In the midst of Level 3 in Auckland, the Tautai Pacific Arts Trust opened up the Oh My Ocean (OMO) exhibition virtually on October 15. The artists involved in the Oh My Ocean exhibition were chosen from last year's FALE-Ship Home Residency programme, which I was a part of. Check out the Oh My Ocean virtual tour video below:
With my involvement in last year's FALE-Ship Home Residency programme, I was scheduled to have art in the exhibition. If you watched the virtual tour above, you'll notice that my work is NOT displayed in the gallery exhibition. That's because my artwork is to be displayed on the Moana Wall on East Street OUTSIDE of the Tautai gallery!
Well, my art WAS supposed to be displayed on the East Street Moana Wall but unfortunately the owners of the site, Link Alliance, decided to pull the artwork in the last minute after it was signed off, printed and ready to be installed. What you see above are Photoshopped mock ups of how the artwork COULD HAVE looked installed on the site as originally planned. Below is how the site currently looks on East Street.
The reason Link Alliance refused to install my artwork was because of one particular piece - The Chauvin-istic Pig artwork:
'Chauvin-istic Pig' was created shortly after George Floyd's death and when Donald Trump threatened to 'regulate' social media after Twitter added fact-check links to his posts. In the aftermath of this heinous crime, Donald Trump was more concerned with his ability to tweet whatever he liked with impunity so I decided to illustrate how his right to tweet trumps the right for black people to live. Also, with George Floyd's murderer, Derek Chauvin, I thought I'd make a play on words with his last name and equate it to Donald Trump's extensive record of misogynistic and chauvinistic behaviour. TLDR; version: White inconvenience > black lives. When I posted this image on Twitter, it quickly went viral but I also copped some hate for it from right whinge Trump supporters:
I don't often do political cartoons, as stated in the original tweet, but sometimes something hits you so hard, you have no choice as an artist but to illustrate it.
Fast forward a year and bit ahead and this piece was chosen as part of my Moana Wall showcase of 24 artworks. The artworks display an array of my work from comic work, book illustrations and politically motivated imagery. After curating which pieces would be part of the exhibition, I fired through the concept of the proposed pieces to Tautai on Sept 8 for approval and on Sept 29, I sent through the full size final images for printing. The original date for Oh My Ocean's exhibition opening was Oct 15 which turned into a virtual opening instead due to Auckland's lockdown. The artworks on display in the Tautai gallery were installed and ready for the Oct 15 virtual opening but my work for the Moana Wall was delayed due to weather and the lockdown. The Moana Wall installation was set for Oct 27 but on Oct 27, Tautai contacted me saying that Link Alliance will be installing that Friday Oct 29, which was in turn put on hold due to bad weather yet again.
On November 5, I received an e-mail from Tautai saying that there was a 'speed bump' in the Moana Wall's installation and so via a Zoom meeting on Nov 8, the Tautai team informed me of Link Alliance's objection of the 'Chauvin-istic Pig' artwork and their refusal to install it. To be honest, when the Tautai team informed me, I wasn't too surprised. In fact, I was a little blasé about the affair at first. It was a year old piece and I had already endured online hate for it so it didn't quite affect me initially. But that cavalier attitude soon gave way to a firm stance once Tautai disclosed some of the 'reasons' why Link Alliance objected to the artwork. Here's one of the first responses from Link Alliance about why they took exception to the Trump artwork:
"While the agreement between Link Alliance and Tautai does not explicitly provide guidelines around the use of political imagery, it does state that: “The work should be uplifting, positive and create a sense of pride and connectivity with people engaging with the construction site.” We believe the depiction of a politician engaging in an act of violence does not meet this criteria.
