The Moon was Talking is photographer Edith Amituanai’s most recent exhibition, and her second collaboration with young people through the ‘Creatives in Schools’ initiative. Here, Emil Scheffmann speaks to Amituanai from his own experience as a school teacher, in a conversation that explores the role of artists in education.
Emil Sheffmann: Your current exhibition at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, The Moon was Talking, marks your second collaboration with highschool students. It brings together fourteen student portraits that show these young people in an elaborate costume of their own making, alongside phrases or quotes from the encounters penned on the windows. What is it that has led you back here, and to an ongoing exploration of childhood?
Edith Amituanai: I found this quote from a friend of mine, do you know Dennis Lehane?
No, I don’t think I do.
He’s the writer who wrote Mystic River and Irish American guys are always making his stories into films.
Anyway, he said this really cool thing: “you don't choose what makes you who you are, your family, your schools, your neighbourhood.” That's why I come back to these massive things in life that you can’t shift. For me, growing up in the ‘90s and going to Auckland Girls Grammar was such a formative time in my life. I like turning back to it. Also, it’s really fun to work with that time of life. It's not filled in—there are no mortgage repayments or heavy responsibilities. I like the incompleteness and the potential of it.
Who loves doesn’t love potential?
Oh we love potential.
Edith and Emil laugh.
The portraits reflect your own approach in the classroom, which involved writing, costume design, and performance. You seem to be reaching for a creative synthesis or 'total art' with these teenagers. Can you tell me what they’re up to?
The portraits are drawn from monologues performed by the Year 11 English and Art students. These pulled together all the different elements of our collaborative work, and I encouraged the students to relate these to their own lives and bodies. The school allowed me to work across disciplines which really enriched the project, and as an artist, I felt privileged to sit and watch the work unfold. Thank you also to my friend Manu Vaea who visited Kelston Girls and shared their expertise and helped the students develop the monologues. I learned a lot and still laugh at some of the performances the students produced that day with Manu.
The Moon was Talking is a dreamy title, how did it come to you?
The title of the exhibition is taken from the opening line of a student’s monologue, Ashleigh Sinclair. The moon reference also appeared in the art room, perhaps helped by the playing of the Bruno Mars song Talking to the Moon on a bluetooth speaker.
How did you feel about school?
I know it’s quite dramatic to speak this way, to say things saved me, but art saved me in school. I really liked the way art allowed you to think, there was no right or wrong. And it was self-referential, so I could pull in what I wanted to.
It sounds like you had some good art teachers?
Yeah, I think I did.
Because in my experience of secondary school art, it can sometimes be quite prescriptive. There are formulas, working to artist models and GCSE boards for instance.
Yeah, I am fearful that it is like that now, but I just remember making stuff. I really enjoyed how that filled my day, but also how it allowed me to think about the world beyond the end of my driveway.
Now, when you’re working with children, who are you in the classroom? How do you think the students make sense of the ‘artist’?
I'm more like a teacher aide, I would say. But if I am taking centre stage, I am really pushing students to think—it's all about critically thinking (as the beautiful bell hooks said), going beyond the surface. And also tricking them! Tricking them into having fun, into thinking that what we’re doing is not scary or difficult. We should have fun in the classroom making art, because it gets harder as you get on.
As a teacher, I can really relate to the joy of young creative expression, which is so tied to an emerging sense of self.
That’s a nice way of putting it.
Though, I also feel the strain and hardship of these environments. Schools can be tough places for children and adults. What is your sense of schools in Aotearoa, from your unique position as a welcomed outsider?
My sense is there's probably no ideal school model. It is quite an intense thing to have hundreds of kids together, and in Auckland, it’s often thousands of kids in one place.
You are outnumbered as a teacher, en masse. But every school has its own spirit, and you can feel it along with the leadership. Good leadership, and bad leadership.
It has taken me a long time to accept how defining leadership is in schools. I am a bit averse to ideas of ‘strong leadership’, but wow…in my experience, the quality of leaders in schools is the defining factor.
I think artists are allergic to strong leadership, or anything overt?
Yeah, that’s probably true. For The Moon was Talking, you worked with Kelston Girls’ School in West Auckland. I am curious about whether you were particularly drawn to working with young women?
Not on purpose! It turned out that Kelston Girls’ wanted to work with me and got in touch first. This was my first time working in an all-girls school, so luckily I had attended Auckland Girls Grammar. I was prepared.
You mentioned your daughter earlier, how did you feel about her passage through the school system?
She's nearly twenty now and I wished I had home schooled her throughout. I wanted to take control of the things that we valued as a family and make that the education. If we could rejig the school system, teach in another way… I would have felt differently. Arts get such a hammering and are not seen as valuable in a capitalist world.
Yes, or schools make the value of art finite, and try to turn it into a set of predictable outcomes.
Yeah, I often get asked by high schoolers: “So, what kind of job do you do?,” or “How much money do you make?”
And what do you tell them?
