Torika Bolatagici, Léuli Eshraghi, Taloi Havini, Ioana Gordon-Smith, Leilani Kake, and Ema Tavola

Socially Engaged Art Practice in Oceania


MALE- Māori or Polynesian, photographic series, Leilani Kake, 2014.

MALE- Māori or Polynesian, photographic series, Leilani Kake, 2014.

Torika Bolatagici and Léuli Eshraghi spoke to leading practitioners Leilani Kake, Ioana Gordon-Smith, Ema Tavola and Taloi Havini who work in art production, writing, curation, cultural heritage, community liaison, and research. Between Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and Narrm Melbourne, the conversation takes on the dynamics and issues of contemporary socially engaged practice in the growing, global Pacific arts sector.

Do you position your work as a public artist/intellectual with social responsibility?

TORIKA BOLATAGICI I don’t intentionally position myself with that framework. However, being an educated Fijian-Australian woman living and working within a first-world context is a privilege and I absolutely feel a social responsibility to make work that reflects that perspective.

LÉULI ESHRAGHI The projects I work on have critical cultural commentary at their heart, whether it be artmaking, writing, arts project management, curating or event/publication coordination. Everything that we do as Moananui peoples in this region is political and cumulative. I hope that we are generating small changes that together progress public discourse and possibility for all of society.

IOANA GORDON-SMITH Absolutely. I enjoy a huge editorial privilege as a curator working in a public space, and with that comes accountability to the audience as well as to the artists that I work with. The trickier question is what does it mean to work in a socially responsible manner? I fundamentally believe that art offers a way to be vigorous about the assumptions and principles that underpin how we organise ourselves. Presenting challenging, inspiring and generative exhibitions and projects is one key way I aim to act with social responsibility. That said, I’m conscious that the community or audience these projects are intended for isn’t the homogenous group it is usually made out to be. I try to bear in mind that one size doesn’t fit all, and that diverse content and approaches are vital for thinking about groups who can fall to the wayside when using dominant methodologies.

TALOI HAVINI I consider myself as a person who has strong social responsibility to my family, my Nakas clan (in Buka, Bougainville) and my community here in Australia and in Bougainville. I spent my childhood in a village environment so you learn from an early age to be mindful of your relatives, extended clan, Elders, and there were and still are many social and cultural obligations to fulfil. So many years later when I was a young adult, I decided to go to art school and naturally my art making is influenced from both being born into a position of inheriting Nakas traditions and in living in Australia and practising in contemporary art spaces.

LEILANI KAKE As an artist I choose to engage my whānau/family and community first. Being a part of that community I believe that I can utilise the language of art to raise discourse that deals with social affect and effect. I do feel responsible in maintaining tīkanga/values as well as creative innovation. I believe being Māori/Cook Island/Pacific is not just an individual declaration of identity and ends when you leave a marae or family home or Island, but is also about a shared socio-political responsibility.

EMA TAVOLA Not in those words, but I’m open about only really wanting to work with artists whose work contributes to the socio-political development of Pacific people, in direct and indirect ways.

Torika Bolatagici

Torika Bolatagici

How have you deployed artistic interventions in your practice in ways that specifically engage Pacific communities?

TB When I have made work of an interventionist-nature, it has been directed at non-Pacific communities, to address issues that effect Pacific communities. For example, in 2009 I made a public work called ‘Missing Pacific’ that responded to the absence and erasure of Pacific texts in the Frankston library. So the goal here was not to necessarily to engage Pacific communities, but rather to make a comment about institutional collections, archives and material culture.  But then other aspects of my practice have been made specifically for Pacific communities – and certain projects have specifically engaged only Pacific communities. The Pacific Photobook Project is an example of a project that was only open to young people of Pacific Island heritage to learn photographic skills and publishing from more established artists of Pacific Islander heritage. The intention here was to create a culturally-safe space for young people to learn, dialogue and tell their stories their way in a nurturing environment – where their voices and ways of knowing were respected and privileged. 

