An Interview with Ioana Gordon-Smith

December 05 2016, by Sophie Davis

On the 7th of December Pātaka Art Museum is hosting If we never met – A wānanga on curating Indigenous art. In the lead up to this, our Manager and Curator Sophie Davis spoke with presenter and panelist Ioana Gordon-Smith about her role at Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery, her recent curatorial projects and some of the conversations that might come out of the wānanga.

Ioana Gordon-Smith

Ioana Gordon-Smith

Sophie Davis: For the upcoming wānanga you’re on a panel that explores Indigenous curatorial engagement in artist-run and community art spaces. I thought we could begin by talking about your role as Curator of Te Uru in Titirangi and your relationship with this area of practice?

Ioana Gordon-Smith: Sure. Te Uru’s essentially a regional gallery, situated very much in West Auckland. It’s attached to a particular geography and our kaupapa—which is reflected in our name itself—is tied into this idea of what it means to be a gallery that serves and comes from a specific, non-CBD locality. A lot of what we’re interested in is finding stories, issues and practices that emerge from this area or resonate with our local audience.

Te Uru’s also quite new. We’ve only been open two years now, as part of a rebrand of the former Lopdell House Gallery, and we’ve expanded exponentially in terms of the size of our spaces. So we’ve got this renewed presence, both in the area and in relation to existing arts institutions. We’re still working out exactly what this means for us, but there’s something really appealing about thinking of ourselves as working from the periphery.

In terms of an Indigenous curatorial approach, we don’t have structural mandates around presenting indigenous art: e.g., we don’t have a specific space, a specific staff member dedicated to it, or stringent KPIs to meet beyond the obligatory but vague ‘diversity’ concerns. That means our personnel (and our board) drive our engagement with Indigenous artists and practices. I think that might be true of all spaces in New Zealand, outside of the mega institutions.

Because I’m from a Samoan-English background, most of my motivations are informed by my personal observations of how Aotearoa-based artists of Pacific/Moana descent are treated, and I think most of my curatorial engagement with indigenous art has been with Pacific/Moana-heritage artists. Their work has often been curated in a token way. It’s often been relegated to certain slots/minor spaces, and dictated by an imagining of what it means to make contemporary ‘Pacific art’—both in terms of its aesthetics, and its content. Curating here at Te Uru, I think I’m always interested in trying to allow artists and art practices to speak on their own terms, and to kind of remove this imagined, stereotyped framework of what it means to be an Indigenous artist or maker.

I think this is two-fold. I think that doing this involves not co-opting Indigenous art as some kind of tick-boxing exercise. Secondly, I think it also means recognising that artists hold multiple identity allegiances, and occupy multiple contexts, and therefore opening up other concerns that infiltrate those practices. For me, one of the best examples of this is the Janet Lilo survey show we just did earlier this year. For me, Janet’s interesting as she’s often been used as a poster child for contemporary Pacific/Moana art and its currency, or a representative of a community of young Pacific/Moana artists because she’s working with new technologies, she’s working with pop culture. I think she’s always been seen as the epitome of cutting-edge Pacific/Moana art in New Zealand, but both her and I felt that there were aspects of her practice that hasn’t been fully acknowledged because of that framework. So, curating with her has been about trying to open up different readings and seeing what happens when her work is placed in a broader context that responds to a number of contemporary conditions.

SD: Do you think there’s a similar effect at play in Wellington or elsewhere, in terms of regional galleries leading the charge in undertaking projects that do allow for that kind of complexity? I mean, is this regional curatorial framework specific to Auckland?

IGS: I suppose I’m interested in the Auckland context because we have such a hub of Pacific artists here, and my curatorial practice has been very heavily formed by working in Auckland with these artists. I moved up to Auckland in 2013 and that’s when I started working with a lot of artists through Tautai2 and it’s something that has shaped how I see Pacific/Moana arts and artists being treated. It’s heightened in Auckland, because there is a huge population of Pacific/Moana artists and because you’ve got Tautai who are very much working with Pacific/Moana heritage artists as a specific focus. I don't know if I know what’s happening Wellington well enough in terms of Indigenous programming (my sense is that there could be more) but I will say that its been cool seeing what’s happening in the programming at Pataka. 

SD: Yeah! I mean, having just been out there in the weekend and with that also being the setting for the wānanga, I think that’s an interesting conversation—to think about what New Zealand’s ‘regional’ galleries are taking on in terms of Indigenous engagement that central city galleries often aren’t. But that’s a really tricky question I just threw at you!

