Edith Amituanai - essay

Double Take: on Edith Amituanai

Essay by Megan Dunn for PhotoForum, July 2019

“I'm not a funny girl,” Edith Amituanai said.

“I don’t think that’s true in person,” I replied.

“Yeah, but not in my photography.” When Amituanai arrived for our interview, chewing gum, she had just given a talk at the Adam Art Gallery alongside fellow documentary photographer David Cook.

“What did you talk about?” I asked.

“Documentary photography, being the village photographer, managing relationships that you've established over years…”

Amituanai has been having a major moment of career recognition, perhaps even a reckoning. Funnily enough for a photographer renowned for chronicling Pasifica communities, particularly in her local suburb Ranui, that reckoning has happened in Wellington. At the New Zealand Portrait Gallery this year, Amitunanai paired her colour photographs alongside black and white portraits of Cook Islanders taken by the photographer George Crummer 100 years ago. Amituanai chose Crummer’s images from glass plate negatives in the collection of Te Papa. Her selection emphasised how their images rhyme, so that Crummer’s Boy and his Bicycle (c.1914) finds its echo in her Treynar on Bike (2015), captured over a century later. Edith and George: In Our Sea of Islands offered a double-take: on what it means to be a Pacific Islander now vs. then.

Double Take is also the title of Amituanai’s 16-year survey curated by Ane Tonga and currently showing at the Adam Art Gallery Te Pataka Toi. But her biggest career defining moment? On June 6, 2019, Amituanai was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit ‘for services to photography and community.’ And there’s the double take in one: Amituanai's reputation is staked in community. Her subject has always been her community, from her immediate family in Mrs Amituanai (2001) to the school kids travelling back and forth at The End of her Driveway (2011-2012) to Keep on Kimi Ora, a joint-project between Kimi Ora Community School and the Hastings City Art Gallery (2017). The face of the community – rather than the individual – is Amituanai’s overarching theme, though both are caught in her lens.

In his essay for the Double Take catalogue, photographer Haruhiko Sameshima describes Amituanai “as a village photographer.” He writes, “Her images are made primarily for the eyes and benefit of her ‘people.’ He also adroitly pinpoints how Amituanai acts as, “a catalyst bringing art into communities and communities into art.”

Disclaimer: I’m a Palagi viewer and – even worse - what I know about documentary photography is nominal. Yet here I am…part of the community drawn in to look at Amituanai’s art. But looking and seeing are not the same thing. As I walked through her survey, I couldn’t shake a feeling of responsibility. To be the village photographer is no small feat, to review the village photographer…

Adam Art Gallery exterior

Adam Art Gallery exterior

At the Adam Art Gallery, the external windows are covered with a print of the Switch Hittaz siren car, the hood and bonnet lined with multiple speakers, it’s a bombastic image straight outta West Auckland, but Double Take isn’t a ‘loud’ survey. Amituanai has a curiously dispassionate gaze, especially her photographs of Sāmoan interiors. I gazed at the slouched settee decorated with an afghan throw in Rob and Harry (2004). Above the settee, a print of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, flanked on either side by baby photos, presumably of Rob and Harry. The length of the settee matches the horizontal composition of the last supper. I grew up with da Vinci’s last supper on the wall at home too.

Edith Amituanai,  Rob and Harry  (2004)

Edith Amituanai, Rob and Harry (2004)

“I'm still wrestling with the ethics of representation,” Amituanai told me. At her survey, I am wrestling with it too. I’m a funny girl but representation is no laughing matter. My individualistic take on life and identity is constantly brought up short.

Responsibility, duty and religion – Amituanai was raised Presbyterian – permeate Double Take. Her early staged photographs Boy Shame (2003) and Girl Shame (2003) queue the viewer to unspecified - yet broken - responsibilities within the fabric of Sāmoan family life. In her Double Take catalogue essay curator Ane Tonga writes, “The upheld belief of not bringing shame to one’s family is a reflection of the nature of Sāmoan culture where an individual’s identity is defined wholly by their extended and immediate family.” That’s a big call, but one with plenty of reverb here. Mrs Amituanai (2005) is a series about Edith’s own wedding day but there are no images of her as the bride instead she has captured large-format images of her family home and that of her new in-laws. This isn’t the overheated vision of romance on the solipsistic Love Island.

In 2007, when Marti Friedlander gave Amituanai her inaugural photographic award, she said, “I particularly like the way her photographic essays portray people and places that reveal New Zealanders in all their diversity.”

Diversity is another mantle Amituanai carries as “the village photographer.” After receiving the Marti Friedlander award, she travelled to Alaska to visit relatives. The Blue Lagoon (2008) is a photograph of a Samoan café in Alaska, an American flag stationed in one corner.

“What was it like in Alaska?” I asked her.

“Overwhelming but also really boring,” she said.

I laughed. The Blue Lagoon emits something of the same vibe.

“Alaska was cold, with very skinny trees that grew very tall to try and find light, and there were no beaches. It was good because it turned my focus inward. I became interested in the interiors. How do you carry on a culture? How do you make a home?”

