Tanu Gago is an award-winning photographer, interdisciplinary artist, and filmmaker. He has spent the past ten years invested in cultivating the unique and important voices of artists and activists within the queer Indigenous space and remains committed to supporting and preserving pathways for future generations.
Let me just say, I’m a fangirl hard! I’ve followed Tanu’s mahi from a distance and have drooled over the epic mahi that has been produced by the powerhouse collective FAFSWAG. It was an absolute honour for me to share space with Tanu one afternoon in Mt Wellington. In this interview, we reflect on past projects and address the politics of the art industry through our own lived experiences.
Israel Randell (IR): So you probably need no introduction but who are you and where are you from?
Tanu Gago (TG): Talofa lava, My name is Tanu Gago. I am a Samoan immigrant living in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa New Zealand. I work mostly as an arts producer. That's a formal title, but outside of that, my creative practice is around image-making. It's probably the easiest way to summarize the different forms I like to make images in, because they're quite varied from photography, to moving image, to film, to just weird Photoshop things. I'm currently living in Mount Wellington with my partner Pati and my niece Lauren. And we've been here for four years, but prior to that I lived in Papatoetoe and I grew up in Mangere. I did my high school in Tonga but spent predominantly most of my life living in the North Island.
IR: I guess this project came about to talk about disrupting the narrative but within that, I’ve learnt a lot about how this can be problematic, what are your thoughts?
TG: I always think about how the art world seems to co-opt disruptive ideas. Disruption itself has become this commodity which is kind of predetermined. You can set parameters for disruption. You can make it clean-cut or in service of an ideal. Whereas when we talk about it on a community level, we're talking about the collapse of those formal structures. And so what's in our minds when we go into working with art spaces or creative spaces, is that we will, at some point, have a conversation with the people who manage those spaces about dismantling some of the structures and guidelines they will set on how far we can go. Sometimes we listen and sometimes we don't. Sometimes we take people to their absolute fucking limits. You can see the regret on their face when they're in the gallery like, "Oh my God, what have we done?" And we look at them like, "Well, we're just doing what you asked us to do, and this is what it looks like." But I think I've, just in recent years, wanted to move away from some of that commodity because it's kind of turned into this real stale rhetoric about what it looks like, or what it seemingly appears like, for people who are considered 'other' to inhabit contemporary and mainstream space.
IR: I feel like that can be so traumatising.
TG: And it's a super exhausting conversation because you're like, "Well, we inhabit space in general. We're not having a brain exercise every time we're in a space about how controversial that is, or how disruptive it might seem to other people. We're just existing." And that's something I'm more interested in as a creative. I really just want to start taking a closer look at these different states of being without having to put so much responsibility on them to perform and function.
There's this line that I wrote in 2017 for the show Femslick, which was created by Akashi Fisiinaua. We were freestyling one late night into the early hours around how to write a description for the show. And I wrote this line that I have kind of come to regret, where we talk about FAFSWAG's agenda. The line was “FAFSWAG's agenda is to fuck up the patriarchy one Caucasian space at a time.” And this fucking line has come to define everything about what we get asked from the art world and what we get asked from journalists and media people. And Akashi was featured in a Vice documentary about the underground ballroom scene, where she used the description for her show to talk about FAFSWAG's agenda. And it has become one of the most quoted lines in all of our collective practices.
IR: [It's] interesting how people have clung to that one line?
TG: Every time we're together, it's the one thing that gets quoted back to us, and we get asked about how we achieve that as a collective. And then I get asked on a personal level, how I achieve that as an artist, as a producer. And so for the last seven years, we've always had to answer a form of this question. It was kind of formalised in 2017. So for the last three years, it's been on record as being the foremost definitive attitude from the collective. Which hasn't sat well with everybody, because some people are like, "I don't agree with that. I don't think I need to disrupt, or I don't think my disruption looks like that."
It's a philosophy that was just written and captured in a moment to describe the energy of Femslick which was this really confrontational piece of stage work. And in that context, the statement holds up. But as an overarching statement for us as a collective of artists, it varies. And so over the last three years, to current day, we're just been trying to figure out individually what that looks like.