LE Some of my art and curatorial projects are specifically aimed at Moananui peoples in terms of conceptual frameworks, artistic production and linguistic parameters. My curatorial work is usually more activist in terms of hopefully loud, generative propositions around cultural appropriations, the place and politics of West Papuan and Timorese refugees in printmaking, and aesthetic complexity in a strongly monocultural society such as contemporary colonial Australia. Talanoa or shared conversational spaces with Moananui arts practitioners as mentors, have been strong platforms for engaging members of communities not often seen in participatory workshop-based arts projects, the Pasifik Young Artists (2013 at Footscray Community Arts Centre and Colour Box Studio) and West Papua, Timor-Leste and Bali (2014-15 at The Ownership Project) projects.

TH As a maker I am interested generating art that can hopefully also creates a dialogue that has the ability to transcend borders and brings regional issues to the forefront.

LK My work seeks to always ‘speak’ to Pacific/Māori audiences because I believe that’s how I ‘speak’. I utilise cultural key markers such as time, space, symbolism, narrative, place and language. Tīkanga pono or ‘correct way of doing’ is also the foundation in which I work because it’s the governing factor on how I conduct my arts methodology and employ key cultural markers. 

ET By locating opportunities to engage with Pacific artists in safe Pacific spaces, i.e. within contexts that are comfortable, approachable and don’t represent a threatening or intimidating dominant culture kind of air. In these spaces, engaging in discussion/talanoa about the artwork and inevitably, the artist, ideas are exchanged and the artwork brings the audience into its relational space.

Léuli Eshraghi

Léuli Eshraghi

Do you see your work as representations or provocations or both?

TB Both.

LE Definitely both as reflections of, and provocations for, multiple possibilities in terms of cultural practices and interfaces therewith.

IGS Both, but mostly because I see my curatorial work as (re)presenting the work of artists who provoke and drill into key questions regarding the reality that we live in. With regards to contemporary Pacific art, I often feel that simply highlighting how many artists are working now and the contexts that they work within is in itself a provocation to preconceptions of what contemporary Pacific art should look like.

TH In my art I am commenting on ideas around representation more so than provocation. I make visual commentary about the social aspects of my life and the current state of being Indigenous to the Oceanic region. I have been making work around human rights, land rights, labour, matrilineal inheritance, the environment––and all this can seem highly political to some and therefore provoke certain moral issues.

LK Anything that is represented IS a provocation, whether the result is directed or accidental. Sorry that’s a yes to both.

ET Both.

Ioana Gordon-Smith

Ioana Gordon-Smith

What kind of research do you undertake before and during a project?

TB It depends on the project and the nature of the work. It ranges from oral testimony, to discussions with friends and family, to travelling to international archives to seek particular records and it can include collaborations with experts in other disciplines. That’s what I love about research, it can, and should, take you anywhere. It’s a really personal and individual journey. 

LE I draw on measina/treasures in Euro-American-based museum and gallery collections of plundered imperial gains, oral historical material, anthropological research (with many, many grains of salt), and cumulative critical discussions around aesthetics, epistemologies, Indigenous Moananui ways of being and knowing with Elders, peers and friends near and far. 

IGS It’s quite organic: my research process differs from project to project, but it mostly consists of lots of reading and many conversations, and the same after a project too really.

TH For me ‘research’ involves observing and having time to think through the entire process. For me the process is just as, or more, important than the end-outcome. Before taking on a project I ask myself, “Will I like or respect this project in five years time?” If the answer is “yes” than I put everything into it so that I can sustain the idea and make it happen. Projects vary so much and more often I work with other people, Elders, Aunties, friends, artists, and so getting people on board to co-create works of art, exhibitions, or community projects is a real effort. The concept of ‘research’ for me is participatory meaning consulting and involving people as much as possible.

