Artist/ Curator of Pacific Art & Inaugral curator of Pacific Art in Toi o Tamaki, Auckland Art Gallery
My name is Ane Tonga and I am from the villages of Vaini and Kolofo’ou. I was born and raised in Auckland-in Mount Wellington/East Side to be exact.
You and your older sister Nina are both Arts Curators in a major NZ gallery and museum - are you unicorns? How unique and important is this for Moana people?
Unicorns are closely related to horses and we’re Tongan so watch out, ha! All joking aside, Nina and I aren’t dissimilar to other Tongan and Pacific people; we are proud of our heritage and demand nothing less than excellence when it comes to the work that we do to serve indigenous and Pacific peoples.
In saying that, curatorial roles in Aotearoa are certainly coveted so that fact that my sister and I hold these positions is rare as much as it is political. You could say that we’re kind of the antithesis of what would come to mind when you think of a museum/gallery curator- brown, female, young (in curator years which is like dog years). But I’m very aware of the responsibility that comes with being the inaugural Curator of Pacific Art in Toi o Tāmaki, (Auckland Art Gallery) as is Nina who is the first Pacific person to ever hold the role of Curator of Contemporary Art at Te Papa (our national museum). It’s also important not to see us in isolation but rather that we’re here because of other pioneering Pacific academics and curators who have helped pave a way and continue to mentor us like Sean Mallon and Dr Caroline Vercoe amongst many others. There are other non-Pacific professionals that have also mentored us like Sarah Farrar, Jenny Harper and Tim Walker.
Most importantly, we also draw strength from our family who are with us through all of these milestones and keep us grounded.
Tell us how you got into arts and what has your work been focused on?
Art has been part of my life since I was born. My grandmother keeps and maintains ngātu and every summer she would bring it out and repaint parts of the patterning using a concoction of different materials. I studied photography and art history subjects in high school, then went on to study at Elam School of Fine Arts and specialised in photography. I was lucky to find employment in the arts upon graduating. I did my first curatorial internship at the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt and from there curating as a profession has provided me with opportunities to work and live in different parts of the Aotearoa. My research has been focused on contemporary Pacific art and curatorial practice, lens-based practices and indigenous feminisms. My writing for art publications and catalogues has focused primarily on female artists of Māori and Pacific descent.
I maintain an art practice but luckily I’m a bit of a slow burner so I don’t feel like there’s a tension between my role as an artist and curator.
How big a deal is it that a Pasifika person is curating at the Akl Gallery? We all know that it's a long time coming in the biggest Polynesian city in the world but how much of an impact are you hoping to make there?
It’s a momentous occasion, for me, my family and for the Pacific. I’m grateful for the Auckland Art Gallery Foundation who have made this role possible as well as others who have contributed towards it. As you say, it’s been a long time coming and has taken many people to get us here.Although it’s early days (I’m in week two of the job!) I’m really focused on seeing our gallery increase access and engagement with Pacific art and artists. I’m keen to develop the Pacific collection and produce targeted research that will have wider output than exhibitions and publications. Through that work we can give greater visibility to the a spectrum of Pacific narratives and experiences.
Ultimately, what I’m wanting in terms of impact is to ensure that this role will continue long after my time and, in doing so, create the curatorial infrastructure that will see that our Pacific artists and communities thrive into the future.
What's exciting about Pasifika arts in Aotearoa at the moment - what gives you hope and inspiration for what Pasifika artists are saying today?
I don’t know that there’s ever been a moment (past or present) where I haven’t been excited about Pacific arts. Pacific artists today are part of a wave of changes that has waxed and waned, and can be as ephemeral as hope and inspiration that is tested, pushed and restored at different times. Not at all surprised that an ocean metaphor slipped into my answer just then. If I could narrow it down to one thing, it is the collective nature of which our Pacific artists and indigenous artists are working within that inspires me. Working towards a shared purpose, the ‘greater good’ if you will, is part of a shift happening that enables the type of changes I want to see in the world.