The last time we met in person was November 2014. You were in France on a site visit for an exhibition project and I came from Italy to see you.
We made plans to meet in Le Havre, on the Northern coast. You came to greet me at the train station and I remember a piercing cold and having to wear a woolen hat because of the strong wind sweeping in from the ocean. On our first reconnaissance of the city we went on a Ferris wheel to get our bearings and check out the surroundings: it was dark and a bit misty, you took out your camera and started taking photos despite the height, the spinning and the cold.
Your hotel room was your HQ, where you had been drawing, painting watercolours, processing photos, gathering objects and storing your data-collecting devices: an HD camera, an audio recorder, a cell phone and your laptop. Only when I saw your gear and backpack did I realise that you had been engaged in a mission: walking between Rouen and Le Havre, discovering, recording, photographing – collecting images and encounters. Maps, floods, roads. Your smart phone didn’t work, the maps you had studied on Google before you left were out of date, the rain of autumn made the roads more difficult to walk on, so you relied mainly on real interactions with the people you encountered along the way. Your first time in Europe shows how staunch you are: you didn’t chose the easy route to discover the people and the place.
You are constantly on the lookout for poetry, human exchange and forms of sharing – always managing to find something familiar in the unfamiliar.
A year has passed and you are preparing your solo show at Te Uru. There have been emails, Skype calls, text messages and photo and music exchanges between us; an idiosyncratic use of social media, where I was blocked from your Instagram feed and then admitted again. When prompted you explained you have a tendency to cut out followers when you need thinking space or feel too self-conscious, which is the opposite behaviour the social media gurus are expecting from their users.
I looked at your Instagram posts and discovered some clues: you seemed to always post three things at a time, photographs for the most part, but also drawings, animations, words, music, real life interactions in the form of anecdotes. You span photographic formats: from portrait to landscape, from videos to black and white pictures. The way you take photos is both detached and deeply affectionate, it is a medium to communicate and shows your great ability to observe. You have a nimble presence, a great eye and a swiftness of movement, which all go unnoticed and are at the service of the situation.
Remember the time when you applied to that international photographic competition I had selected you for and how broad and diverse your images were? It was difficult to make a selection of only a few photos and to have to cull the contexts in which your work had developed. I recall pictures of your sons growing up, images of happy gatherings, portraits, powerful black and white photos taken at a funeral. The latter were revelatory in their ability to make me feel in the place, yet not exploit the tragedy. Your photography is not showy and doesn’t disdain urban interstices. You engage with clouds, light and traffic cones on the road in the same way you would portray the faces of people, a smile, feet, gestures, the reflection of something or someone in the windows of a car, a puddle, the crevice of a tree or some litter left on the road. You don’t try to edulcorate reality but manage to show beauty in the most ordinary environment.
Towards the end of my stay in New Zealand, in mid 2014, we were driving in your car to see a show at Papakura Art Gallery and stopped at a florist to buy a bouquet for someone working there. That is how we met Buchanan. He commented on the way you and I were interacting and on our choice of flowers and he took it as a cue to tell us other customers’ stories. He was good at reading people and you decided he would be perfect to video interview for a collaborative project you were working on, to get to know more about him and what turned out to be a rather eventful life.
You are a true advocate of people, you cherish frank interactions and your openness allows for extraordinary things to happen and for people to confide in you, giving in to curiosity and surrendering to your warmth. Now I see why you’ve been allergic to social media and mobile phones for so long – they are non-committed ways of interfacing and reaching out, whereas being with people makes us aware of others in a more profound way. Technology can help with keeping in touch and collapsing distance but can’t make up for real-life encounters and shared experiences.
You are a constant motivator – you have been trying to convince me to get a website for months.
This is what you do: you support people and encourage them to get where they want to be, while being who they want to be – an incredible quality of yours. And you are undeniably gracious. Every day during the installation of your 5th Auckland Triennial piece at Artspace, you would bring thank-you flowers to the volunteers helping out; you let the team at Artspace choose the design and colour for a special edition of tote bags; you helped candidates to find a host for their dream internship through Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust.
Not long ago I saw a documentary on Nina Simone and it made me think of you, especially when Lisa, Simone’s daughter, said: ‘my mom was Nina Simone 24/7’. For you art is deeply entwined with all the other things you do, like an ecosystem where everything is related and needs great attention: your work with Tautai, teaching, being a full-time mum and a mentor and friend to many people. You are someone who gives 100 per cent to her ‘2 kids and 5 jobs’, but I can count more . . .
As I write you are organising with friends, family and collaborators a festival in Avondale − your ’hood. I got a T-shirt from it last year – its inaugural year – and it is still a treasured possession.While art practice can be insular and some artists are primarily concerned with their own personal recognition and success, for you it is about building relationships and collaborating as a way of learning and appreciating one another – beyond personal advancement agendas.
I will see you in Europe in a couple of weeks. I wonder if what I have written will make sense to you and if seeing you again will make new details emerge.
Janet travelled to France with other Pacific artists to set up a show in Normandy. After the opening she came to visit me in Northern Italy for a few days. I took her to see the hills and lakes of my region and a new museum that had opened in Milan. There we visited a Gauguin exhibition entitled Tales from Paradise, and the museum’s collection had ethnographic artefacts from Asia and Oceania. It was a bit of a faux pas on my part to take Janet to see a European grand narrative and an exhibition meant for viewers with little knowledge of the places and artefacts closer to Janet’s geography and understanding. It was, however, a chance for us to discuss the tricky concept of nationality and its representation: the risks of fostering colonial viewpoints rather than the diversity and vitality of local stories. How does one retain one’s specificity while trying to talk to the world? How does one hold on to his/her humanity?
The Paris attacks happened on the day Janet flew out of the French capital. I believe she found out as she arrived at Auckland airport and the woman at the passport desk told her what had happened. She hasn’t told me too much about the work she showed in Normandy but I know she made the effort of translating into French the stories she had written to open up a communication channel with the people who would encounter her work in France.
Janet is helping me build my website and she is simultaneously supportive, pragmatic and extremely organised. She is one of the most humane people I know and I am excited to see all she will be producing in 2016, both in art and in life.
Especially written for Janet Lilo’s Status Update, publication edited by Ioana Gordon-Smith.