On #FATFEB

This article about Vunilagi Vou’s February 2020 programme, #FATFEB, was originally published in ARTalk (Issue 17), Fiji’s independent online art magazine edited by Peter Sipeli.


In February, Vunilagi Vou embarked on a month-long programme about radical fat positivity. What began as a dreamy idea to host a fat babe pool party, an idea pitched by local South Auckland-based artist and activist, Lissy Cole, the month of February turned into #FATFEB.

It became abundantly clear that the word ‘fat’ quickly filled a conversation with fear, loathing, conditioning, tragedy and morality. The word – three lowercase letters – the word, was intoxicatingly powerful. An underlying agenda of our programme was the unpack the word, rethink it as a descriptor and confront our own socialised attachments to what fat actually means to us.

Unintentionally, the #FATFEB programme became a mini-festival; we hosted an exhibition in our gallery, held workshops and discussion events, and at the heart, a pool party that centralised the fat body, as powerful, beautiful, valid… present.

Curating an exhibition about fat positivity felt like being exposed. The concept too personal, too embodied; for me, curating doesn’t usually feel like this. From the earliest communication with the artists, the topic and journey of fat acceptance revealed a depth of experience so rarely vocalised, and so sincerely personal. The artists made and showed work in photography and fashion, digital composition, installation, video and illustration. The exhibition spilled out of the gallery and into the arcade, shared by three other Pacific Island owned businesses, filling our environment, momentarily with fat conviction, fantasy and unapologetic fat body presence.

Fat bodies have been cast into the shadows of Eurocentric capitalist messaging and globalised conditioning, forced to hide in baggy clothes. But those in our exhibition were bodies of resistance, not ‘brave’ in the sense that fat is defined by its proximity to thinness, but courageous in their liberation.

The exhibition was confronting and mesmerising. South Auckland-based couturier Amy Lautogo of Infamy Apparel created a mini-collection catwalk show for the opening, which generated some of the most exuberant photography to come out of Vunilagi Vou, thanks to models Ria Hiroki, Tangaroa Paul, Lavina Williams and Bron Laufiso, captured by local photographers Raymond Sagapolutele and Pati Solomona Tyrell. The exhibition framed the #FATFEB programme, providing a point of discussion and focus for the workshops delivered in the adjacent VV Studio space.

The Fat Babe Pool Party, was a radiating beacon of an event. A purely non-discriminatory space, which felt visually and emotionally like an oasis. The event was always going to be deliciously chill, and our local Mount Richmond Hotel offered the perfect poolside setting for what was quite an experimental event. Lissy Cole dressed the space with a jaw-dropping technicolour feast of textiles, bunting, lanterns, sculptures and embellishments. It felt literally magical. A panel discussion with fashion blogger and artist, Meagan Kerr, fat studies scholar Dr Cat Pausé and rapper/writer/creative alchemist, Jessicoco Hansell inspired reflection and respect. They spoke truth to their experiences, their own fat politics and their rationales for speaking up / for / about fat bodies. Sitting poolside, facilitating this discussion in my size 24 leopard print bikini, I looked out at the audience, listening intensely to this conversation, and it occurred to me that we were all witnessing something pretty phenomenal.

The #FATFEB programme got more mainstream media (MSM) interest in New Zealand than most exhibitions at Vunilagi Vou. Whilst explicitly Pacific content in the arts sometimes get culturally specific media interest (mostly radio), and Pacific arts production presented in traditionally white fields like theatre often piques the interest of white audiences and thus MSM, the topic of fat brokered new ground for an arts driven event featuring exclusively Māori and Pacific creative perspectives.

Louisa Afoa with her work “Blue Clam”, photo by Raymond Sagapolutele

Interestingly, even with broad audience awareness through MSM and significant traction through social media networks, the exhibition’s visitor numbers were notably low. This felt like a very clear indication how confronting the idea of fat is. The terrain of a gallerist is to discuss and unpack the artwork and ideas of an artist, so discussions within the exhibition would often become conversations about fat phobia, discrimination and the murky space of ‘concern culture’. These interactions can and did expose deep layers of fat phobic conditioning, the very layers that are defused by the concept of fat positivity. These were not easy conversations to hold!

