10 Jul 2018

Pacific women artists with a mission in Aotearoa

5:22 pm on 10 July 2018
Janet Lilo (L) and Ane Tonga (R) at the Auckland Gallery "She Claims: Art Matters #4" panel talk.

Janet Lilo (L) and Ane Tonga (R) at the Auckland Gallery "She Claims: Art Matters #4" panel talk. Photo: Supplied

Pacific visual artist Janet Lilo is a mother on a mission to create art and explore indigenous feminism but also raise good feminist men.

"I want to bring it back to the bare bones," said Janet Lilo, a Māori-Samoan-Niuean visual artist, and a mother.

Family is important to Ngāpuhi, Samoa and Niuean cultures which Ms Lilo draws upon when it comes to raising her boys, who she wants to raise feminist.

"I am trying to be an artist, but I also want to be a good mum. I want my sons to realise in the contemporary world we live in right now that we are all equal. And that counts with gender equality. Being accepting of other races and differences," she said.

Artist, curator and writer Ane Tonga said female empowerment was not new in a Pacific context and others have been doing it before them.

"We had the late Teresia Teaiwa who wrote about the militarisation in Fiji and so it is a much broader discussion beyond art," she said.

Ms Tonga said it was also hard to believe there were only nine Pacific women represented by dealer gallerists in Aotearoa, including traditional weavers.

"This was not a quick sweep of dealer gallerists either," she said. "When I say nine, keep in mind it is not the whole story."

"We need to think about the ecology of that, and what we could do more of to support."

She firmly believes art tells important Pacific histories and for Tongans it is important, as are family connections.

"Absolutely. When I think about women in art, I always think about my grandmother who brings out her ngatu (tapa cloth) every year to repaint it. That is a woman's art, how women express their creativity," she said.

Ms Tonga said while women's art is key, men also have an integral role to play.

"Well I wrote about the Pacific sisters recently, eight sisters, who have done incredible work in the arts but then they have had men who have helped them and played a role in their collective."

"To me there is no distinction between men women and even the LGBT community."

Janet Lilo (L) Ane Tonga (R)

Janet Lilo (L) Ane Tonga (R) Photo: Auckland Art Gallery

Ms Lilo said Pacific traditional artists need more visibility and recognition and that is where the art dealers come in.

"There are many practitoners who do make traditional crafts but I think it is getting more visibility in the arts world," said Janet who did not realise the role of art dealers who are essential to getting their arts work sold when she first started out.

Ms Lilo says the digital age has really made arts more accessible and this avenue could be better utilised.

"You could be rural couldn't you and yet people anywhere can still access your work. And I think sometimes with too much info on the internet, can also stop people from getting out and leaving the house and seeing something for yourself or meeting people," she said.

"It is about finding that balance between the digital and physical world and as humans we need to find a balance of those things."

This year New Zealand celebrates the 125th anniversary of Women's Suffrage and both artists took part in a women in arts talk series at the Auckland Art Gallery this month.

The series celebrates the contribution of a range of different women to the arts.

"I think it is a really new development for the Auckland City Art Gallery and a sign of good things to come? Maybe it is about the 125th year of Women's suffrage, but maybe it is about time for these discussions with more sisters here."

The other Pacific woman to feature in this series of art talks has been popular author and poet Courtney Sina Meredith.

*Janet Lilo is a social commentator whose artistic documentary practice is grounded in the local while simultaneously being informed by global media and popular culture. Her work has been seen on on monitors and projected onto objects in gallery spaces, the sides of buildings, in museums, empty flats and backyards, on television, displayed on shop windows, on the internet and fabricated into bus stops and billboards.

*Lilo graduated from AUT University with a Master of Art and Design in 2007. She has held solo shows in New Zealand, Japan, the Cook Islands and online. Her four-channel video installation 'ParkLife' was included in the 2007 Wellington City Gallery Telecom Prospect exhibition and she has had work in major group exhibitions in Australia, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, France, Germany and the United States of America. Lilo was a delegate to the 10th Festival of Pacific Art in Pago Pago (2008), recipient of the first Asia:NZ Japan residency programme in Sapporo (2009) and winner of the 2011 Creative New Zealand Contemporary Pacific Art Award.