This response after initial calls from Tautai feels a little disingenuous when you consider there was no qualms from Link Alliance in regards to this image about Elijah McClain:
If you don't know about Elijah McClain, he was a young black man who played violin for cats and dogs at the animal shelter. He was attacked by Aurora, Colorado police officers for being a 'suspicious person' walking home from the convenience store. During the 'arrest,' officers applied a blood choke maneuver and EMTs injected him with ketamine. He had a heart attack on the way to the hospital and died a few days later. This image depicts violence against a black person just like the 'Trump' piece but because it isn't committed by a politician, Link Alliance were willing to let this work slide. Link Alliance, as the owners of the installation site are well within their rights to say what is and isn't to be displayed on the walls. What wasn't cool was the fact that after a month and a half of concepts, sign offs and printing, they decide to suddenly have an issue with the art just before installation! Rough timeline of the Moana Wall display: - Sept 8: Rough concepts and proposed artwork (including the Trump piece) is submitted to Tautai for approval
- Sept 16: Tautai approve Option 2 concept - Sept 29: Send through hi-res full scale artwork files for printing
- Oct 15: Oh My Ocean exhibition virtual opening - Oct 27: Moana Wall installation date set - Oct 28: installation postponed due to bad weather - Nov 5: Tautai notify me about an installation 'speed bump' - Nov 8: Tautai inform me of Link Alliance's objection to the 'Trump' image At anytime from Sept 16 through to late October, Link Alliance had an opportunity to not SIGN OFF on the artwork and raise any objections to any of the pieces being installed. If that had happened, we would've been able to figure out a compromise or a replacement art during the concept and discussion phases. But no, they had to pull the rug right from under us at the eleventh hour. As a freelancer, you deal with dumb clients like this all the time. Clients who will sign off on your concepts, your sketches, roughs, inks, colours and then when you're done and send it through, they want to change everything up at the last second. Why would I expect this organisation to be any different? What a fool to believe. When pressed for a statement by the Tautai team, Link Alliance sent the following:
The merits of the artwork are not in question but the political theme of its content is. City Rail Link Ltd and Link Alliance believe that it is not appropriate for a construction project funded by New Zealand taxpayers and Auckland ratepayers to display political views of that nature."
"However unfortunately the clients view is still that the piece with Trump is depicting a specific, controversial individual political figure and falls outside an artistic commentary on the cultural history, characters and people of the Karangahape community here in NZ."
Link Alliance's response in regards to Trump being a "specific, controversial individual political figure and falls outside an artistic commentary on the cultural history, characters and people of the Karangahape community here in NZ." totally ignores the insidious nature in which right wing American conspiracy theories have permeated our society. All you have to do is see the MAGA hats, the United States and Trump flags being held high among the anti-lockdown protests in Auckland city and around the country. It is these very protests which made me stand my ground and champion for the 'Trump' piece to be included in the Moana Wall exhibition.
Seeing these flags being flown at the anti-lockdown protests was proof that Trump was very much a political figure who has sway among the dredges of Aotearoa's society. It's been one whole year since he lost the US election and people in Aotearoa still brandish his flags and his delusional rhetoric with pride. Art is many things. It can be used to entertain, educate and enlighten but it can also challenge and be uncomfortable. The 'Trump' piece I created was to be uncomfortable. It is no surprise to me that my commentary in the art about Trump valuing his own inconvenience over the unjustified homicide of a black man echoes the very same sentiment of these anti-lockdown and anti-vax protesters who value their own inconvenience over the lives of our vulnerable, particularly Māori and Pasifika people who are most at risk of COVID infections and death. At no point in time was I contacted directly by Link Alliance to plead my case or even give a greater context to the artpiece. They only communicated with the Tautai team and addressed them with no regard to my artistic integrity. It's a pity, really. I was so excited to have my work displayed OUTSIDE of the main Tautai gallery space because I've always been considered as an outsider in the NZ & Pasifika art spaces. But that wasn't the only reason why I was excited to have my work displayed on the Moana Wall. The Moana Wall is situated outside the old Mercury Plaza site on East Street off Karangahape Road. Though I am a proud son of Māngere, born and raised, East Street has a special place in my life, hell, K Road in general does (and those who were present for my live reading at this year's Auckland Writers Festival will know why.)