Visitor numbers aside, the audience who were impacted the most throughout #FATFEB was our fat community, particularly women. There was a profound sense of validation in foregrounding the representation of the fat body and its unapologetic politics. It was a month of being seen, being heard and being respected. But it became clearer and clearer throughout February, how rare this is on a day-to-day basis.

February left me on a high. To make exhibitions that can affect the change I want to see in society, is the highest reward. The exhibition was unique, a point in time snapshot produced collectively be nine excellent creatives. Creating space to have hard conversations is not an easy road, but I commend everyone who ventured into this territory.

If Vunilagi Vou survives 2020, #FATFEB is most definitely on the cards for February 2021!


Other media coverage of #FATFEB:

On shapeshifting

I didn’t know when I locked up the gallery on Thursday 19th March that it would be the last day of business at our Ōtāhuhu premises. Things change quickly in a global pandemic and the gallery was and remains to be shut under New Zealand’s lockdown restrictions.

I took the opportunity to negotiate the end of the commercial leases on the three shops at 256 Great South Road that we have occupied since opening in May 2019. As of last week, we began the process of packing up and moving on from this premises.

Our last exhibition, Safe as Houses, featured stunning new work by Marcus Hipa, Craig Horne and Metiria Turei. Although we had a wonderful exhibition opening in early March, it was and is so sad to have had to close this exhibition prematurely.

This was a particularly rewarding show to co-curate with Leilani Kake for Auckland Arts Festival. Early support from the Festival enabled us to refine a concept befitting of the exposure it afforded us, and work with a group of creatives who produced poignant new work.

We will re-open an exhibitions space in October 2020, but as the end of Vunilagi Vou’s first chapter, and first iteration in the South Auckland suburb of Ōtāhuhu, it’s a bittersweet farewell.

The dynamic of Vunilagi Vou has been shapeshifting over the past weeks. Consultancy work and writing are becoming a higher priority, and an online store is in development. The new site for the gallery is a conscious move in a more sustainable direction.

The next iteration of Vunilagi Vou will take 4-5 months to realise and another journey has begun with Ōtara-based artist and builder, Sean Kerrigan. We’re aiming to open Vunilagi Vou 2.0 on October 10th, Fiji Day.

Trading in the commercial context for a suburban setting changes the dynamics of this venture. Our social gathering protocols will shift and change in the coming months, so being close to where the home fire burns is ideal. Vunilagi Vou 2.0 will operate on an appointment-only basis, streaming events and gatherings, activations and exhibition tours online.

The 10th exhibition at Vunilagi Vou’s Ōtāhuhu premises was to be my third solo exhibition; a meditation on the work of an arts manager. It was scheduled to coincide with the launch of our Creative New Zealand-funded Pacific Arts Management Residency programme, and open on April 7th to welcome the first Arts Manager in Residence, Fiji-based Peter Sipeli, coming to us direct from Hong Kong where he was Artist-in-Residence at Para Site from February to April.

The available works on paper made for this show will go into our online store in the coming months. The work surrounding the residency with Peter had already begun when the global pandemic happened. He had to return to Suva, Fiji and talks have been underway throughout lockdown to produce a series of online collaborations to map a virtual realisation of what the residency promised to deliver. With an extension granted on this funded project, there is still potential to bring Peter to South Auckland, so here’s hoping for 2021.

In the meantime, we are moving online for the winter months, and re-emerging in the Spring with a new physical site. Keep up to date with developments on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Twitch and sign up for website updates because the email database, has finally moved up the priority list!

2019 – Gratitude + Big Plans!

What a year!

As we approach the end of 2019, our team has been reflecting, strategising and planning for an even bigger and superbly ambitious 2020!

