As you’ll see from this conversation with Dale, Ema Tavola has spent some time overseas. Living in Fiji and London and Belgium. And seeing quite a bit of other European countries, too. But she’s circled back to South Auckland where she embraces the feel of the Pacific there — and especially the work of Pasifika artists. They’ve been her focus for some years now, as an artist-curator helping other artists to help us understand the Pacific world.
You’ve got interesting whakapapa lines, Ema. Can you tell me a bit about your villages and your people?
My father Kaliopate is from Dravuni, a small island in the Kadavu province of Fiji, where I was born. My mother Helen is from Palmerston North. She’s a third-generation Pākehā settler.
My father came over to study agriculture and economics in Palmerston North, met my mum and took her home. She has spent most of her adult life living in Fiji. She’s a bit of a jungly Pākehā now.
Through my dad’s service in the government and the sugar industry, my family moved from Fiji to London, and then to Belgium, where I spent most of my childhood.
When I was 16, my family relocated back to the South Pacific and I moved to Wellington to finish my secondary schooling at Wellington High School. Then I took a couple of years off and floated around between Wellington and Suva before settling in South Auckland.
I arrived here when I was 19, and started a Bachelor of Visual Arts at Manukau School of Visual Arts. And that was the beginning of my professional career in the field. I’m very proud to represent Kadavu and southern Fiji.
I have a shifting relationship with my Pākehā heritage, but it’s something that grows and evolves the older I get. It’s the process of owning the harm of colonial violence that’s inherently part of being Pākehā, and the work that I do as a bicultural person to decolonise both my coloniser and colonised selves.
Does your mum speak Fijian?
Yes, very much so. When she arrived in Fiji in her early 20s, my grandfather told her that she’d be spoken to only in Fijian — and that was the end of the story. She calls herself an illiterate Fijian because she doesn’t write proficiently, but Fiji has become Mum’s focus for everything.
She pursued her own studies and education and focused on the education landscape in the Pacific, and Fiji in particular. That’s her area of expertise, and she’s still working in that area.
My parents have spoken Fijian to each other all of my life but they brought us up — me and my sister and brother — just in English.
Meaning you don’t speak Fijian?
Yeah. My father was of that generation who believed that English was going to be more beneficial for us to master. And because we spent 14 years of my childhood in Europe, I didn’t have the environment around me to reinforce any kind of learning in Fijian, so we were raised with English.
And your full name?
Ema Rosemary Vasemaca Tavola.
Any significance to those names?
Ema is from my Pākehā whakapapa, from Emma Wicksteed, who was a landscape painter. Rosemary is my mother’s sister. Mum’s one of four girls, so lots of good feminist energy on that side. Vasemaca is a grandmother on my father’s side.
Tavola is my father’s surname, and we’re the first generation to pass on that name.
Fijians used to identify themselves purely through their knowledge of who they are and who they’re from. Surnames were an introduced practice that came with colonisation. So my father has a different surname from his mother, father and brother. Tavola is the name of an almond tree — the tree which was planted over his afterbirth. So it’s a significant tree which is now part of our heritage.
Tell me about your Dad’s voice. Many Fijian men who I know have a rich, beautiful tone, and they speak a most proper English.
Because of Fiji’s Indo-Fijian population and dynamic, we have boasted the highest literacy rates in the Pacific. English is the dominant language, and I think Fijians do have a poetic kind of sound.
My father is an orator. He’s the leader of our sub-tribe, and purposeful speaking is very much part of who he is.
I’d better touch on the European influence, too, because there can’t be too many Fijians who grew up as a kid in Belgium and London and all these far-flung places. What do you think that did to shape the sort of person you have become, Ema? Do you speak other tongues as well?
Belgium is a political and commercial centre within Europe. I went to a British school where a lot of embassy kids went from the colonies. I was taught German, Flemish, which is the Belgian dialect of Dutch and German, and French.
When I arrived in New Zealand, I had a conversational understanding of French, although it quickly dropped away. But that influence was huge in my life.
My father was the Fijian ambassador for the European Union, so our home was an island where Fijians came to, and we’d have so many parties and gatherings. I loved it and I took it for granted that we were a marae for Fijians in Europe. I never felt distant because of that.
I always knew that I was Fijian and there was never any question around that. And, because my father had this role as the ambassador, our family and our home represented Fiji to the world.
What I found intriguing when I moved to New Zealand was how much my English accent and my mixed-race skin made people question my Fijian-ness. When I was growing up, I’d never questioned it, because my father brought us up to be proud Fijians.
My dad’s service to the embassy was a decade long and every summer holiday we would go on an epic road trip around Europe. And we’d be dragged along to so many galleries, so many churches, so many historical sites.
As a kid you just think: “This is torture.” But, when I came to New Zealand, I started to understand. Here, European settlement is 200 years old, and we were going to castles which were a thousand years old.
And when I went on to study art, I realised there’s a great privilege, as a child, in seeing paintings like the Mona Lisa, and the phenomenal architecture — things which I took for granted.