For me personally, I just think that being in a Pākehā context should not place me into an automatic binary, especially as someone who has a Pākehā Mum. My mother is Irish Māori, socially Pākehā. She's not with us anymore, but I grew up in this little Pākehā bubble in South Auckland. Despite being around all the negative stereotypes that you hear about this community, I still grew up with a certain level of privilege and that's my proximity to Whiteness. And I think my proximity to my Mum and her white heritage afforded me that. So it's a different perspective, being a Brown person who can see other Brown folk experiencing the same things that I experienced growing up, but just a little bit differently.
It wasn't until I was an artist that white folk were like, "Oh, you really have to define this? What does it mean? What does it look like because you're clearly different?" Without any context, without knowing that my Auntie's a white, British woman who would sit around at 10 o'clock in the morning having tea and scones. And so that was my childhood, as well as pigs on the spit with my Tonga cousins.
The duality of occupying these two cultural spaces, and then doing that in the art world and it seeming radical to people, just blew my mind. I was like, "This is bullshit." But if you want to tell it that way, if this allows us to leverage that, if we can utilise [it] to build a practice, to be seen as an artist, then okay, let's go.
IR: Moving away from that quote that everyone seems to label you as, is there a reformation of that now, do you think?
TG: Yeah, I worked on a project last year with one of my best friends, Elyssia Wilson-Heti who had been collecting a series of stories from her lived experience as a fat woman who identifies as a body-positive feminist and who was also half Pākehā and half Niuean. And she came to me and was like, "Oh, I have this weird one-woman feminist show about being a fat Polynesian woman. And it's super sex-positive and body-positive and body-conscious, and it's called Reclamation. And it's all about reclaiming this language or the narrative around the Brown body. And as a tubby girl myself, I was like, "Yeah, let's do that." But we decided from the jump that the project would mostly employ women and that we would only work with other Polynesian women to realise this project. As a producer [I] took a back seat in terms of setting the agenda for a project. And for the first time, I wasn't ghost curating this thing, I learned a lot from just observing these women manoeuvre themselves through the conversation about reclamation, what it means, and move through different states of emotional understanding and physicality.
As a dude who often gets placed into this rigid stereotype of what a Polynesian man is, I found it super refreshing. And it also taught me that you could be disruptive just simply by being in your body. And that 'disruptive' didn't mean you had to be actively or consciously pushing against a tide, that you could occupy the most immediate space, which is your body, and still have that as a site of resistance and really just peel away all the performative BS. Which I feel for a long time, I had been doing in my personal practice, which was like performing this version of an antagonist in the art world without ever understanding properly what I was antagonising.
IR: Maybe masculinity?
TG: I think that's one thing I can say when I reflect on my practice that I definitely try to antagonize. But in terms of the art world in general, I really had a moment where I was like, "What am I pushing against and why am I so resistant to certain things? And why do I always have to be the counter-narrative to people's understanding of things, and why can't I just be content with how the world views me and my practice and my ideas without having to Poly explain to them?”
IR: I remember hearing, I think on a podcast somewhere, this lady was saying how she hates the word "mainstream" because it insinuates that whatever we are is like this little baby side stream on the edge.
TG: Yeah. And we also contribute to whatever that notion of mainstream is purely by being on an opposing spectrum. But it's just shifting the way that we've come to understand what it means to be the majority. I think it's a volume thing. Most people who consume our cultural products, I would say are our own people. And it's taken a minute to really just think, "well, that in itself is a mainstream." If the majority of ticket buyers to a show are our community, then that really demonstrates something. And when I look at those metrics just for our gigs—because we have all the data around who shows up to things—we can tell the majority of people who support us are queer indigenous people. And then right at the edge are the Pākehā folk who are either allies or just curious, they want to know what it's about and what's going on. And so every time we hit a milestone or achieve an accolade, we always try to acknowledge those people, because truthfully without them I don't think we would be where we are. And without being corny, that really feeds into the notion that it does take a village to build an individual, essentially. And we are our own village as well, in terms of the collective FAFSWAG. And then on top of that, the layers of our family and our community, and then outwardly to our extended out worlds and creative worlds that we might be occupying. But yeah, it's definitely not a solo path that any of us have traversed or had to walk through by ourselves. And if there's anything I'm really relieved about it's the walking with others, because I don't think I could. I would've given up a long time ago if I had to do some of this shit by myself.
