Iokapeta Magele-Suamasi: Auckland Art Gallery

  • Ioka AAG

Iokapeta Magele-Suamasi: Auckland Art Gallery

As part of impactmania’s Women of Impact series, we are traveling to New Zealand in November 2019. A number of the women from the program will meet their peers for cultural exchange and to create economic opportunities and partnerships. The U.S. Consulate in Auckland, New Zealand is supporting 12 interviews and a special welcome reception at the U.S. Consul General’s residence. You are invited to meet and connect with the women from the program at the Women of Impact event, November 8, 2019, in Auckland, New Zealand.

Iokapeta Magele-Suamasi is the manager of the Learning (Education) and Outreach programs of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Traditionally someone in her role develops learning activities for the communities an Art institution would like to reach. Over the years, Ioka and her team have observed the ‘Inreach’ needed in how community-led projects informs the Auckland Art Gallery, rather than the other way around.

BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG

More and more museums look alike wherever you go in the world. How have you organized programming or outreach that both connects with the community and gives community members a voice?

That is a really interesting question. The name of our institution is the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. In our constitution, it states officially that we are an art museum. We are currently in a place where we are starting to reframe how we do outreach in general. It requires reframing the knowledge known by indigenous communities and that within institutions and museums.

We are at a stage here in Aotearoa (Māori name for New Zealand) where our indigenous communities are reframing the narrative of museums as places of knowledge. Because of that, we are at the cusp of doing away with the word “outreach” in our programming also.

We are returning to community partnerships. The term community partnerships is also documented in the founding Treaty of New Zealand. The Treaty discusses a nation between Mãori as Tāngata Whenua (People of the land) and Tauiwi (Non-Māori). The founding document leads the way in how our partnership should look like and what principles should apply.

I know it may not seem as evangelical as the word outreach, but we recognize that these spaces have a huge knowledge gap. They have a huge knowledge gap in the way that knowledge has been recorded, taught, and learned. Historically, Māori people, language, and culture have suffered much at the hand of colonial knowledge holders. Our new reframing strives to honor TeTiriti o Waitangi. 

We are talking about written history, text, visual documentation, and sculptural documentation. We are now giving equal palette, equal weight to oral histories, performance art, and ceremonial historical documentation. This is more synonymous with the way indigenous communities captured history in this region.

You are making this interpretive approach central  to who you are versus having a program that launches in a community. Can you give me an example of what you did in the past for outreach programming? What are you doing differently today?

We definitely did cookie-cutter museum outreach programming. We incorporated indigenous works in diverse exhibitions. We reached out to the community. Community members came to the gallery and they might respond to the exhibition content. Then we would connect them to our studio art programming.

In the end, we would have a culmination of it. Maybe a collaboration? That is how outreach programs took shape in the past. It would be in partnership with people coming into our space, or taking reproductions of their work off-site.

In 2016, we received arts funding to do a program called Visible Voices. It responded to the status quo of outreach programming we had done in the past. The Visible Voices research project proposed that the strategic direction of the gallery, our art museum itself, needed to be steered by those communities. The museum should be steered by indigenous communities and diverse communities. We went out and we scoped a whole range of a large section of the community—possibly over 800 voices contributed to the research from practitioners in these spaces.

The majority of the general community had never come in or were not interested in coming to the museum. We wanted to see how relevant we were as an institution to the contemporary reality of those communities. Instead of trying to fit them in our box, we instead asked ourselves, are we even relevant?

What were they looking for? How could this be their home?

What did you find?

It was really great. It was #RealTalk! We got over 800 responses, which we are working through now. There are actions going forward, including the need to reframe our relationship with the broader community..

We needed to re-envision how we worked with communities and we needed to know what was important. Three things that were important to our Pacific Community: our curator of Pacific Art should be of Pacific heritage. This seemed like a given, however, not necessarily the reality. The second priority was that we should tap into and support the education and entrepreneurial communities: university students and artists. The third priority was that we needed broader representation within our collection.

Also, through our collection development plan, we needed to better represent the Pacific region. An example of a project with the three community priorities in mind, which we have not done before is having historical prints in our collection from early European contact with the islands of Tonga.

We have about 16 prints that are pre-colonial, early European contact. They are prints sketched by an expedition artist that accompanied Captain James Cook. James Cook was a British explorer who is noted in history as discovering New Zealand. These 17th-century prints were sketched by artist John Webber. We are now working with a Tongan academic, professor Hūfanga Ōkusitino Māhina who is thoroughly analyzing the Tongan prints. For example, identifying the objects depicted by analyzing the written descriptions and totally building new knowledge about those prints with the aspirations of totally re-categorizing, reclassifying, and creating a new hierarchy in the way that these are recorded and filed in our system.

You are looking at the prints you had in your collection from a different perspective?

Yes! We are looking at historical visual culture through a Tongan lens. We found that the knowledge surrounding these prints is riddled with errors. A total mess! The names on it—everything.

This is huge, right? When you are looking at it through a different lens, you will come to a different understanding of what happened in the past.

It is like a different understanding, prioritizing the indigenous lens and breaking paradigms. Including the way that these works are categorized in the global system and categorized in museums.