Having opened in May 2019, we are proud to have:

  • Produced 7 independent exhibitions featuring new and recent work by over 30 artists
  • Sold an average of one third of every exhibition
  • Delivered 3 awesome dialogue events in the form of the Southside Talanoa Series at 3 different Ōtāhuhu locations
  • Spoken about Vunilagi Vou at conferences, festivals and symposia in Singapore, Australia and Hong Kong
  • Secured funding for programming from Creative New Zealand, The Arts Foundation, Auckland Council’s Pacific Arts programme, Māngere Ōtāhuhu Arts (Māngere Ōtāhuhu Local Board) and the Creative Communities Scheme.
  • Delivered 11 workshops in the new Vunilagi Vou Studio with 18 more planned for the first half of 2020
  • Enjoyed coverage and reviews from mainstream and Pacific media platforms, which can be found on our Media page
  • Collaborated and invested in local and Pacific businesses to deliver events, including Malosi Pictures Ltd, 37Hz Ltd, SAY Money Transfer, FranCharLeni Diner & Café, Kingdom Design, Star Hotel, Ōtāhuhu Rovers Rugby League Club, Ōtāhuhu Māngere Youth Group (OMYG) and CMYK Signs & Digital Printing Ltd, East Tamaki
  • And put literally thousands of dollars in the pockets of Māori and Pacific makers through the Vunilagi Vou shop!

We are incredibly grateful for the support we’ve received in 2019; every share, like, retweet, every visit and every endorsement we’ve received has helped us deliver a bumper programme and invested significantly in our local creative ecology.

Our exhibitions and workshops programme has been enriched by the vision and support from Māngere Ōtāhuhu Arts, the arm of Māngere Ōtāhuhu Local Board (Auckland Council) that invests in the arts ecology of our local area. We’re grateful that our Local Board has put a value on the creative potential of our communities, and excited to continue this work into 2020.

Our current exhibition, Finding Emory: A Poster Show runs until 25 January and features limited edition posters by Cypris Afakasi, Tanu Gago, Leilani Kake, Sean Kerrigan, Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho and Rebecca Ann Hobbs, Siliga David Setoga and Tokerau Wilson. Our usual business hours resume from Wednesday 8 January.

Throughout the year, we have relied heavily on our social media channels to communicate our programme and announcements but recognise this isn’t ideal for some of our audiences. In 2020, we endeavour to get our mailing list fully functioning and look forward to connecting with those who don’t use social media on the daily!

So, as the year winds to a close, we recognise and pay respect to our artist community – we couldn’t do any of this without you. To our 30+ exhibitors, and to our wonderful network of suppliers who have stocked our shop full to the brim with wonderful products, titles and small works – thank you so, so much. Thank you for trusting us with your work and ideas, and for allowing us to share them with the world.

Our 2020 programme is massive. We have a mix of monthly and two-monthly exhibitions, residencies and workshops galore. In two weeks we’ll be announcing our February programme, which is a deep dive into the word fat and we’re building up to a really special exhibition in March for the Auckland Arts Festival. It’s all go!

Wishing you all love and light for the festive season from warm and balmy South Auckland!

vinaka vakalevu

October was a whirlwind!

Aroha mai – updates have been sluggish this past month because our programme has been wild! 

Vunilagi Vou hosted a beautiful mini survey show of Auckland-based collective, FAFSWAG in October. The exhibition featured a series of video works alongside artist proofs and limited edition digital prints made by members past and present. With many of FAFSWAG’s artists connected to and resident in the Māngere-Ōtāhuhu area, it was great to reflect on the important contribution FAFSWAG has made to the New Zealand art world (and beyond) and celebrate their South Auckland roots.

FAFSWAG 6 opened on October 1, in the middle of the collective’s production, Reclamation which went on to deliver an impressive 13-show season at Auckland’s Basement Theatre.

