30 Days of Lockdown

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.

VV x Alexander: Shapeshifting, new exhibitions and Ōtara

In June 2021, Vunilagi Vou will celebrate our second anniversary and shapeshift once again to operate from The Alexander Café, a new locally-owned eatery and cultural enterprise located on Alexander Crescent in Ōtara, South Auckland.

Having operated Vunilagi Vou 2.0 from the residential context of suburban Papatoetoe since October 2020, the opportunity arose to partner with The Alexander Café and create space for another local enterprise, Celebrate Aotearoa – a retail operation driven by local Tongan creative entrepreneur, Czarina Wilson.

Located in a refurbished semi-industrial warehouse, The Alexander Café has built a strong community and customer base from around the Auckland region; it is a hub of Māori and Pacific professionals, locals, gym goers and creatives, always abuzz with talanoa. For Vunilagi Vou, the café offers an opportunity to integrate excellent art into the South Auckland space, quietly informing our lives and discussions and enabling artwork to create interventions in the public consciousness, rather than asking the public to engage with arts environments.

Local Tongan creative entrepreneur, Czarina Wilson, has been part of the Vunilagi Vou mission since the beginning, offering retail guidance for our first premises in Ōtāhuhu, and partnering on a pop-up shop at the Ōtara Kai Village in September to raise funds for Vunilagi Vou’s post-Covid re-launch. Czarina has been operating her enterprise, Celebrate Aotearoa out of the Ōtara Kai Village Boutique since October 2020 and is excited to relocate just a stones throw away to The Alexander Café to partner with Vunilagi Vou once more!

From Saturday 12 June 2021, The Alexander Café’s mezzanine floor will house both Celebrate Aotearoa and the Vunilagi Vou office, and a suite of three new exhibitions will be on show throughout the building.

Video still from Put Some Respect On My Name interview with Samson Vaotu’ua; animation still by India Taberner

Put Some Respect on My Name is an exhibition project by Papatoetoe-based Sāmoan filmmaker Jeremiah Tauamiti (Malosi Pictures) produced with support from Creative New Zealand. At the centre of the work are nine individual stories exploring the meaning and mana of Pacific Island surnames, and the importance of correct pronunciation as an act of respect. The project incorporates interviews with Elizabeth Koroivulaono, Tanya Muagututi’a, Vela Manusaute, Te Amohaere Ngata-aerengamate, Raymond Sagapolutele, Benjamin Tamanikaiyaroi, Ema Tavola, Essendon Tu’itupou and Samson Vaotu’ua. The project also incorporates animation work by India Taberner and graphic design by Antonio Filipo.

Becoming is a body of recent work by Peatree, a mixed media artist currently based in Melbourne, Australia where they work predominantly across the mediums of illustration and sculpture. Completing undergraduate studies at Manukau School of Visual Arts in Ōtara in 2005, Peatree’s practice has absorbed influences from around the world informing their own evolving positionality in relation to gender, ethnicity and sexuality. Becoming is an exhibition of small paintings exploring the artist’s constantly evolving sense of self and commitment to “the inherent existential search”.

Killer of a Time is a body of work by Manurewa-based Tongan photographer Emily Mafile’o made in 2013/14. This body of work is part of the artist’s two decade-long documentary practice exploring the diversity of Tongan lives and experience in Aotearoa and Tonga. This vérité style sepia-toned series focuses on ‘Killer’, whose life at the time was deeply embedded in gang culture; it is an intimate observation of the freedoms, ties and violence that framed his life, woven together with glimpses of anga fakatonga (Tongan way). This work presents a challenging perspective of Tongan experience but actively broadens awareness of the ways Tongan identities evolve and adapt in response their environments.

All three exhibitions are open from Saturday 12 June and run until the end of July.

VV x Alexander is the beginning of a new chapter. A return to Ōtara, a cultural hotspot for Moana Oceania creative innovation, where Vunilagi Vou Curator-Director, Ema Tavola established her practice at Manukau School of Visual Arts and later as founding manager of Fresh Gallery Ōtara. As the third ‘re-birth’ of Vunilagi Vou, it is an evolved business model, shapeshifting from a commercial premise in Ōtāhuhu, to a residential setting in Papatoetoe, to a shared entrepreneurial hub in Ōtara. Third time lucky?!

Help us celebrate the launch of VV x Alexander

Come along and celebrate The Alexander Cafe’s newest tenants, Vunilagi Vou and Celebrate Aotearoa, and the opening of three exciting exhibitions, Put Some Respect On My Name, Becoming and Killer of a Time on Friday 11 June from 6pm.

We’re also launching Vunilagi Vou’s first publication, VV:Dua The Story of Vunilagi Vou’s First Year, produced with support from Creative New Zealand. Copies will be available on the night and later stocked at Celebrate Aotearoa!

The Alexander Café is located at 4/100 Alexander Crescent, Ōtara, South Auckland; it is 5 minute drive from the Highbrook Drive or East Tamaki Road exits on State Highway 1 or a short walk from the Ōtara Bus Interchange (notably featuring design work by Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi).

The Alexander Café ground floor is wheelchair accessible with disability carparks directly outside the main entrance, the venue also has a wheelchair accessible toilet. Assistance dogs are also allowed onsite.

After the VV x Alexander launch, opening hours are as follows:

Monday – Friday: 7am – 3pm
Saturday: 8am – 2pm

Appointments can still be made to view and discuss the artwork on show, get in touch via the Appointments page here.


Follow Vunilagi Vou on Instagram for the latest updates!