The Auckland region has been in Alert Level 4 lockdown for now over 30 days. An outbreak of the Delta variant of Covid-19 has the potential to cause disproportionate havoc in South Auckland, where there are high concentrations of systemically disadvantaged communities, deprivation and overcrowded households. With daily reported numbers of positive cases now going down (ish) and vaccination numbers reportedly going up, there is some light at the end of this new tunnel that we all now live in.
As Aotearoa moved into snap lockdown in mid-August, Vunilagi Vou was on the verge of rolling out a Creative New Zealand-funded event series at The Alexander Cafe. The project itself was a pivoted concept developed to salvage a 2019 funded project that became pandemic unviable. The VVxAlexander Talanoa Series was intended to be four monthly talanoa events dedicated to unpacking some of the sector’s most urgent, problematic and pressing conditions, with a collective of incredibly inspiring Moana Oceania arts managers, thinkers and change-makers. With two of the proposed events in the series absorbed into and thus cancelled by Level 4 lockdown, and the proposed dates for the third and fourth events potentially impacted by heavy restrictions on gathering numbers and general and perceived risk of community transmission, it’s fair to say that the VVxAlexander Talanoa Series, in its current form, is a yet another pandemic casualty.
Resilience is a condition that can grow from this culture of producing. Events are more vulnerable than ever to being impacted by postponement, cancellations and often conceptual pivots; producing in the unpredictability of the pandemic climate requires a deep commitment, strong support systems and lot of gumption.
Vunilagi Vou was built with full reserves of those things back in 2019, but as a largely one-woman-led independent operation that exists in balance with the demands of solo parenting, the culture and climate of producing in 2021, has drained the tanks. Learning of the New Zealand Government’s investment in the creative and cultural sectors through the Ministry for Culture & Heritage Arts and Culture COVID Recovery Programme was at first encouraging, but seeing such vast quantities of that investment funnelled into already well-funded organisations, has been incredibly dispiriting.
There have been ways that some of those well-funded organisations have engaged independent practitioners and producers, like Vunilagi Vou, to effectively share resource and perform resilience collectively, but within the complexity of this power dynamic, there is unfortunately always room for exploitation.
The third event in the VVxAlexander Talanoa Series was entitled, The State of Art: Culture Shifts & the Pandemic and was scheduled to include celebrated curator Nigel Borell, and myself, alongside South Auckland-based analyst and commentator Shane Ta’ala. I was personally really looking forward to an evening of hot takes and real talk about the ways the pandemic climate has allowed our sector to breathe in conversations about race and inequality, sit with that discomfort, and try to breathe out old, tired norms. But like change itself, this conversation, complicated and difficult, will take a longer-term vision to manifest in real time.
Being in lockdown in the site of Vunilagi Vou 2.0 – the master pivot – it has become increasingly evident how taxing this climate of producing creative and cultural content and events has been over the past 18 months. Vunilagi Vou 2.0 was built in 2020 as a safe haven from the unknowns of the world outside of our homes. The dream of this space was born out of lockdown, when life outside was on pause. It was a way to create stability when nothing else seemed secure. But when the neighbouring land was sold earlier this year (along with two other single house lots recently sold), development of six two-storey townhouses began next door and the literal stability of this pandemic oasis was disrupted; a third Vunilagi Vou shapeshift was put in motion.
Vunilagi Vou’s partnership with Celebrate Aotearoa and The Alexander Cafe has been joyful and challenging, empowering and rewarding. This third shapeshift from a commercial shop in Ōtāhuhu to a converted garage in Papatoetoe, to a mezzanine floor in an Ōtara cafe, has been in so many ways, the best version of Vunilagi Vou.
As this small organisation grows and evolves, its business plan shifts and adjusts to the time and space it finds itself in. This constant flux is an exercise of detachment and strategy, survival and renewal. This mode is largely exhilarating, but requires a level of focus and commitment that is entirely dependent, in my experience, on childcare! As a solo parent, lockdown, unfortunately, has not presented the time and space to perform resilience and resourcefulness as an independent creative entity.
Whilst most projects and commitments have been extended, pushed out and evolved, some have been necessarily axed. One of the more disappointing outcomes of this has been the cancellation of our scheduled exhibition, The Spatial Expression of Economic Inequality for Artweek Auckland and the full withdrawal from the regional programme.
The future is still so frustratingly unknown; in the short-term, it’s whether Auckland will be able to go down in alert levels to ease at least some of the region’s economic, social, spiritual, cultural and culinary frustration. In the mid-term, whether start-up businesses like The Alexander Cafe, Celebrate Aotearoa and Vunilagi Vou are able to bounce back (again) from such an economic hiding. And in the long-term, it’s whether Vunilagi Vou, an audacious idea born in a pre-pandemic time and space, is sustainable or even viable, within both South Auckland’s rapidly shifting cultural landscape, and a pandemic.
During the past 30 days however, some things have been spirit lifting…
Hidden in Plain Sight curated by Julia Albrecht and Stephanie Endter closed at Frankfurt’s Weltkulturen Museum on 5 September featuring a body of work made in response to Vunilagi Vou’s 2019 exhibition, Lain Blo Yu Mi – Our People Our Lines and featuring a painting made for FATFEB (2021) which will soon be part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Sales have been trickling through from the VV Online Shop even though deliveries won’t be made until Auckland moves to Alert Level 3. Deep gratitude for these small gestures of support and investment. Vinaka vakalevu.
Work is currently in development for a deeply inspiring curatorial project led by Dr Torika Bolatagici entitled, Volume: Bodies of Knowledge. This research-based curatorial project emerges from a feminist phenomenological framework centering the lived experience of Indigenous, bla(c)k, brown, women-of-colour artists whose experiential knowledge through the body, informs their creative practice. To produce work for such a relevant and meaningful kaupapa, and to work within the realm of understanding of motherhood, is game-changing.
The lockdown re-alignment has offered an opportunity to reflect on the time and space that Vunilagi Vou’s first publication, VV:Dua was first conceived in 2020. The publication documenting Vunilagi Vou’s first year of operation was funded with support from Creative New Zealand’s Arts Continuity Grants programme and launched on Vunilagi Vou’s second anniversary in June of this year at The Alexander Cafe. The project presented steep learning curves but produced an important document about independent arts management and South Auckland. Although producing this book was a massive challenge, writing about Vunilagi Vou’s next chapter – shapeshifting and creative survival in chronic crisis – seems essential. Watch this space.