LK I often think about the outcome and the reason for why I am making the artwork. What do I want to say? and to whom? and how will I best convey that idea? I then research the practical factual aspects of the subject matter than move onto the more philosophical theoretical facets. Often I use family, friends and peers in my industry as ‘sounding boards’ or either just to test whether my approach is culturally sound.

ET Dialogue with artist, and people in their environment, community, family. Some research of the issues, less from academic texts and more from news media, social commentary, grassroots responses. I look at the ways other artists have responded to similar themes, and other artists who employ similar aesthetics. Then, to embed a project in a site, i.e. an exhibition in a particular location, I look at the context and community of that site, and how an exhibition or project can create value for local people, particularly young people, and particularly Pacific communities. Always interesting to see how projects with similar themes or ideas have been done in other indigenous and minority community contexts… I often look to Studio Museum Harlem for inspiration.

Leilani Kake

Leilani Kake

Who are your support mechanisms within your community?

TB My family, colleagues and closest friends. But it also depends on the project. Being a multidisciplinary practitioner means that I often interface with experts in parallel or disparate fields of knowledge. A recent project has seen me working with peace activists, nuclear veterans, journalists, military personnel, historians, gender theorists etc… 

LE Open communication lines, shared community spaces of eating and talking about art projects and life practices in general are extremely important to me. My Elders in the islands and diaspora such as Aunty Sana Balai are key to ongoing support structures, including with friends and peers in Narrm Melbourne, across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand especially. In my recently begun Curatorial Practice PhD at MADA, I’m drawing on, and sharing discussions with local and global Indigenous colleagues in curation, writing, and artmaking.

TH Usually as artists we support each other. For projects that I have done in Bougainville (Blood Generation) I have asked on many occasions advice from my father (who is a chief of his Nakas clan), my aunties (matrilineal women chiefs), and some highly respected leaders––mainly women. On the other hand I have consulted with the most vulnerable groups of people––the young, the school dropouts and unemployed, the ‘rebels’ or ‘rascals’ and I got support from them when I was travelling and making the art project. Socially engaged art projects should be accessible to all and as many interested people as possible––especially if there is a social narrative.

IGS I belong to more than one community, and so my support mechanisms vary quite widely, from Tautai Pacific Contemporary Arts Trust, who have played a big role in initiating a lot of the professional arts relationships I have now; the local RSA; my colleagues; artists that I’ve worked with over long periods; my peers and my family and friends outside of work too for those moments when a bit of perspective is handy.

LK My family, friends and peers are my support. Without them I would be working in a vacuum.

EM The artists who I work with frequently, who are my collaborators on many projects. Artists like Leilani Kake, Tanu Gago and Luisa Tora. I often draw on networks from within the art school I went to, where I currently teach part-time. Grant Thompson is the Dean of the Faculty of Creative Arts now but 12 years ago, he was my contextual studies lecturer. Since then we’ve worked on numerous projects together and I always feel like he knows where I’ve come from, and what value and potential there is in working in arts education and arts development in South Auckland. My indigenous curatorial peers Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai, Leafa Janice Wilson, Nigel Borell and Sean Mallon all offer me excellent insights and advice. And in terms of creating projects with real social purpose and benefits, I draw on the insights of my mother, father and sister, who all work in the social and economic development sectors in the Pacific.

Ema Tavola

Ema Tavola

Who are the audiences for your socially engaged practices?

TH I think the ‘audience’ has to be global and timeless. To be socially engaging means you need to be speaking with all levels of the community and people need to feel part of it or at least become introduced to a new idea and become enriched by it. As makers we can be the ‘audience’ as well 

LK Predominately Māori and Cook Island audiences though my work deals with universal themes such as life cycles, identity and spirituality so my work can be enjoyed by various audiences.

ET Intergenerational Pacific audiences, conscious and socially aware non-Pacific audiences, Pacific diaspora virtual audiences worldwide.

Taloi Havini

Taloi Havini

Are funding bodies adequately responsive to socially engaged art practices?

TB Yes, in an Australian context I believe this to be the case. I think that there is funding at council, state and national level that is open to, if not specifically designed to generate innovation for socially engaged art practices.

