In May, South Auckland, New Zealand was host to the third annual 2012 Pacific Arts Summit, which included a comprehensive series of exhibitions, workshops, and art talks that covered a breadth of contemporary Pacific art.
The feature exhibition of the Summit was “WWJD,” curated by Ema Tavola, at Fresh Gallery Otara. “WWJD, ” which stands for “What Would Jim Do?”—playing on the popular Evangelical phrase “What Would Jesus Do?”—celebrated the late Cooks Island curator, Jim Vivieaere (1947-2011), whose curatorial work was groundbreaking in challenging the institutional exoticizing of Pacific Island art.
Comprising nine Auckland-based artists—Renee Bevan, Nigel Borell, Rebecca Ann Hobbs, Vinesh Kumaran, Sangeeta Singh, Coco Solid, Gary Silipa, Benjamin Work and New Flava Barbers— working in a range of styles and mediums, the exhibition showcased what Tavola calls “real-world creative outputs.”
Rebecca Ann Hobbs presented, for the first time in Otara, a single-channel video, Otara At Night (2011), in which dancer Amelia Lynch performs dancehall on the town’s Fairmall stage. Sangeeta Singh’s I Have Fish Eyes, Shark Teeth and I Chase Dream Tails (2012) depicted mystical creatures devouring demons. This was hung across from The Polyfest Hair Project (2012), a collection of portraits by photographer Vinesh Kumaran, in collaboration with Ema Tavola, that featured youth from the ASB Polyfest, a yearly performing arts competition that celebrates Maori and Pacific communities. Writer, rapper and artist, Coco Solid, presented the second volume of her zine, Philosoflygirl, which visitors could peak at through Renee Bevan’s I Wear (2011/2012), a window covered with white vinyl from which a pair of glasses-shaped holes was cut. In the center of the room sat a barber chair, where, during the first days of the exhibit, boys lined up to get “art haircuts” by Allan Tonkin of New Flava Barbers.
By placing together paintings with performances, self-published works with funky hairstyles, Tavola attempted to break down dividing notions of artist and artisan, fine art and design. Tavola commented on the curatorial direction to ArtAsiaPacific, “‘WWJD’ is an effort to diversify community perceptions of where creativity lies.”
She added, “The selection of works for ‘WWJD’ was based around the idea that audiences could expand the ways in which art is considered—that a gallery doesn’t necessarily define art or good art. With the incorporation of ‘real world’ examples of creativity relevant to Otara and South Auckland’s socio-political context, ‘WWJD’ aims to create an integrated real world / art world experience. Audiences are empowered to engage with mediums and ideas that present different kinds of visual language.”
The title of the exhibition, “WWJD” was inspired by a blog comment that Tavola posted last year in response to Jim Vivieaere’s passing. She wrote, “I feel like my curatorial practice is the product of Jim’s influence, and I want to honour his work and fight in everything I produce. I think I’ll always think of Jim, in every show that I curate and ask myself, What Would Jim Do?” “WWJD” will also be the last show Tavola curates at Fresh Gallery Otara before she leaves her post as Pacific Arts Coordinator for Auckland Council.
Asked what she hoped her own legacy will be, Tavola responded: “I hope that engaging Pacific people to think and respond to Pacific art will move the sector forward in new ways and challenge the ‘art world’ hierarchy . . . I will always strive to present Pacific art in ways that compliment the ‘Pacific way.” Tavola will continue as a freelance curator, project manager and writer, and is already planning several new initiatives: an exhibition in response to four years of National Party majority rule in New Zealand, a project with the suburb of Otahuhu and an advocacy agency for local artists.