Don’t miss Auckland Art Gallery’s stunning Pacific feminist exhibition

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Declaration: A Pacific Feminist Agenda features the work of 12 artists – including a stunning piece performed live only once.

As water slowly fills the huge glass tank, the type one would expect to see at a magician’s show, performance artist Latai Taumoepau sits cross-legged inside, her arms moving gracefully in the air. Taumoepau uses choreography from different Pacific dances. The water continues to flow and it is carried by bright yellow “floats”. When the water approaches the top, its dance moves become urgent and violent. His body becomes earth.

I stand in the Auckland Art Gallery, watching with tears piling up. It would be hard to find a more profound or visceral climate analogy than Taumoepau’s dance in rising waters. The familiarity of his dances speaks to me of journeys back home, and his masterful timing reimagines sea level rise and the clock on climate action. Taumoepau’s homeland is the Kingdom of Tonga and she grew up in Eora Nation, Sydney. His work, Repatriate, was created in 2015 and is part of the show Statement: A Pacific Feminist Agenda.

A sense of urgency defines the works of Declaration: A Pacific Feminist Agenda, which brings together 12 prominent artists from across the Pacific committed to feminist concerns. The exhibition includes works by Jasmine Togo-Brisby, Marti Friedlander, Jessicoco Hansell, Taloi Havini, Lonnie Hutchinson, Ioane Ioane, Sione Monū, Suzanne Tamaki, Latai Taumoepeau, Molly Rangiwai-McHale & Luisa Tora and Kalisolaite ‘Uhila.

The statement runs until July 31, with the works of the 12 artists on view on the second level of the Auckland Art Gallery. The works include photographs, installations, moving images and performances. Taumoepau says she was moved by the dignity of those fighting for climate justice as they face losing their island homes. “It’s about dispossession.”

She was inspired to create works on climate change when she met the Pacific climate delegates at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Indonesia in 2007. While there, she learned the choreography of the dances of the Pacific delegates, and they are the ones she represents in Repatriate. She uses dance “to convey a spectrum of emotions”.

Repatriated by Latai Taumoepau (Picture: Supplied)

While Pacific voices are often ignored in climate change discussions, Taumoepeau’s message is urgent. The most recent IPCC report unveiled 3.5 billion people are highly vulnerable to climate change, especially indigenous communities.

Curator Ane Tonga says she has sought to move beyond narrow definitions of the Pacific, and instead “look at what the Pacific means in terms of connections and disconnections with place”.

The exhibition will allow New Zealanders to see international artists who have not shown their work here; an opportunity for talanoa and cross-pollination. “It was pretty exciting,” Tonga said. “The highlight of the show was that we were able to bring art like this here.”

While the artists were given schedules and a budget, they weren’t given a brief, she says. “I’ve never known an artist who works like that.”

Commissioning works allows artists to create on a scale they otherwise wouldn’t have, giving them resources and time for new directions, she says. “For some, these will be key works in their practice.

One such work is Open City (In Suspension) 2022 by fourth-generation South Seas Islander Jasmine Togo-Brisby, which depicts the Wunderlich family’s pressed iron roof tiles. The Wunderlichs enslaved his great-great-grandparents from Vanuatu during the era of the Pacific slave trade, colloquially known as “Blackbirding”. The tiles bear images of her, her mother and grandmother alongside sailboats, cane and blackbirds. To stand below, in the darkness of the gallery, is to bear witness to an unbearable loss.

Open City by Jasmine Togo-Brisby (Photo: Supplied)

Another new work commissioned for the exhibition is a giant inflatable PVC teddy bear by artists Molly Rangiwai-McHale (Ngāti Porou, Te Aupōuri, Chinese, Scottish, Irish) and Luisa Tora (Kadavu, Fiji). The work, Decolonise your Tongue, is over three meters tall and contains a red love heart that reads “Decolonise your tongue”.

Tora acknowledges that he’s playful despite the serious message: “Quirkiness sometimes speaks to people more.”

The Looming Black Bear explains how names in the Pacific are “cutified” – either anglicized or made into an easier-to-pronounce nickname. “We were thinking about how something so fierce is reduced to the least threatening version of itself,” Tora explains.

A plastic manufacturing company in East Tamaki built the bear out of PVC. A “pretty enthusiastic” manufacturer discussed the concept with them and came back with 3D models. “It was awesome. They did a great job. And it kind of stands out,” she says.

Decolonize your tongue by Molly Rangiwai-McHale (Picture: Supplied)

Both artists had their names and the names of their whānau mispronounced. The whānau of Rangiwai-McHale have had their names anglicized, and Tora says the mispronunciation of names is “the struggle of every brown person in this country, I imagine”.

Pacific and Maori names are reminiscent of namesakes and are ways of carrying the whakapapa, Tora says. “Names are maps, with signposts along the way. These are house cards.

In Taumoepau’s work, the house is both tangible and out of reach. While the exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery is in video form (it occurs live on May 7 only), the performance itself is demanding and involves being in water for up to 90 minutes. It is, she says, “endurance work”.

Taumoepau has traveled between Tonga and Australia often throughout her life and is already mourning the loss she knows she will suffer in the places she calls home. In the meantime, she is ready to put her body in danger.

Latai Taumoepau performs Repatriate (2015) live at the Auckland Art Gallery at 3.30pm on Saturday May 7th. Statement: A Pacific Feminist Agenda until July 31, 2022.

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