Art that empowers

Ane Tonga is the first Curator, Pacific Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. In her groundbreaking exhibition, Declaration: A Pacific Feminist Agenda, she reminds us of the ways in which Pacific cultures have always empowered and revered women. Ane shared what she enjoys about her role and some of the challenges she's experienced on her journey. 


Could you tell me about your current role and what you most enjoy about it?

When I was appointed as the inaugural Curator, Pacific Art in 2020, it signalled a commitment from Toi o Tāmaki to Pacific art and artists, cultures and communities. Prior to this, I’d never had the opportunity to dedicate my time and curatorial skills solely to Pacific arts so that’s probably the best part of the job.
In addition to this, I continue to contribute to the art and cultural sector through volunteer board roles and maintain close connections with different tertiary institutes. Last year I was appointed to the Arts Council Toi o Aotearoa by Hon Carmel Sepuloni, which is the governing board of Creative New Zealand. I enjoy having an enhanced view of the challenges and opportunities within the sector and an ability to advocate at the highest level for our artists and communities.

What brought you to a career in The Public Service?

I’ve held a handful of roles across the arts sector and each has helped me align a role to my ethos. I did a brief stint in a dealer gallery which represents artists and sells artworks on their behalf. I learnt pretty early that I didn’t have the gift of the gab to sell artwork but also noted that these were very niche places where I barely engaged with people that looked like me. Working in public art and museum institutions immediately appealed to me and has helped me make the types of transformative change I want to see in the world.

Have you experienced any challenges during your career and how did you overcome them?

The instability of the art sector is an ongoing challenge and I’m not immune, especially as an artist. Curatorial roles are incredibly rare and highly competitive. In some ways, it’s been a blessing and has strengthened my ability to adapt by moving to gain work experience. Living outside of the bigger cities has helped me to understand the challenges across Aotearoa but also what it is that makes those places unique and inspiring.

Has there been a particular mentor that you have looked to for inspiration or guidance?

I look to the women in my family for inspiration. My sister, who is the Curator of Contemporary art at Te Papa and who I feel lucky to be in this world with. My grandmother who emphasised education (and not marriage) as the key to independence. My mother and father who demonstrate that perseverance, resistance, and hard work will always prevail.

Declaration: A Pacific Feminist Agenda is a ground-breaking exhibition. Could you tell us what was the inspiration for the exhibition?

I come from a family of strong women and I wanted this exhibition to remind us of the ways in which Pacific cultures have always empowered and revered women. Our history tells us too that we’ve always had a diverse understanding of ancient gender roles such as māhū in Hawai‘i and vaka sa lewa lewa in Fiji that is important to recall as part of our declaration. Amid turbulent times, Declaration calls our attention to the power of collective leadership, vision and radical hope that has always existed in the Pacific. 

What changes would you like to see for wāhine that work in the public sector, and/or the arts sector?

For wāhine, I would like to see more opportunities in leadership roles or professional development in order to provide clearer pathways into leadership roles. To help wāhine thrive, I’d like organisations to view unconscious bias and Te Tiriti o Waitangi training as crucial to professional development and the health of their organisations.

Ane Tonga photo next to exhibition photo

Left image: Jessicoco Hansell, Aunti FM: To be of secret service (Psychic Frequency Unknown). Installation view. Commissioned by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2022

Right image: Ane Tonga. Photo Courtesy: Paul Chapman

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