What in general is needed to do this? What are some of the ingredients for cultural and social impact?

This is really tough because you need key drivers. You need key drivers from the community, but you also need spaces to support that learning.

It is quite rare because these institutional spaces see themselves as a source of truth, right? They see themselves as these hubs of knowledge. And so when you hear how natives and how our ancestors are documented in these works—they are commonly referred to as natives and/or savages in those works. You have us coming back and saying, “You know what. You got history wrong. You got it all wrong.”

And you now need to recognize that our oral history is correct. We are now in a position to say, let’s correct this, let’s give access to the descendants and communities. Let’s give access to them, and let’s continue to build on the correct knowledge within these museums and institutions.

You need people that are versed in both worlds, right, to traverse.

How do you deal with the pushback? Maybe even in your own institution, there will be people who are experiencing this as outside of their comfort zone.

Yes. I do not know. My personal mantra is that the community will always validate your work if you do right by them.

How do you deal with the communities who are validating it in a way that is unnerving for others?

I think it is all in the way that you approach it. I believe in being intersectional. What that means is that I know that you will be challenged if you back people in the corner. Let’s all come together at this crossroad. You have to work together because if there’s no way out. You do not get people to just turn around.

I always approach it from a place of kindness, because I do know that not everyone has the same cultural capacity. Nevertheless, we are unwavering in our mission.

Ioka with school children in the Auckland Art Gallery. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki is the largest art institution in New Zealand, with a collection numbering over 15000 works.

You could be working on so many things. What, in particular, drew you to these issues?

Because it is the right thing to do. I think because I love art, I love art management, and I love these spaces. The caretakers of these historical collections are amazing. It is our job and our responsibility to look after these collections.

But it is also our responsibility to make sure that we do right by these collections. If we are proper custodians, then we will give them the right manner. We will make sure that they are given respect, power, and the truth.

One of the major themes for the women who are traveling with me to New Zealand is transformation. We are seeing this in our world. We are seeing this with many people in their personal lives. Can you talk a little about personal transformation and how you deal with it?

How I deal with transition? That is a tough question…

I have interviewed many people who are accomplished and recognized in their fields. All these women are dealing with intense personal transitions: what’s the next step for me? How do I balance family, professional life, the career of my partner? It is really hard to juggle between who we are and what we want, external expectations, and what we have time for. How do you balance?

I stay really grounded because I have a really good support network. My family is very grounded as well. I know it is a song, but I love being with everyday people and people that are not in my sector. They remind me that maybe the sector is not relevant to everybody.

For me, it is in the conversation and the quality of my relationships; that is what keeps me strong. I am a firm believer that the quality of my character is dependent on the quality of my relationships. I heard an awesome saying recently where an artist said that they are the product of their collaborations. I totally agree with that. As a Pacific person we really do move through these spaces or in our career knowing that we are part of a collective.

What that means is the notions of our ancestors. For us, we totally use in contemporary life. Those things include what we call .  is recognizing the relational space between people and objects. When there is a disturbance, they are Vā for us; we deal with it by saying we make sure that we pick up on those cues.

We have another notion—the quality of your conversations, deep meaningful conversations. I think it is just being grounded in my heritage, my culture. It is totally an indigenous ideology.

Does it weigh heavily because you carry that responsibility? Whatever you do is no longer just for you, it is for an entire community.

It used to get to me when I was finding my way in these spaces, because I carried the community. I have come to the point where I recognize that above all, it is my success that has the best impact on my community.

Although I serve my community, I know that striving for excellence as a person is the best way to give to my community. Whatever table I sit around, we are all sitting around that table.

The woman who went before me, the woman I aspire to be like, is exactly the beacon for me. I think, wow, she can do it. You can do it. So for me, when I wear that mantle of leadership, it is not a heavy burden.

 Related to being impacted by your community. We always ask our interviewees who has made an impact on their personal or professional DNA. If you had to name one or two people who formed you, the way you operate, who would that be?

I would give that kudos to my parents. I am a child of migrants and they did not get the educational opportunities I did. I always say that my success is their legacy. I am just a continuum of their legacy. Those that come after me, they are a continuum of their legacy.

Is there anything they said that stayed with you?

I am not so sure about any particular thing they have said. It was more their faith, their resolve, and their resilience that continues to stay with me.

What is next for you? What are you working on?

It is interesting when you are carving out your own journey, there is not necessarily anyone that I am following—you are not sure what is next.

I do have aspirations for this art museum to be the leading art museum in the world in terms of Pacific art. I do believe sincerely that we can be and I say that because of where we are located.

I know the British Museum (London) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) have these humongous collections of Pacific art. The biggest resource on our side of the world is our Pacific people. We are actually located in the Pacific.


Meet Women of Impact New Zealand in Auckland, November 8th, 2019. 

impactmania’s Women of Impact program has been awarded with the U.S. Embassy Public Diplomacy grant. The grant supports 12 interviews with women in New Zealand who drive cultural, social, and economic impact. The Program also includes a week-long visit to New Zealand to connect and collaborate with those interviewed by impactmania.

For more information: [email protected].

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