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Moana Makers Tools for You
Ema Tavola was born in Suva, Fiji in 1982. She has links to Dravuni in the Kadavu province of Fiji, and Palmerston North, where her mother, a third-generation pakeha grew up. Based in South Auckland, she is an independent artist-curator and advocate, with over 16 years of vast expertise across community led projects, art galleries and museums. Her work centralises Pacific ways of seeing and employs curating as an avenue for social inclusion.
Tavola was the founding curator of Fresh Gallery Ōtara in 2006, a local government funded community art gallery, that still exists today. On the Vunilagi Vou website, Tavola describes her curatorial concerns to be “grounded in the opportunities of contemporary art to engage grassroots audiences, shift representational politics and archive the Pacific diaspora experience.” In addition, she has also advised on exhibitions for Auckland Art Gallery and Auckland Museum.
Tavola holds a Master of Arts Management and a Bachelor of Visual Arts. She was the Artist in Residence with the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies Residency at the University of Canterbury in 2017. Her manifesto and exhibition titled ‘Katani’, (featuring University of Canterbury Fijian Students Association and work by Kulimoe’anga ‘Stone’ Maka) investigated the role of making, recording and idea visualisation in the act of curating. Two years later, Vunilagi Vous In the past, she has also lectured on Pacific art history at Manukau Institute of Technology and advised on various exhibitions such as Auckland Museum’s 'Taku Tāmaki: Auckland Stories South' (2016) and 'Home AKL' (2012) at Auckland Art Gallery.
About the Business:
Vunilagi Vou is an independent, shapeshifting gallery, community and consultancy based in South Auckland. It opened in 2019 in Ōtāhuhu. After four years of being in various locations, - including Tavola’s own refurbished home in suburban Papatoetoe – the business has settled in East Tamaki with the opening of its fourth site: VVxET. The venture is dedicated to being an accessible and affordable space for contemporary Pacific art to thrive. From hosting community engagements to exhibition making as a form of decolonisation, Vunilagi is a space of infinite potential.
‘Vunilagi in Fijian language commonly refers to the horizon but can be broken down as vu - meaning trunk, as in the trunk of a tree, and - lagi being the abbreviated version of lomalagi, meaning heaven. Ni serves to connect the two, so vunilagi is that which holds up the heavens. Vou means new.’ – Vunilagi Vou website
Vunilagi Vou is a living organism that’s constantly changing - a unique way of doing “business” that opposes traditional and limiting corporate business models. The enterprise has experienced a series of changes since its inception, but Tavola’s “transformative” curatorial knowledge and expertise has always steered the Vunilagi Vaka in the right direction. Grounded in reflection, Vunilagi’s kaupapa offers artists a safe space to unpack the complexities of being Pacific in a contemporary world. “Curating is, in essence, building protections and modes of transmission around our narratives.” Tavola says.
Motherhood and Business
“It’s like being a mother [of a business]. You can’t expect things to always be the same - everything is going to grow.”
Tavola shared with Moana Fresh the similarities with entrepreneurial and motherhood challenges, drawing a conclusion that creative practice and entrepreneurship can be a form of Motherhood for Indigenous business owners like them. Maila from Moana Fresh agreed - there are different needs at different times.
Tears can also be a sign of strength, a sign of your love pouring out, especially when you are a kaupapa based enterprise. “Jim Viviare talked about being a midwife to a project and I realised I’d always repeated that,” Tavola says. “There’s this beautiful quote which he said at the curating pacific art forum about being a midwife to a project. Now I realise that actually I mother them - I am the mother not the midwife. It’s a nice idea that you can stand outside and be like aw baby is coming to this world? But I’m here like AAAAAAARGH, pushing!”
“I think when we are scared of something its limiting. [At first] I was very intimidated by how much I didn't know about know about finances.”
Tavola is adamant in advising the importance of building your financial literacy as a hopeful Moana entrepreneur. Financial literacy is the number one key thing for newcomers, but you must bring your kaupapa and cultural grounding with you. Having an accountant who is supportive of your ideas and culturally competent is key. Once she built a relationship with hers, Tavola gained clarity with her financials; and how to make money work for her.
“My accountant changed my whole life, changed my outlook, changed my relationship with money. She enabled me to stop letting money control my business but actually letting my business flow, and the ideas flow and the money just works itself out,” Tavola says.
Dressing the part
“I loved picking my outfits each day because every day my outfit and how I present it is what people are going to get excited about.”
An ode to her “embassy upbringing” where representing Fiji was called for, Tavola is passionate about wearing a fresh hibiscus every day. She chooses to embody the Pacific in what she wears to work specifically. “Channel the Pacific in everything you do. No matter what happens, that is what is in our blood. It’s so exciting that nothing can take that away from us. Even like shattered, exhausted, it's still like in us,” Tavola says. “Colonisation has tried to disconnect us from what we know and decolonisation is tapping into it again. And that is and INFINITE power source.”
Knowing your Landscape
“What we sell is not that kind of entity and so what I’ve struggled with is, if it’s not business then what is it? We are not here to be millionaires, it feels good about going to work.”
The curator invites us to define what a social enterprise is, according to us - but it’s a matter of working out how because there's not many models out there. Ahi from Moana Fresh agrees and says: “It’s key to understand the landscape of social enterprise, traditional business, incorporated trust and where your business sits.” It's worth doing groundwork research before or as you are beginning. Tavola advises knowing your market is also key to understanding the landscape. “You need to know intimately the value system of the people you want to take money from… Your customers, your stakeholders and your funders,” Tavola says.
Passionate about putting Pacific art into Pacific homes, she continues to hold accessible gallery shows and values keeping work under two-grand. In some ways, this mentality creates – and sustains - the demand for Pacific works. “I know when we sit around in a homeland, we are sitting underneath something - it's going to keep giving and keep shaping our lives. I have sold so much work to Palagis. The work basically goes and dies because it is no longer activated, its acquired. So my most rewarding times with Vunilagi Vou have been selling art to emerging collectors.”