I mean, it’s hard for a 15-year-old to understand, but I say to them, “I’m an artist—and no one tells me what to do!” Well… that’s not completely true but I am my own boss.
Does that sound enticing to them?
No! They think it sounds stupid. They just want to know the value in things right? I’m sorry, I'm not doing a very good job as an arts promoter!
No, no. I think kids can smell dishonesty, particularly a 15-year-old.
They can smell it far away.
I really like the art made by children, and during my time as a teacher, I would often strike bargains: a paw patrol sketch for one of their beautiful creations. Formulating exchanges is something I sense you're adept at. How did you approach your own exchange with these young people?
I love that question. Maybe social media has highlighted that we should be sceptical of people photographing strangers, so I did have to figure out how to negotiate that. I have no Guggenheim grant to pay people.
Philip Lorca DiCorcia got a bloody grant! Where’s mine? I do have a platform though, so “I can put you on my socials,” or if I am photographing on an Instax camera I can give someone back a portrait. Sometimes, it's built up over thousands of micro-interactions that lead to a good photograph. Or in schools, the young people often want your time: “sit with me at playtime,” or “listen to my story.”
We're always trading for something, and often it's an invisible exchange.
After doing a project in Flaxmere for five weeks, I came back and decided to take some food to the spot where the neighbourhood kids hang out. Well…word got out that we were meeting in the park. I must have spent $100 on fish and chips! And that is tiny in comparison to what I got back from the exchange with that community.
I've seen teachers string whole classes along on the promise of a Friday afternoon biscuit. And kids—bless their hearts, they think with their tummies a lot of the time. That's reasonable.
Yeah, it's more honest in some ways. Kids are so great. They'll tell you what they want to know—they'll just ask. And there's no pussyfooting around if the environment is right, or if they feel safe or available.
You gave a lovely interview on Heart FM where you described art as a way of being. I am drawn to your advocacy of the non-professionalised ways art can exist in our lives. It’s maybe a simple truth, but art can be good for us, regardless of how we make our livelihoods. As a professional artist, how do you relate to and support these other ways art can exist?
I think it is important to acknowledge those other ways. In lockdown, we were all scrambling to do something that wasn't online, right? Maybe draw a picture, get out and photograph, embroider something or whatever. So that sort of reaffirmed, for me, that we actually need these things. Perhaps my best way to advocate for the arts is to use it and believe in it, flaws and all.
It's almost like a void opened up in our lives. And creativity was something that many of us reached for.
We really need it, and it's in our lives all the time—beyond this job, or this education that we pay so much for. We really don't value it enough.
People are looking for some way to make meaning of their lives and survive. And art is a possible way to do that. We're not all meant to stand on the factory production line and check yoghurt pots for defects. There are other alternatives that we can find, and art in a very broad way can help us find that. I feel like some bizarre preacher! I feel very lucky that I found a thing that saved me in school, otherwise, I might have been making money for some company and squandering my talent somewhere else.
On the yoghurt pots.
On the yoghurt pots — which I did do! 12 hours on my feet. Thank the Lord that my father put me in that job.
I had a similar experience in a banana factory with a lot of Ecuadorian spiders. It makes me think that a life in art may be risky or precarious, but it feels like the only option for many of the people that pursue it.
Risk is something that we are taught very early to be averse towards. Schools hate risk, they want it tied up neatly. “Go and do this, you'll become this.”
I feel like art institutions, and to a lesser extent education institutions, often speak the language of risk. But for them to actually embrace risk and take it to heart within their work is… I don't think I've ever seen it.
I don't know if you can sell it to the big people upstairs. (Edith laughs)
I want to return to your exhibition for a moment. You’ve worked in a way that is attentive to the community context (in this case West Auckland), with students who attend a local school—making visible those who might actually enter the space. At a public exhibition space like Te Uru, this feels like a holistic form of practice. Despite this, I would resist calling you a social practitioner —
— Same. (Edith laughs).
Because you always return to the photographic medium! How do you relate to the moment of meeting a public through art? It’s something that your whole practice seems to be centred on.
That's a really good question, and I’m thankful that you've asked it because it’s something I’ve had to learn how to do. I probably learned that on the street first, in my youth work and approaching strangers on the street. And now, I have connections to institutions, and I have a $40,000 loan that represents my art training. So I use what I have to create a platform that can be shared. And yeah… I've really learned how to do that.
I am quite clear on when it is a ‘project in a space’ and when it’s ‘me in a space,’ and they're not too different, really. They ask the same honour and respect to process, same treatment. I'm in a place now where I can share what I've got. Because the world has given me so much that I can't really make what I have without the generosity of the communities I've worked with. So I feel I have an exchange that I can provide.
Without this process of connecting to the people who have informed the work, I can find it very lonely showing in institutions.
What's lonely about it?
Because like, you might be the Beyoncé, but there’s always Destiny’s Child. Other people next to you who also deserve the limelight. And because I make work about people, I feel like it's strange for me to take all of that mana and just have my name on the wall when everyone has made some contribution to that place or position.
It feels really lovely to share it.