East Street was home to my family's church - Ekalesia Fa'apotopotoga a Iesu (Congregational Church of Jesus.) We would make the pilgrimage from Māngere to Auckland city every week. I spent the Sundays of my childhood there. Endured Sunday School lessons and butchered many a memory verse in Sāmoan over numerous White Sundays. During the main church service, I would duck out the back and head across the road to the comic store or to the arcades to play spacies. Always making it back in time before the service ended.
The iconic brickwork by the church's entrance is where this loving photo of my grandparents was taken.
And it is at this church that my family laid both of my grandparents to rest. One of the last times I set foot in that church was at my grandfather's funeral. The church has long since been sold and the hall area has been transformed into the East Street Hall - a bar and eatery. (I've gotta visit the eatery so I can reminisce about the good ol' days as I eat food in the old hall again.)
The East Street area has gone through some changes yet still felt familiar when I visited the site two weeks ago.
The one way lane change and the bike lanes took me by surprise but the old church still looked the same despite the ugly brown paint around the edges. The needle exchange across the road with a vibrant mural (hell, I didn't realise it was a needle exchange until I was 16-17.) I hope the East Street Hall owners aren't still cleaning up the alcohol, broken bottles, vomit, urine and used condoms from outside the entrance. I definitely don't miss that. The Moana Wall display on East Street was gonna be my contribution to beautifying an area that I knew so intimately. An environment that helped nurture my artistic ambitions as well as my delinquency.
What's funny is that the work I created for the Tautai FALE-Ship program last year was my O Le Aiga Samoa comic story about Lotu a Tamaiti - White Sunday.
The O Le Aiga Samoa work that was to be displayed outside the place I attended White Sundays has now taken a backseat to the 'Trump' image which is a shame. Tautai and I have made the stand that censoring of the 'Trump' image only serves those who support Trump's hateful hyperbole. That we would rather the 'Trump' image go up as planned (and signed off on) or none of the images be displayed. There were several options we discussed in possibly replacing the artwork with another image or even having a black square and lettering that directs people to the art inside the Tautai gallery.
But the late cancellation of the installation left no room for robust discussion. If the channels for communication had been opened earlier, we could have had a civil discourse for alternative solutions but alas, this executive decision took that power out of our hands.
Because of this, it appears that Tautai will be severing their working relationship with Link Alliance. It feels so weird for my artwork to be the catalyst for this sort of drama. I guess you could say that this is a baptism of fire in entering the Aotearoa and Pasifika 'fine arts' space.
Despite all the hoopla surrounding the 'Trump' artwork, Tautai and I have found a home for the piece, which is to be printed at the original 2.4m x 2.4m size. The artwork will be displayed inside the Tautai gallery as part of the Oh My Ocean exhibition alongside the other artists with a full description of what took place between Tautai and Link Alliance and its banning of the image.
As my artwork adorns the wallspace of the Tautai gallery, the East Street Moana Wall space lays blank and lifeless apart from this piece of graffiti.
I must express my gratitude towards the Tautai team for having my back and fighting for my artwork to be displayed in its entirety. They've welcomed and championed my work in the Pasifika arts space, something that I have never quite experienced as an outlier.
Link Alliance may own the Moana Wall space but they do not own me or Tautai so we will find our own way to share my work.
The solidarity I feel with the Tautai team in taking this stance in fighting censorship of my work won't just benefit me, it will help other artists navigate similar situations in the future. As Pasifika people, we often seen as the smiley happy-go-lucky people of the islands. We won't be the 'good ones' any longer. We are disruptors and mischief makers*! Adversity breeds resilience and one thing I've found through this situation is that myself and Tautai's resolve has only galvanised. We maybe beaten in this instance but like the siapo, the beating is only part of the process from which we will create beautiful art from. As for Link Alliance...
P.S: Despite all the rigmarole, I still got paid in full. YEEEEEEYAAAAAAAAHHH!!!
*Mischief Makers is an exhibition of Māori and Pasifika disruptive artists currently being exhibited at Pātaka Museum in Porirua, Wellington. It features work but some of my pals like the incomparable Jessicoco Hansell