I’m keen to talk about you curating art and, in particular, Pacific art and the way it represents us. But first, let’s talk about you, as a young woman, not even 20, landing on the south side of Auckland with the hip-hop revolution and all the street art that was going on. Skip us through your Bachelor of Visual Arts and then tell us about establishing galleries as vehicles for us to celebrate our Pasifikatanga or our Fijitanga or our Māoritanga.
When I finished high school in Wellington in 1999, I moved home to Fiji for a gap year, doing a few odd jobs. I worked for Fiji Television for a while and for a radio station.
Then in May, 2000, we had our civilian coup.
That was an epic moment in my young life. I was already versed in coup culture because our first coup was in 1987. That made an impact on us in Europe. And then we had another coup quite soon after that. But 2000 was really frightening because it was civilian. There was a huge amount of anger, and looting, among civilians — and so we went into martial law.
During that period, when our parliamentarians were held hostage by armed gunmen led by George Speight, you became acutely aware of your freedom. I’d never lived under a curfew. During that time, I started to draw and paint what was going on because I had the privilege of being in Suva and being from a family who were always around the arts.
I’d been introduced to the Oceania Centre of Culture at the University of the South Pacific, which was led by Epeli Hau’ofa. Epeli and the Hau’ofas and my family had been friends for a long time. So I was invited into this world of making paintings and I really started to express myself as an artist — with Epeli’s guidance but also pushing back against Epeli’s guidance.
The Oceania Centre was promoting the idea that contemporary Pacific art was contemporising our traditional values. But I and a few other artists were saying that, even if you weren’t raised with your traditional values, you can still make Pacific art. That’s still valid and interesting. But there wasn’t really a place for that to be appreciated.
So, when I went to art school in South Auckland, having lived through that, having been at the Oceania Centre and having been through a civilian coup, I knew the power of political freedom — and I was raring to go.
In my year, maybe only 10 percent of the students were of Pacific Island heritage. Yet the art school was in Ōtara, which was about 80 percent Polynesian.
So there was a real disconnect between what happened in the art school — which was the old Bluebird chippie factory in Ōtara — and what was outside the doors where there was this vibrant, loud, working class, youthful community.
And so I started to listen more and more to my peers, to other Pacific students. What they were making was a really interesting commentary about our here and now as Pacific Islanders in New Zealand.
Also the largely Pākehā staff of this art school didn’t have the capacity to critique or create a value system from a Pacific lens around what Pacific art students were making.
So that’s when a group of us started to organise the Pacific students and create opportunities for us to get together, talk about our work and what our art meant to us — and connect us to the wider Pacific activities around Auckland.
I wanted to broker the relationship between the art school and Ōtara. To feel that we, as locals, could take what we were making, and thinking about, at art school into the local community. So that we could be valued by our own people, because mostly opportunities in the arts were in central Auckland.
Basically I became an organiser, an administrator, a hustler, a peer. Someone who has the energy and drive to add value for artists — and who could do what they didn’t want to do, or couldn’t do themselves.
I’m using my privilege to benefit people who don’t always feel comfortable about pushing their own work. And I’m the same. I don’t feel comfortable about pushing my own work. You need someone to be your “hype man”.
I was lucky to find the thing that I love doing when I was really young. And then I started to channel all that energy into opportunities, and they just kept growing.
I was fortunate when I finished my degree to get a job straight out of art school at the Manukau City Council. They employed me when I was 23 to be their Pacific arts co-ordinator, which was a unique role in the country.
The council had a wonderful arts unit, which was largely born out of the fact that the council never sold its shares in the Auckland airport, while all the other territorial authorities did. So the dividends from the airport funded this vibrant arts and community development space that we had in South Auckland.
We had things like a community arts centre in every suburb. I asked the council if we could establish an art gallery in Ōtara. I had a wonderful manager, who believed in me, and she helped make that gallery happen. We did community consultation on everything from the ethos of the gallery to the name of the gallery.
Then it was my job to make use of that space. And Fresh Gallery Ōtara was born in 2006.
That’s where I cut my teeth. It was a wonderful start to my career. I had that role for six years. But the move to the Auckland Council’s supercity model deflated that dream. So I stepped away from the role in 2012, and since then have been freelancing as a curator.
I went to Fresh Gallery soon after it opened. It felt right because it celebrated the vibrancy of the Ōtara community. I know you like to encourage new artists to display their works. I’m wondering whether you made contact with older people whose art can be for use as well as to show. Wonderful kete and tapa, traditional taonga that old people make, not intending them to be shown. Have you been able to encourage them?
I’ve found my niche in the arts as a curator encouraging contemporary Pacific Islanders, and usually younger people and emerging artists, to speak truth to their reality. Whatever that looks like — whether it’s “I’ve left the church”, or “I’m super gay and I’m not accepted”, or “I’m into goth.”