The other thing that people don't talk about is the reason disruption is a thing. You're considered "other" in the art world because the contemporary art world is hostile. It is a hostile terrain that people don't like to address. It's classist as hell and it is also happy to make money off the back of that diversity and the point of difference, and then take ownership for it as well. So there's definitely places where if you're not embedded in a community, it can just eat you up, spit you out.
IR: 100%. It can be a real toxic industry I feel. And sometimes I question why I'm even entertaining the idea of being in that world. When I first moved to Wellington, I was kind of hungry for a community, luckily I found the brown creative community in Wellington, which has definitely made me feel at home in a place that is not my home. So it's nice to be surrounded by that.
TG: The art world is way more conservative than it likes to admit. Just look at the way it rewards itself. Which artists get treasured as indicative of the core outset or identity? And if it's not a bunch of dudes who paint, then it's a freaky weirdo who happens to get people's attention just by being extra indifferent. And then it just becomes a diversity Olympics. There's always a space that is open for that type of difference. And this is why I feel like disruption doesn't really work anymore, because the art world has come to determine that there is a reserved space for difference, and the people who occupy the margins and who are a bit disruptive. And they've a corner for them and it stays open. And as long as we're practicing, if it's not us, it's someone else and they'll find someone else to put in there.
We have to understand that when we're operating in that space. So if there's an award that comes to us, you have to take it with a grain of salt, because we know on one hand that we have worked really hard and we have made a lot of noise and we are quite deserving in terms of the actual emotional and creative labor that has gone into some of the things that we've created. That's not always the reason why [we get the award]. Sometimes the reason why is because it's open and it's vacant and they need someone there. And so knowing that, we kind of just manoeuvre ourselves into those spaces, get your coin, get your bag, and then make sure that we invest it into things that help to grow the missions or the agendas that we're committed to. And it does matter where the money comes from.
IR: Yes it does, sometimes you don’t want to be compromised.
TG: There are some things where we just have to say, “No, thank you for the acknowledgement, but you can't keep that award.” We've had to do that in the past. I can't say what they were because we'd get in trouble, but yeah, there are some people who wanted to give us stuff and we were like, "Oh hell no, you can keep that."
IR: That’s radical af.
TG: I find it frustrating that we can’t address the intergenerational wealth of the art patronage in this country? I just feel like the things that we don't talk about in the art world that affect emerging artists who are just trying to be creators and make a living for themselves and survive in the same economy as everyone else, end up taking an emotional toll on artists. And then to not talk about those horrendous experiences that they might have, just trying to navigate through a bunch of gate-keeping curators or art patrons who will give them money, ends up leaving people and young artists with PTSD.
IR: I think that's when you need your community, your tuakana, those people who will actually look after you. We've got a symposium coming up about sovereignty. And I've been asking lots of my interviewees what sovereignty means to them in their art practice. And I guess in line with what we're talking about, states of being. What are your ideas around that?
TG: I never knew that self-determination would play such a pivotal role in my practice. This sounds super naive, but I never knew that there was anything wrong with the world that I was being asked to participate in most of the time until I started to look at things through my practice. I'm formally trained as a filmmaker. I went to Uni to get into their performing arts program with a major for directing and writing for screen and for the stage. And I just remember all these texts that we were given to consume and to study and to have as a cultural point of reference for making. And it wasn't until that moment, that I realised how absent I was from, I guess, the majority of cultural reference points for storytelling. And so I really had to go on a journey of self-discovery and ask myself questions that I didn't think were related to filmmaking. “Who are you? What are your politics? What are you about?”
IR: It's funny, I thought the exact same thing, haha.
TG: I thought filmmaking was just taking a cool idea and putting it in front of a camera and getting people to do stunts and bossing people around and telling actors to cry and laugh. So I had this almost childlike, naive understanding of film practice. And then when I realised that I actually needed a perspective and a point of view as a human to be able to tell human stories, it shifted my approach to storytelling. And that's why I still struggle today to find a media, because I learnt at the same time that the medium was just a tool or just a device for telling the story.