IGS: I think it's a really interesting question. I mean, I have an inkling that regional galleries can be more risk-taking and locally-responsive in some ways, but it’s something I’ll need to give more thought to. I also don’t think that absolves the central city galleries either though…

SD: Can you talk a little about your role as a board member of Whau the People Arts Trust in Avondale and how that initiative started?

IGS: Whau the People is an interdisciplinary artist collective of six people, including myself. We’re all people who have been really interested in creating localised experiences for the local community. We all live in Avondale, which is part of this area called the Whau, which is an area that’s grown out of the super city amalgamation, so there’s an aspect of trying to acknowledge or recognise a recently-demarcated geographical area. Also, there no galleries between Titirangi and the CBD, so for an Avondale local, you have to go outside of your own neighbourhood to engage in an arts experience. Whau the People formed because there are so many creative people who live in Avondale—I mean it’s kind of ridiculous—and it’s just nice to be able to participate and to recognise that creativity without having to leave your own neighbourhood. WTP have been running pop up projects as an effort to enable access for the people for going on three years now. We recently got a cheap lease space that enabled us to open up a gallery-type community space called All Goods in Avondale.

In terms of my role as a board member—I mean, all of us have jobs, all of us have families, so everyone just does what they can when they can. We all pitch in and do what needs doing at the time. One of our members, Jody, looks after the operations of the gallery and everyone else takes over certain projects if they can. So it kind of just happens on an ad-hoc basis--you might do a project, then someone else might do a project, it’s really responsive. We’re just a group of volunteers trying to do something for people in the neighbourhood. It’s a really organic thing.

SD: But quite strategic, as well.

IGS: Yeah, there’s definitely a kaupapa there that is about inclusivity. It’s about a range of different art practices and opening up the idea of what an arts experience might be, and opening up the idea of who the audience might be. It could be someone who lives in Avondale who’s doing their PhD at Elam or something like that, but then it also might be a five-year old who’s never been to an art gallery before. So I think its really about broadening out who we think of when we think of who an artist might be, and who the audience is as well, but keeping it very community focused.

SD: Earlier this year, you co-curated a project called the Asia-Pacific Century: Part One at Enjoy Public Art Gallery with previous Enjoy Curator Emma Ng, which involved a noho here at the gallery. How did this project come about, and now that you’ve had the noho what will you do next?

I’ve been friends with Emma for a while and we came to the project from slightly different standpoints. We had both attended the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in 2015, and stayed in the same air bnb. And I think both her and I were really fascinated in how the Triennial approached this regional idea of The Asia Pacific. I’ve always been quite suspicious of regional framing because I always find it homogenising and loaded with a positioning agenda. After a while, Emma contacted me and said she’d had this idea for a show on her mind as a result about our conversations at the APT. The trigger for her thinking about organising it into a show was her doing some reading and finding out that statistics New Zealand had forecast that by 2038, the Māori, Pacific and Asian populations in Zealand would come to make up more than half of the county’s population, and she was interested in what that might mean for a reconfiguring of New Zealand’s identity.

‘Asia Pacific’ is increasingly being used, in my view, as a means for art galleries and institutions to position themselves on a world stage as important players and to attach themselves to geographies for cultural, and sometimes monetary, currency. We were interested in how those two realities would coincide and how ‘the Asia Pacific’ might be a term that we could interrogate, and something that might have potential in terms of how we negotiate those shifts within New Zealand’s own demographics. I think at it’s heart, the APC was about thinking through how we think of collectivity: how the ‘Asia Pacific’ might both offer a way to think through how one migrant or indigenous group could be in relationship to another and bypass the dominant group, while still being very cognisant of the problems in defining or labelling how different peoples are grouped together.

In terms of what’s going to happen next, there are long-terms plans to do another follow up exhibition at Te Uru towards the end of 2017, and to build on some of the ideas that came out of the noho.

SD: Sounds exciting! I wonder whether there’s anything else you’d like to expand on in relation to these of ideas we’ve been circling around?

IGS: I don’t know—I find these kinds of conversations really hard. The wānanga is all about Indigenous curating/curating Indigenous, which are potentially two different things. I’m tangentially connected to that; I’m not in a position of working in an Indigenous-only context and I’m not in a position of holding an Indigenous role as a curator, so I kind of sit outside the framework of all the other presenters.