I wanted to create an environment within the gallery which said: “It’s okay and it’s valid to be whatever that looks like, to be a Pacific Islander, to be an indigenous person in 21st-century New Zealand.”
What excites me is what our artists are telling us. There are so many things which we sometimes don’t verbalise and don’t feel comfortable articulating, but which are part of our culture. I think what contemporary Pacific art tells us is what the truth of our reality is.
You asked me about my relationship with customary practices and older artists. I’ve always had a deep respect for those artists, but my approach to curating didn’t come through art museums or heritage spaces. It came through a need for voices to be heard.
The voices which weren’t being heard were the voices who, I felt, were adding so much texture to our understanding of our lived realities as indigenous people. So I’ve worked less with heritage artists and more with queer artists, outsiders, and artists who have difficult politics.
And that’s the beauty of the arts, articulating parts of our lives which we don’t always listen to, or see.
My other belief in the relationship with customary practices is that we’re part of a continuum. An artist who makes even crypto art or digital prints or something like that is still an indigenous Moana Oceania Pacific person. They are part of the continuum of practice which is linked with your tapa maker, with your carver, with your ancestral practices.
There’s no break in that, because our blood has continued, our whakapapa has continued. What is problematic is when we look at our younger artists and say: “What you’re doing is Pākehā”, or “It’s not connected to who you are.”
I find that a problem. And that’s why I do what I do.
I’m always proud to say that these artists have the whakapapa that they have. And they’re making wildly interesting new expressions of who we are.
What can you share as an example of that?
I’m actually looking at a piece right now which sold two weeks ago, and it was in our opening show when we opened Vunilagi Vou, my private gallery. It’s a painting by a Sāmoan artist, Niutuiatua Lemalu, who originally went to school in the Southside.
Then he went to Elam at the University of Auckland, but he realised that it wasn’t his bag, so he came back to Southside and got a job — as a security guard when I first met him. But he was this fantastic painter. I’ve worked with him for a number of years and, when I asked him to make a work for our opening, he told me he was going to paint someone called Boom Bullet.
Boom Bullet is an Instagram star. He’s a Sāmoan from Sāmoa who came here and started doing pretty questionable rap and making a lot of home content. And he grew this massive following because he’s outrageous but also hilarious and speaks truth to so many Pacific elements of Pacific Island personalities.
He’s very sexually explicit and talks about his own boom bullet a lot. Anyway, this artist made a painting of him. He’s iconic because he’s got his own name tattooed across his chest and, in the painting, he’s topless.
He must have 20,000 followers on Instagram, and they’re largely Pacific people from all over the world, but a lot of his following is in South Auckland and Auckland.
So when people came into the gallery and saw this traditional painting on canvas of someone they recognised, and someone they’ve only really known from Instagram, it made a whole community of people realise that they had a perspective on a painting.
They could have a conversation in the gallery and they could have this conversation with a stranger about what Boom Bullet represents. What that painting did is define an audience. It showed my audience in Ōtahuhu that this is what I’m about.
I’m passionate about selling art to South Aucklanders, to know that this interesting contemporary Pacific expression is going into our community and keeps circulating. Then it keeps giving, it keeps adding to the conversation.
What happens when artwork is bought by rich white people is that we never see it again until they die and it goes to auction — which has happened to my own work.
I’m conscious of the work that I show, the economics of that work, and the social impact of how that work defines an audience and changes the people coming to a gallery, which is largely an alien environment for so many Pacific communities.
I’ve been committed for my entire career to activating spaces in Southside. I love it here and I love that it still feels like it felt to me when I moved here at 19 years old. It felt like home. Basically, it’s a part of New Zealand which is part of the Pacific. And it didn’t feel like that in other communities. Ōtara is very special to me because of that.
In 2018, I felt a strong calling to go home, so I packed up my life and I moved with my daughter back to Fiji. But I soon realised that it just wasn’t the right time for me to leave. It felt a little bit like a failure but I came back to South Auckland and realised: “My God, I love this place.”
There’s something magical about being here. I missed it too much when I went home to Fiji. I also had a child with a New Zealander, so it wasn’t just about me. I felt like I needed to come back here, to her connections, and to her father. And so I came back and thought: “If I’m going to come back, I really have to do this thing.”
When I opened Vunilagi Vou, it was the dream, and I still pinch myself about what I’m doing now. Even though it’s a struggle, I feel that what I’m doing now is what I’d always wanted to do since I was 18 or 19.
I can’t wait for the world to open up. In the last few years, I’ve been approached by a number of international parties who’ve offered to fly me all over the world to go and talk about my work. I couldn’t believe that here I was in Berlin, or Kinshasa, or Hong Kong, talking to people intrigued by the work that I’ve archived on the internet.
These days, there’s more awareness of systemic racism, and of the value of diversity and social inclusion which has been part of my practice for 15 years. But comparatively, we don’t value these things enough in New Zealand.
I feel confident, though, that if I keep doing what I’m doing in South Auckland, as soon as the world opens up again, the world will be interested in what we’re doing.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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