How Much Does This Cost? - reviewed
How Much Does This Cost?
Māngere Art Centre, Auckland
13 April – 15 June 2019
Reviewed by Emil McAvoy for PhotoForum
How Much Does This Cost? is a documentary portrait of Vinesh Kumaran's local community, comprising a series of portrait photographs of business owners in the Māngere Town Centre shopping complex. The portraits depict a number of these business owners inside their stores: as the media release states, "the people behind the shop counters". Indeed, they are primarily posed in front of their counters, and presented in life-sized photographs right next door at the Māngere Art Centre – a resonant feedback loop of local community representation.
Kumaran was born in the small rural town of Ba, Fiji and since the age of five, was brought up in the South Auckland suburb of Māngere. His mother (Sumintra Devi Kumar) and father (Arun James Kumar) ran a shop in the Māngere Town Centre for years while Kumaran was growing up. In the exhibition text's acknowledgements he thanks them "for showing me 'How much it costs' to run a shop, earn a living and support a family."
The subjects of these photographs began with Kumaran's family and friends – an initial focus extending outwards over several years – which he mentioned to me at the exhibition opening. He was easy to spot, anointed by loved ones with traditional festive necklaces.
The Saturday morning opening was a special affair. The mood was relaxed, cheerful, inclusive and welcoming – Auckland galleries take note. The Māngere Art Centre's generous spread also included fried chicken and chips, baked bananas, sushi, spring rolls and taro, I imagine sourced from the subjects' nearby stores themselves. The pseudo cultural anthropologist in me watched closely as shop owners – and their own family and friends – posed proudly for photographs in front of their gallery portraits.
The weekend markets outside were heaving with people. In one moment, I stood still and surveyed the crowd: among the stalls and the ethnically diverse general public, the gathering included gang members, a police officer, and a homeless man and a preacher in conversation, the latter wearing a sign which read 'Come Back To God'. The sun was shining and it felt like everyone was there.
Kumaran is a professional photographer, and hence this show represents personal work, yet shot using professional lighting techniques to address these somewhat complex and challenging lighting environments. The twenty photographs are very large (each several metres long), and though he received funding, would have been prohibitively expensive to produce as framed premium exhibition prints. However, his choice to use a local supplier to print the images on adhesive vinyl feels honest to the project and folds the (extended) local community back in. The matte vinyl prints are accessible and intimate, supporting a sense of access to the individuals depicted within them. I recently revisited the exhibition six weeks later and the unframed prints were holding up extremely well, even after hoards of school children had apparently descended upon the gallery, including from Viscount School (Kumaran's former primary school) where he recently gave a talk to visiting students. He will also give a public talk near the conclusion of the show.
I first encountered Kumaran's work in 2017 when commissioned to discuss a public photographic project he and I were both involved in. A new arrival in Sandringham – living close to the cluster of Indian restaurants on Sandringham Road (and a fan of Indian food) – I noted my encounters with Indian locals (plus Sri Lankans and others) were framed within the act of obtaining food, from fresh vegetables to takeaways. They were moments of cross-cultural exchange driven by the economic needs of supply and demand. Some exchanges were fleeting, transactional; others more personal, with a sense of connection nurtured over time. Many conversations opened with something akin to "how much does this cost?" Though it wasn't always easy to communicate, I felt like I was learning more about other cultures, other people's lives and other ways of being in the world. I still do.
Seeing Kumaran's portraits of Manukau-based Fijian-Indian people in their living rooms, however, drove home how little I was really seeing of these wider communities within the city we share. As Kumaran stated, "this series explores the perspectives of the migrant and first born generation of 'kiwi Fijian-Indians' and their identification of home." His photographs echoed family-centred public presentations: the kinds of idealised images designed to showcase one's family and oneself to others. Locating these within their living rooms – the sites where one might expect these photographs to otherwise end up – both revealed specific aspects of Indian culture and self-representation, and how much the staged 'family photograph' is a persistent genre across many cultures. Kumaran's positioning of these images in an accessible public context (outdoors along the waterfront in Wynyard Quarter) also activated another layer. As any good documentarian should, he provided access to facets of a community's lives which audiences may not otherwise see.
Though the photographs in How Much Does This Cost? appear straightforward, if one spends a little time with this exhibition – and goes beyond face value – it reveals further rewards. These rewards are also found in the details. The subjects' self-expression is evident in the personal touches of their store design and decoration. The intimacy in their relationships evident in a hand on a shoulder, or a hand clasped lovingly in another's. We see signs to the customer, from "special" to "you can make your neighbourhood safer" – minutiae made significant.
These details provide rich sources of information and layers of meaning, yet in places they are a little visually inconsistent in their availability. The oversize prints push the photographs' resolution to their limits, and though they evidence a consciously selective focus, in some images I couldn't help but want a deeper depth of field in order to read more of the signage within the images and decipher the finer details which inform their contexts. Images with sharper focus, such as Sam Sung, 1,2,3 Dollar Shop, reveal a multitude of products as subtle symbols of local vernacular, identity and consumption, from batteries to back-scratchers, butane to bungy cords.
These are portraits of 'ordinary New Zealanders' which do not idealise their subjects, or their working environments, yet afford them a palpable sense of dignity and grace. A sense made possible by the trusting relationship the photographer has established with his subjects. Though most of the subjects' open gazes reflect this trust, one image stands in contrast – and is the richer for it. Mala Chand of Mala’s Hairways Beauty Salon appears less trusting of what might become of her image. She is strong, but her guard remains up. Her smokey eyeshadow closely aligns both with the model (an idealised white woman) in the poster behind her, and the lavender and violet hues of the salon. Buddha figurines share a shelf with Caucasian mannequin heads displaying wigs. Several have hand-drawn beards. Artificial plants and flowers occupy the same space as healthy live ones. A container of product has tipped over and is resting against the wall of the display cabinet. She has gold jewellery and chipped nail polish on her thumbnail. She is a real woman, a local figure. I imagine who she is to her family, friends and customers.
To complement the prints, in the gallery there are also edited video interviews with selected subjects which speak to their experiences working in the Māngere Town Centre , and reveal aspects of their personal and family lives. Several participants speak of losing loved ones: a loss to the business and the need to adapt, or losing a provider in the family and subsequently needing to establish their own business to survive. They speak in a neutral tone, yet these deeply personal contexts resonate.
After my return visit, leaving the gallery I walked around Māngere Town Centre to survey the shops depicted and the feel of the wider region. I stumbled across many of the photographic subjects, but at 5pm when most were closing up, I found myself reluctant to approach them and ask about their experience of being photographed and exhibited. Regardless, seeing the photographs before the 'real' left them forever altered. As an outsider to Māngere, they begin as photographs and become real; for familiar locals it is the reverse. I look forward to returning for some good value food and a chat.
It's been a long time since I've seen as authentic a project as this in Tāmaki Makaurau. Although every gallery – and every local community – are unique, this show made me feel connected to this city in a way I haven't experienced in years. And I don't think it's really about a central suburbs-based Pākeha like me visiting South Auckland-based galleries more often; it's about the project. Although the visible presence of local communities at the exhibition opening foregrounded and amplified their role in the project, the images themselves communicate a sense of the experienced, honest and generous intentions of their maker – and indeed those depicted within the images. Go pay them a visit.
Emil McAvoy is an artist, art writer and lecturer in Photo Media at Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design