and how?
For sure. I go to a lot of exhibitions, and my job is definitely not confined to the visual arts. The performing arts, particularly cultural performance, music, theatre are always on my social calendar. I live with a film maker [Tanu Gago], so deconstructing filmic language is something that is always around me. I was so interested in his filmic deconstruction that I worked with him to develop his first video installation last year, which was a fantastic success.
The Internet has seemingly made the world a more democratic space in which artists, writers and musicians can more easily share their work with the world. How do you think the Internet has created possibilities for Pacific artists?
The Internet is amazing. Self-publishing is amazing. As I mentioned before, being web savvy and following through with admin is essential. Google has given us presence in the world in a big, big way. And with interesting Pacific island names, we have Google currency something wicked. Google me in inverted commas and you’ll find me everytime. It’s a beautiful thing.
What inspired you to originally start your Colour Me Fiji blog in 2006?
I can’t remember! I do remember one of my first posts was about a collaborative project that I did with writer / playwright Leilani Salesa and visual artist, Shigeyuki Kihara. And the work was so abstract that we had done a lot of writing around the individual components of the exhibition, I remember we didn’t want to include too much text in the exhibition, and we may had decided to put the text somewhere else, and it ended up being online. But then, I can’t remember if I ever put it on!
But, Colour Me Fiji is the title of a colouring book I’ve had since I was very young which was purchased for me from the Fiji Museum. I still have it. And it has been quite influential in my life – I love line drawing, and drawing for information. The subtitle of the book was, “An educational art gallery” – I love it.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m doing a guest lecture in two weeks [this week] on curatorial practice at AUT University. So I’m putting together a really meaty reading list, and a hot visual presentation. And the show I curated for Auckland Arts Festival, Nga Hau E Wha – The Four Winds, a solo exhibition by Leilani Kake, was an epic project that opened on March 3 – a huge milestone for what is about a year of planning and fundraising. Now we’re rolling out the public programme, which is also quite full-on. I love the dialogue that surrounds exhibitions, but the organization of these events can be full-on.
Norman Edgerton, Ema Tavola, Douglas Bagnall and Leilani Kake at the opening of Leilani Kake’s 2011 solo exhibition, Nga Hau E Wha – The Four Winds on March 3. The exhibition runs until 16 April at Fresh Gallery Otara.
What would be your dream creative project or collaboration?
I have a lot of respect and admiration for an African American curator called Thelma Golden. She was in the Art Review Top 100 most influential people in the art world one year, and as a woman of colour, being such a trailblazer and pioneer, I just think she’s very cool. I’d love an opportunity to intern with her, and just get a glimpse into her world.
I’d also like to be involved with taking Leilani Kake’s work to the world – her work is magic. She’s got this goal of being at the Venice Biennale, and I think it’s entirely likely. She’s fire.
What are you looking forward to?
One day, living a life without winter. Being able to always leave places when they start to get cold, just following the sun and great art. I’d ultimately like to live back home in Suva, with a base in Auckland and a very international lifestyle, flying around the world for 6 months of the year.
Oh, and more realistically, some excellent shows coming up at Fresh Gallery Otara in 2011, including a very cool anti-Rugby World Cup exhibition!
Ema Tavola on the coconut wireless
Fresh Gallery Otara on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/Fresh274