These are the questions Amituanai continually asks with her camera.

At the Adam, the monumental photographs in her Walters Prize shortlisted series Déjeuner are presented in their own discreet room on the mezzanine. In this series, Amituanai captured New Zealand Samoan professional rugby players on the pitch in Europe. Each photograph is almost the scale of a living room wall. The players’ become giants at home and away. House of Manu (2007) is a shrine to the absent son’s sporting achievements. Amituanai composed each photograph of the player on the field so that his feet are cut off by the frame. You can feel the onus on them.

I can feel the onus on Amituanai too.

“Much to my surprise,” she said. “I can't photograph the All-Blacks the same way, because the All-Blacks are, you know, a protected image. And you get about zero point five minutes with them. And I need four years with people.”

I laughed because in person Amituanai is funny and she was joking, but only just.

Sina To Save the World was a recent off-site artwork posted on a billboard above Taranaki Street to compliment Amituanai’s dual Wellington shows. I walked past it on my way to work each morning and admired the larger-than life Sina, a Polynesian girl in a Disney Belle dress and fetching green eye-mask, flashing a purple cape. My daughter has a Belle dress too. Amituanai photographed Sina at Kimi Ora School in Flaxmere in 2017. As part of her residency, she also taught the kids how to use her camera and they photographed – and discussed how to - represent one another.

“Disney contacted me,” she said. “About their project, Dream Big Princess.”

“Wow, had they seen the image of Sina?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Amituanai replied. “It’s a tricky one.”

She decided not to get involved. Amituanai doesn’t take being the village photographer lightly. Not even for Disney.

Shiloh Amituanai,  Hoodstunnaz

Shiloh Amituanai, Hoodstunnaz

The large feature wall downstairs at the Adam has been covered in Hoodstunnaz, a hand-drawn digitised wallpaper print by Edith’s own daughter, Shiloh Amituanai. The motifs that adorn this purple print include: a picture of Jesus surrounded by sirens like a car preparing for a siren battle, a box TV with bunny aerial (TVs appear in many of Amituanai’s interiors), a 21st key, a picture frame decorated by a lei and the back view of the Switch Hittaz car. The wallpaper is a map of her thematic territory.

On the ground floor, two key series run along opposite walls. La Fine Del Mondo (2009-10) captures the Lai family, from Myanmar now settled in West Auckland, who Amituanai encountered in her role as a Refugee Services Volunteer. On the other wall are images from ETA (Edith’s Talent Agency) (2015-ongoing), of West Aucklanders captured by Amituanai in her role as “quasi-youth worker.”

“I wouldn't say that I make images that are easy or simply celebratory. Otherwise I'd be a good commercial photographer,” she said.

Edith Amituanai,  Neighbour, The End of My Driveway  series, 2011 - 2012

Edith Amituanai, Neighbour, The End of My Driveway series, 2011 - 2012

But for me The End of My Driveway remains the clincher. The walk to school is a liminal zone. My pulse quickens when I look at the teenager in Neighbour, head down, shoulders slightly slumped, is that a scowl or am I projecting discomfort? What about the young woman in Stocking, a bit of skin showing through the tear on her knee? I homed in on potential socio-economic clues – a water bottle, a pie and coke - as though I’m some kind of sociologist gathering hard stats, but really, I’m just looking at the students passing Woodside Ave (no exit.)

At the Adam, The End of My Driveway is displayed along that narrow gangway on the first floor. In the background of each photograph, the road surface markings become prominent: those white – civic - arrows indicating go forward or turn here. This series is presented next to a short video work The Creekway written and directed by Rob Luisi, with camera work by Amituanai and David Heng.

The Creekway follows a high school student through a short cut, under an underpass, and into an industrial suburb until he reaches his final destination: the school gate. The camera is at close range until suddenly at the end it lifts to an aerial shot: a line of traffic, and the boy waiting in the middle of the road, to cross. The candour of this young actor – Va’aiga Maevaga – is so lovely and unaffected.

In High School English, my class studied Witi Ihimaera’s short story Yellow Brick Road about a Maori family moving from Waituhi to Wellington, the Emerald City. As their car drives into the city, the narrator, a young boy, notices all the road signs telling the cars what to do, slow down, no passing, one-way. The End of the Driveway reminded me of Ihimaera’s story.

“I grew up in quite a strict environment,” Amituanai told me. “I remember walking home from school feeling so free. It was kind of like our time. We can take this shortcut, ride our bikes…”

I did another double take.

“What was it like to receive the merit of honour for photography and services to community?”

“Amazing,” she replied. “To not accept it would be incredibly cynical. I had to accept it because really it’s more important to other people than it is to me.” Amituanai joked to her co-workers in Ranui, “I'll bring the medal to work and we'll take turns wearing it around” Then she told me one of her favourite films is Mean Girls. “You know the scene at the end when Lindsay Lohan wins the prom queen and she breaks up the crown and gives a piece to everybody? I want to do that with the medal.”

Megan Dunn is co-editor of The Spinoff Art. She is the author of one sly book about a book called Tinderbox. In her spare time, she interviews mermaids.