FAFSWAG 6 was produced with support from Māngere Ōtāhuhu Arts, an initiative to manage investment in the creative ecology of the area by Māngere Ōtāhuhu Local Board of Auckland Council.

Māngere Ōtāhuhu Arts funding has also enabled the creation of the Vunilagi Vou Studio, a workshop and gathering space located in the adjacent shop from the Gallery. Vunilagi Vou Studio is programmed to host workshops from October 2019 to March 2020. The first official gathering in the space was delivered in mid-October: Te Reo Toi Toko is a monthly opportunity for te reo Māori speakers and learners to use exhibitions to start conversations and broaden vocabulary. The workshop series was initiated by local artist, Leilani Kake, who has been studying te reo Māori full-time this year and discovered a need for language learners to practice and build supportive relationships with other language speakers and learners in the local community.

October also saw a new event series launched: Vunilagi Vou Arcade Talks. Our first event was held on October 7 with visiting London-based, Fijian-New Zealand visual artist, Luke Willis Thompson.

The event was an opportunity to hear Luke Willis Thompson discuss some of the issues that have surrounded his art practice recently, particular in light of his work nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize (2018). For those in attendance, Luke offered a rare first-hand account of his contexts and drivers, his connections and challenges.

For the night of the first Vunilagi Vou Arcade Talk, we screened Luke’s work in the window of our neighbouring business, Pasifika Barbers, a Fiji-owned business that has been in Ōtāhuhu for 25 years. The promotional graphics for this event were created by artist, Nicole Lim.

Vunilagi Vou Director-Curator, Ema Tavola delivered two international talks in October; first at the 2019 Para Site International Conference in Hong Kong, and second as part of the Tarnanthi Festival in Adelaide, South Australia, hosted by ACE Open and Guildhouse. The talks took place on two consecutive weekends, on two continents, and involved seven flights in 14 days! Read a great overview of the Para Site Conference here.

Ema was also invited to speak on a panel discussion at Auckland Art Gallery for Art After Hours inspired by the exhibition, “Guerilla Girls Re-inventing the ‘F’ Word – Feminism!” and later had the opportunity to introduce visiting Guerilla Girl, ‘Frida Kahlo’ to Vunilagi Vou, Ōtāhuhu and FAFSWAG. Plans and ideas for future collaborations were excitedly spoken to life!

On the last weekend of October, we hosted the final Southside Talanoa Series event at Ōtāhuhu’s iconic Star Hotel. The Southside Quiz Night centralised South Auckland and Pacific knowledge systems and flipped the script on traditional New Zealand quiz nights! The Southside Talanoa Series was supported by Auckland Council as part of the Pacific Arts programme.

Podcasts of the Southside Talanoa Series events were produced by Matthew Salapu (Anonymouz) and can be found here.

To close the FAFSWAG 6 exhibition, we hosted our first official Crit Club in the Vunilagi Vou Studio. Crit Club was developed to create space for local artists to engage in critical feedback about their work, to hone their practices and speak about their thinking.

In October’s Crit Club, Leilani Kake presented her latest work, Toka Te Reo, opening the floor for discussion. Whilst the intention was to move over to the Gallery to discuss the FAFSWAG 6 exhibition, the MMT (Mate Ma’a Tonga, the national rugby league team of Tonga) celebrations were so joyous and LOUD, we were drowned out! Crit Club is such a brave space; many thanks to those who came out to participate.

November is another month full of workshops at Vunilagi Vou – the best way to keep in up to date on exhibitions, events and talks is via Facebook and Instagram, but for those who live that Social Media Free life, we promise we’ll get our e-mail newsletter started soon!

We also adjusted our Gallery opening hours in October and are now open:

Wednesday – Thursday: 10am – 5pm
Friday: 10am – 6pm
Saturday: 11am – 4pm
Closed: Sunday / Monday / Tuesday

We’re grateful for all the support that has helped us get through a mega month of programming; to family, friends, gallery-goers, social media networks and funders – vinaka vakalevu – thank you so much!