TH I have tended to fund my own or fundraise. In general I think funding bodies tend to have too many restrictions.

LK I have been lucky enough to be funded by the Pacific Arts Board of Creative New Zealand on a number of projects. They have believed in my kaupapa and my work and thus have been able to help facilitate me to deliver my work to my own and other diasporic Pacific communities internationally.

ET Sort of.

Do arts and mainstream media accurately appraise your socially engaged practices?

TH The ‘media’ is a business and will always report and promote the ‘mainstream’ over socially engaged art projects. Authorship has widened and there is a plethora of online platforms and social media. This digital age has allowed people to engage in what we are interested in––and this is what we have on our side. 

LK I have had reviews about my work from varying sources. Often arts and mainstream media industries are caught up on ‘what’s in fashion’ and seldom really ‘see’ what’s behind my work. Ema Tavola, TJ McNamara and Mark Amery have written and understood my positioning as an artist who endeavors to engage my community, but its the every-day person on the street that gives the best feedback and inspiration to continue what I do.

ET Mainstream media barely cares about Pacific people, let alone artwork that acknowledges and empowers us.

Ngā Hau e Whā photographic series, Leilani Kake, 2011

Ngā Hau e Whā photographic series, Leilani Kake, 2011


About the contributors:
Ema Tavola (Viti | Fijian) is a Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland-based curator, arts manager, blogger and visual artist. She is the former curator for Fresh Gallery Ōtara (2006-2012), holds a Master of Arts Management from AUT University and always works in sync with her love and loyalty to Oceania.

Leilani Kake (Ngā Puhi, Tainui, Manihiki, Rakahanga) is an artist and educator. She holds a Bachelor of Visual Arts and Postgraduate Diploma in Fine Arts from the Faculty of Creative Arts, Manukau Institute of Technology, and a Master of Fine Arts from Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland. She works as Gallery Coordinator at Papakura Art Gallery and supervises postgraduate students at Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design. Her arts practice is rooted within New Zealand and Cook Island Māori ideology, speaking to the universal human condition of identity, culture, tradition and change through deeply visceral personal stories.

Taloi Havini (Nakas) is an interdisciplinary artist working in ceramics, photography, printmedia, video and mixed media installation. Her practice centres on the deconstruction of the politics of location, and the intergenerational transmission of Indigenous Knowledge Systems. In her research, Taloi engages with living cultural practitioners and Oceanian material collections and archives. She often responds to these experiences and sites of investigation with experimental ceramic installations, print, photographic and video works in solo and collaborative works. She is actively involved in cultural heritage projects, exhibitions, research and community development in Melanesia and Australia.

Ioana Gordon-Smith (Sāmoan) is a curator and writer based in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. She previously worked with Artspace, Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust and Unitec, and has worked on exhibitions for Fresh Gallery Ōtara, Papakura Art Gallery and Gus Fisher Gallery. Ioana currently works as Curator Kaitiaki Wakaaturanga at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery.

Torika Bolatagici (Viti | Fiji) is an artist, lecturer and PhD candidate at the School of Art and Design, University of New South Wales. Her interdisciplinary practice investigates the relationships between visual culture, human ecology and contemporary Pacific identities. Torika’s work has been exhibited in the United States, Mexico, Aotearoa New Zealand, Indonesia and Australia. Torika is a photography lecturer in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University, Melbourne where she teaches contemporary theory and practice.

Léuli Eshraghi (Sāmoan, Persian) is an artist, curator and PhD candidate in Curatorial Practice at MADA, Monash University. His practice is centred on connection to place, indigeneity, memory and erasure, body sovereignty, and multilingual plurality. Léuli holds qualifications in Indigenous Arts Management and Cultural Studies. He was Tautai Trust Artist in Residence 2015. He is Guest Editor, Oceania Now publication, Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival and Guest Curator, Coconut Water exhibition, Caboolture Regional Art Gallery.