I suppose I kind of position myself within a mainstream institution and with Whau the People as a community-focused collective who currently also run a gallery space. And I suppose the question that will hopefully come through at the wānanga is, if you’re working outside of an Indigenous-specific context, how do we get those different spaces engage with Indigenous artists and Indigenous practices? I think that’s a really important question: how do Indigenous artists work fit within the mainstream—what’s gained in that context, what do you loose in that context? Same with community art spaces as well.

SD: Totally—I mean, the sessions at the wānanga are structured into artist-run/community spaces versus larger institutions. so there’s already an inherent comparison there. And I think its interesting to think about what a smaller, more agile or organic framework can do versus what a larger and arguably more well-resourced institution can offer Indigenous practices and Indigenous artists. You’re kind of placed in between those spaces, which is quite a complicated position in that context.

IGS: Yeah, it is complicated! It’s hard because in some ways, I’m almost speaking to an absence but I don’t want to be—I’m also really conscious that I’m 28, and I’ve been curating for maybe three years, and a lot of my experience has been with New Zealand artists of Pacific/Moana heritage. I’m still building relationships with Indigenous artists and I’m really conscious of that as being something that informs how I work now. It’s just been really clear to me that artists living in New Zealand with Pacific/Moana heritage work in multiple contexts and we continuously only read their work through a stereotyped ‘Pacific’ lens. I think what the mainstream can offer, if it’s done properly, is an opening up of different contexts in which artists work within. I think this is a more responsible way to curate, and a more honest way to reflect how artists are working today in New Zealand. 

SD: As an audience member, it’ll be really interesting to see what comes out of that discussion.

IGS: Yeah, I’m viewing the wānanga as a learning opportunity for myself, as well as a speaking opportunity, because in New Zealand we don't have artist-run spaces that are specifically for Indigenous practices. I also feel like meeting curators from oversees, where the context is so different, helps us to be a little more critical.

SD: Of what we do have, and what’s missing?

IGS: Totally. What’s missing, but also a way of thinking through the politics of the spaces we do have already.

SD: It’s interesting thinking about the cultural and geographic super city context of Auckland too in that regard.

IGS: Yeah, and, I mean, I grew up in Porirua—it’s where my parents live and where I’ll stay during the wānanga. That area is very Māori and Pacific, but it’s interesting how I had to move to Auckland—and it's kind of a personal thing—in order to engage more in contemporary Pacific/Moana art and exhibitions. And, I think, that’s probably going to shift. I can feel that in Reuben [Friend’s] programme, I think it’s going to be way more responsive to Porirua as a place that has those demographics.

With the regional gallery thing, or the mainstream gallery thing, there have been a couple of exhibitions that I’ve found really interesting, particularly Nimamea’a: The fine arts of Tongan embroidery and crochet at Objectspace and Kolose: The art of Tuvalu Crochet at Mangere Art Centre.

They both focused on women’s groups and women working in Auckland in different kind of needlework practices. In both exhibitions, the curators put forward this argument that there are lots of practices that we devalue through terminology, which means they don't enter mainstream gallery spaces. Those kinds of practices by women who are working with crochet or embroidery kind of get relegated to being traditional or to being handicraft practices. And because in gallery spaces we tend to privilege the new or the innovative, or the cutting edge, we need to think through the biases we have when we think about what work matters in the exhibition editing process.

SD: Yeah, I mean, when we’re striving to put together shows that feel urgent and contemporary—as you say, those kinds of notions themselves are inherently politicised or biased.

IGS: I was talking to Rueben before about how I wanted to work with more Māori artists at Te Uru and how to go about building relationships. And he pointed out that a lot of Māori artists work in rural areas, and so I think there’s another bias mainstream galleries have about gravitating towards artists who are living and working in the city. Basically, what I’m saying with both examples is that there’s evidence that, as curators, if we want to combat the systematic privileging of academic art practices, we need to be a little more active in our research, and to look outside of the networks that we often use when curating, which are tautological in a lot of ways. 



If we never met: A wānanga on curating indigenous art brings together curators and artists from Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and Canada for one day in Wellington, New Zealand to discuss the role of indigenous curatorial practice within artist-run spaces, community galleries and major public institutions. The speakers will explore emerging trends, benefits and barriers to indigenous agency within these spaces.

The wānanga is anchored by the exhibition If we never met on display at Pātaka Art+Museum from 9 October 2016 to 12 February 2017.