Vunilagi Vou event photography is by Andre Kake-Joseph.

Sales, patches, talks and koha

After six weeks of business, we have opened our second exhibition, Putiputi and celebrated the successes of our inaugural exhibition, WWJD:2. Congratulations to Julia Mage’au Gray, Vea Mafile’o, Sinia Malua and Daniel Weetman, whose work was purchased and has gone to South Auckland-based private and public collections!

We are grateful for the coverage that Vunilagi Vou has attracted in the mainstream and Pacific media networks, check out some reviews, stories and interviews out here:

In our first six weeks, Ema hosted a number of floor talks for secondary and tertiary students, discussing the works in the exhibition and the wider kaupapa of the space. Students from Ambury Park Centre in Māngere were transfixed listening to local artist, Melissa Cole discussing her collaborative work, Mind That Māori made with her husband, Rudi Robinson.

Customised floor talks can be booked for any of our exhibitions during normal business hours and school visits require a minimum of two weeks notice. Get in touch with Ema to discuss opportunities.

Our Vunilagi Vou patches have been out and about! Pacific artists on the road have shared photos from Hollywood to Guangzhou – thank you Vea Mafile’o and Jeremiah Tauamiti (Malosi Pictures), Czarina Wilson and Team FAFSWAG for taking a little piece of Vunilagi Vou on tour with you! New patches are now on sale along with small prints of Ema Tavola’s Legends series, the first work of which is dedicated to Sāmoan artist, Tanu Gago.

The gallery has been attracting a steady stream of visitors from all walks of life; we are grateful for the patronage and the support, and thankful for the excellent donations of functional things like plinths, and offers of installation skills – much appreciated! Koha and financial donations are also wonderful; we are not a publicly funded gallery so donations help us to deliver excellent exhibitions, exhibiting opportunities and creative inspiration across our broad and diverse audience base.

Thank you to the excellent team who have supported Ema in keeping the doors open as much as possible – to Melissa, Czarina and Leilani – your support is so very much appreciated. In June, Ema spoke at the Singapore Art Book Fair upon invitation from NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore on a panel on critical writing alongside H.G Masters (Deputy Editor and Deputy Publisher, ArtAsiaPacific) and Carlos Quijon Jr (Writer, Curator), expertly facilitated by Qinyi Lim, Curator, National Gallery Singapore. It was a privilege to speak a Pacific perspective into this space, and represent Vunilagi Vou internationally for the first time. The Singapore Art Book Fair itself was also hugely inspiring and watch this space for some exciting publishing projects in the pipeline!

The Vunilagi Vou Engine Room has been a busy too, hosting meetings and planning sessions, securing shows, sponsors and support, strategically building a robust programme of exhibitions, events and activations that almost entirely fill our first year of programming. This month, we trialled Vunilagi Vou Crit Club, a monthly gathering for creatives to generate critique of their work and projects in a culturally safe and supportive environment – Crit Club will become a regular feature of Vunilagi Vou’s programme from next month onwards!

Our next exhibition Fofonga ‘oe kau fakafoki – The faces of those who have returned is the first solo show of Auckland-based photographer, Todd Henry. This beautiful show opens on Tuesday 6 August from 6-8pm – all welcome!

Keep up to date with Vunilagi Vou updates on Instagram and Facebook

Open for business in Ōtāhuhu!

 

Vunilagi Vou formally opened on Friday 31 May 2019, a stormy night in South Auckland! Through driving rain and a hail storm, a beautiful mob of Pacific arts supporters came out to celebrate South Auckland’s newest little art space.

A huge thank you to those who supported with wine and food, thank you to Lissy Cole for the amazing catering, and Rudi Robinson for providing an excellent bar man service! Thank you to Vaimaila Urale for a generous koha of bubbles, and Nicole Lim for the cake!