The one thing that had to be addressed almost immediately before I could continue working was addressing who I was in a very self-determined manner. And over the years that position has changed as I've grown as a person. And I've watched that happen to most of my creative peers as well and my friends. I came to realise everyone was on a journey and we were all trying to figure out what our perspective or point of view is. And for the first time I realised that whatever it is, is up to me, and if I don't define what it is, that other people will do it for me. So sovereignty in relation to this conversation is about being able to decide for yourself what is relevant to your lived experience, what your lived experience actually is, and also how that lived experience can be channeled in a way that helps people to fundamentally understand something about themselves as well. And you can do that by servicing your own creative needs. You can say, "Well, I only want to determine my own narrative or my own story." And as a byproduct of that, if that means that someone out there in the world relates to it, I don't have any control over that or have control over it as my own story.
And then of course at film school you learn about the film history of indigenous stories in this country. You get the cliff notes. It's not the whole class. You just get the little memos at the end where they kind of tag it on. Because they don't want to spend too much time talking about how the reality for indigenous storytelling in this country means that Pākehā people have been telling our stories for the longest time, and to this day continue to do that.
IR: Yeah, this has only just dawned on me. I’ve become hyper aware of who is behind the things that I like to watch or consume.
TG: Filmmakers like Barry Barclay and Merata Mita - and Taika Waititi currently - there is this huge commitment to framing your reality on your own terms. It sets up this really incredible, deeply considered tradition where you can just decide for yourself what your journey is, and how it affects people and how you want that portrayed for your practice.
Some things are a given. They're afforded to us purely for our privilege. Like, I'm a man, so I can make films with a certain level of authority, and doors will open because of that privilege. But what I found more interesting is, I'm looking at the space where I'm not afforded any kind of privilege or any type of space. And I always want to know how I can imagine a life for myself in those spaces. And so if you look at just the canon of work through the FAFSWAG arts collective - and I don't just mean the vogueing - because this drives me crazy when people are like, "Oh, FAFSWAG, you guys do that dance, right?" I want to die when people say that to me.
IR: It is annoying to have to define yourself through simple terms or categories.
TG: I get it. We're living in a time where you have to trade in simple ideas or easy definitions of things and turn complex things into junk food. I get that. But aside from ballroom culture and art, FAFSWAG actually investigate a whole bunch of cultural, creative ideas that are super complex and are always swirling around the politics of identity, the politics of the body and gender. And of course this thing that we've been talking about, disruption.
But I think as a collective, I guess the point is just deciding whether the art has a potential to register outside of just this self-involved, personalized experience. And when we look at the canon of work created by our artists, if you put everything together, there's a real emphasis on the potential, the future—or indigenous futurism—and these imaginary spaces that haven't been determined for us. That's really exciting because that's what people are wanting to explore now, and they can do that from the security of their self-determined sovereign identity. So when you know who you are, it's about imagining a space in the future where you can place yourself where you haven't traditionally been, or where people from your community haven't traditionally been.
IR: Do you have an example?
TG: The idea of genre or medium kind of being merged and ... I mean, we see that all the time, just with the way the internet operates and consumes everything. Everything is a hybrid.
IR: I feel like that is where new forms and ideas are born too, which a lot of us working in the industry are hungry for. Are there any places you can’t see yourself?
TG: There are places from my childhood I can't imagine being. And I think a lot of this has to do with Pākehā storytelling as well, because we've seen White people land on the moon, save the universe, have a midlife crisis, go through the neuroses of their marriage, like having emotional breakdown. We've seen their pathology as serial killers and all types of crazy people who do crazy things. And so I'm just super exhausted from consuming all of that. And I want to know what it looks like from an indigenous point of view, to see stories that place our people into these imaginary spaces as the conquerors of the universe, as the people who explore space or who are having a midlife crisis and what that looks like when you're middle-aged trolley boy at PAK'nSAVE. I'm really excited about the potential of opening up the kind of narrative cannon where Brown people are allowed to occupy those spaces and they're not just reserved for Pākehā people.
IR: Any last words, last advice, last pieces of wisdom?
TG: Just a disclaimer, this is all my truth. I try not to speak for other people sort of. I guess my final word is, take what works for you and everything else you can just press fast forward.