The combined energies of everyone who came out to support and celebrate our launch were hugely uplifting and will undoubtedly set us on a good course, serving and growing the Vunilagi Vou community.

Our inaugural exhibition, WWJD:2 was well received – thank you to all the artists who helped launch Vunilagi Vou’s dynamic and fast turnover exhibition programme; we’ll be opening a new exhibition on the first Tuesday of every month!

Of the 15 works on display, most are for sale in line with Vunilagi Vou’s intention to make contemporary Pacific art accessible to new collectors. Notably, two beautiful paintings by Andy Leleisi’uao, one our sector’s most productive and successful practitioners, still based here in Māngere, South Auckland.

Cryptid Arytipidal (2013)
Acrylic on canvas, 457x910mm
Andy Leleisi’uao NZ1900

Andy Leleisi’uao has an outstanding survey show called Kamoan Mine on at Pah Homestead in Auckland’s Hillsborough until July 14. The exhibition is the artist’s most significant survey of more than 20 years of practice. It is such a privilege to have these two works, along with a series of print works in the Vunilagi Vou retail area, on show at the same time.

We opened the gallery with a fully stocked retail range including locally produced repurposed textile accessories and homeware by Lissy Cole Designs, hand-made organic coconut soaps by Mananuanua – the mother and daughter home-based small business of artist, Vaimaila Urale, a range of beautiful bilum bags from Papua New Guinea, small paintings by ‘Ahota’e’iloa Toetu’u, a custom range of earrings by Aolele Adornment and accessories and homeware by South Auckland-based mother and son small business, Kingdom Design Store driven by Tongan designer, Czarina Wilson.

Vunilagi Vou’s retail range is constantly evolving and also include a range of framed and unframed limited edition prints by Andy Leleisi’uao, Pati Solomona Tyrell and former Fresh Gallery Ōtara Gallery Coordinator and designer, Nicole Lim, who has contributed a very special edition (50) of her illustration work, Grassroots. The work speaks to both early Fresh Gallery Ōtara and Vunilagi Vou’s dedication to the power of engaging grassroots audiences, and enabling artists to be heard and seen. Thank you Nicole, it’s wonderful to be collaborating again!

ccs-logo-auckland-council

The launch of Vunilagi Vou was made possible with support from Creative Communities Scheme – vinaka vakalevu!

Vunilagi Vou is open Tuesday to Thursday from 10am to 5pm, Friday from 10am to 6pm and Saturday from 11am – 4pm. Find advice for getting to the space here.

Our next exhibition opens on Tuesday 2 July – watch this space for details, or follow Vunilagi Vou on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!

vinaka vakalevu

Vunilagi Vou: A fresh start

Vunilagi Vou is a new venture dedicated to exploring the potential of contemporary Pacific art, artists and audiences through curatorial projects, community engagement and creative events.

As a professional curator and Pacific arts consultant, Ema Tavola has spent 15 years working predominantly in South Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand in the fields of community arts development, arts funding and investment strategy, events, public programming and gallery management.

Having worked from the platform of Pacific Island Management, Production + Ideas (PIMPI) since 2012, Vunilagi Vou is a fresh start, a new beginning.

Vunilagi in Fijian language commonly refers to the horizon, but can be broken down as vu- meaning trunk, as in the trunk of a tree, and -lagi being the abbreviated version of lomalagi, meaning heaven. Ni serves to connect the two, so vunilagi is that which holds up the heavens. Vou means new.

For Ema, the vunilagi is a space of infinite potential, a space of dreaming and transformation; it is a connection between the known and the unknown, the tangible and intangible. As the vision for a new professional platform to work from, Vunilagi Vou reflects the potential of contemporary Pacific art and approaches to connect communities, enabling histories, social narratives and relationships to be revealed and renewed.

Vunilagi Vou is a concept originally developed in partnership with Fiji-based designer and consultant, Mereia Carling, whose professional background is in child rights, social policy and youth participation in the Pacific.