Mosese Uhila

Beyond the Walls: Art as a Community Catalyst

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This year Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki's schools and learning team launched Beyond the Walls: Art as a Community Catalyst, a programme committed to building and strengthening relationships with schools, kura kaupapa (Māori-language immersion schools) and other educational providers in underserved communities across Tāmaki Makaurau to cultivate meaningful relationships between the creative arts sector and ākonga (students), their kaiako (teacher) and whānau. The programme works closely with specific exhibition(s) and for its inaugural year we were blessed to work with Declaration: A Pacific Feminist Agenda, the first exhibition curated by Curator, Pacific Art Ane Tonga in her role at the Gallery. 

This year, Beyond the Walls brought together 50 ākonga and their kaiako from five partner schools and kura throughout Tāmaki Makaurau: Kelston Girls College, Ngā Puna o Waiōrea, Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate, Tangaroa College and Pukekohe High School. Through a series of engagements at the Gallery, schools and kura – including an introductory curator talk, group wānanga, artist-led workshops, educator-led activities and artmaking opportunities, which culminated in a celebratory event showcasing ākonga’s creative responses – the project expanded engagement with art beyond the walls of the Gallery, and into the community.

In March, ākonga and their kaiako were formally welcomed to Toi o Tāmaki by Head of Kaupapa Māori Te Arepa Morehu, who made a way for safe passage, and were then introduced to Declaration by Ane Tonga, Curator Pacific Art.

In three engagements over the next six months, the Gallery’s Schools and Learning team, together with artists Edith Amituanai, Theresa Tongi, Ioane Ioane and Kalisolaite ‘Uhila, supported ākonga to develop their creative voice to explore, engage with and create personal responses to the exhibition’s ideas. Edith Amituanai facilitated a photography workshop which invited students to create conceptual portraits in and around the Gallery, Theresa Tongi provided one-on-one feedback to ākonga working on their mahi toi (artworks) at Pukekohe High School, and Ioane Ioane and Kalisolaite ‘Uhila led workshops in and around the Gallery which explored performance and ritual art. These rich and varied engagements demonstrated the efficacy of tuakana–teina relationships – the future of our young emerging artists thrives when ākonga are supported, guided and nurtured by kaiarataki, leaders in the arts.

After working in a range of media through formative exercises at the Gallery and in their art rooms at school, the ākonga showcased their finished mahi toi at a celebratory event on Wednesday 28 September. 

As well as providing opportunities for ākonga to work closely with artists, the Beyond the Walls programme enabled and encouraged repeat visits to Declaration, deepening their experience and appreciation of the ideas embodied in the artworks on display. Kaiako observed that this longer-term engagement enabled ākonga to reflect and build their thinking in response to the exhibition’s ideas in the weeks between programme engagements.

We were lucky that Declaration provided such a rich collection of stories from across the Pacific, and Gallery educators were moved to see and hear ākonga make their own connections and draw on their own experiences in response to the exhibition. Declaration invited ākonga to look back in time and focus on underexplored Pasifika histories: ākonga lay under Jasmine Togo Brisby’s Open City (In Suspension), 2022, which takes the form of a large ship and sheds light on the tragic history of the Pacific slave trade, known as Blackbirding. In our kōrero, ākonga talked about the importance of knowing our history to navigate ourselves into the future.

The exhibition’s foregrounding of some of the most urgent issues in our region – climate change, activism, social justice, tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty) – resonated with ākonga, one of whom said: ‘The artwork that stood out to me was Repatriate, 2022 by Latai Taumoepeau. I loved this artwork because it talks about climate change and to see that it is happening to my own country/land makes me sad.’ Molly Rangiwai-McHale and Luisa Tora’s DECOLONISE YOUR TONGUE, 2022 was also a favourite. ‘An artwork that I enjoyed was the DECOLONIISE YOUR TONGUE teddy bear’, one ākonga wrote in a reflection. ‘Not only was the design super cool, but I liked how the artist also tried to bring awareness about colonisation by using soft materials to approach difficult subjects.’

Declaration also showed how women are celebrated in various cultural contexts. For example, Kalisolaite ‘Uhila’s performance Mother Man, 2022 explores the honouring of women through rank in Tongan culture and Taloi Havini’s Reki, Paraha and Nakas (Reclamation), 2022 speaks about land being inherited from the maternal lineage in her hometown of Bougainville. In her talk with ākonga, Ane Tonga illustrated how Declaration was about the empowerment of Pacific female voices from the perspective of the whole village, including all ages, women and men. ‘We all have a part to play,’ an ākonga from Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate agreed, ‘and the arts give me, as a man, a way to view world problems from a woman’s perspective.’

It was wonderful to see how Declaration challenged and inspired the ākonga to make connections with their worlds to develop their own stories. In the exhibition's publication Tonga beautifully states: ‘We hope you find love, joy and empowerment from our declaration and use it to form your own.’ It was inspiring to observe this happening throughout the programme.

The Beyond the Walls programme creates opportunities for ākonga to tell and share their own stories through their own forms of creativity, including curating, sculpting, mark-making, writing, singing and movement. Equally important, Beyond the Walls creates opportunities for curators, educators and artists to step into the worlds of our young people, to learn about their hopes, stories and struggles. When asked, ‘What is a story that resonates with you that needs to be heard?’, ākonga were enthusiastic to share and we were eager to listen to these precious insights into their too-often under-represented world. Answers included: ‘Pressure from parents to do well in school’; ‘Not being represented in a good light / or at all’; ‘Men are seen as more scary than women especially in Pacific society’; ‘The story of us Polynesian people being forced out of our homes. #DawnRaids’; ‘Not looking Māori enough and not being enough for either culture’; ‘Growing up without being able to speak Samoan, [and being] looked at as not Samoan.’ Beyond the Walls provided the stimulus and a safe space to think about all kinds of issues and ideas and develop individual creative responses to them. As a group we reflected on art being an excellent vehicle to share the stories we want to tell – as one student declared: ‘Art is a powerful weapon! Use it for your voice to be heard!’

Our hope with Beyond the Walls: Art as a Community Catalyst is that ākonga of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland find their place of belonging at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and feel confident to share their own creative voices. The strengthening and nurturing of our relationships with young people from underserved communities provides fertile ground for the cultivation of the stories that need to be heard, seen and/or spoken – this will nourish the change that we want to see in an ever-changing world.


Great things are only brought through the efforts of many hands. We want to acknowledge the wonderful Sue Fisher, our key donor, who resonated with the vision and the potential of the programme – our successful mahi this year would not have been possible without her generous support. We are also grateful to the Joyce Fisher Charitable Trust, whose ongoing support of art education projects is invaluable, and the Sir William and Lady Lois Manchester Charitable Trust, who generously supported this programme. We acknowledge Ane Tonga for her contributions and enthusiasm throughout the programme. Mālō ‘Aupito to our guest artists Edith Amituanai, Theresa Tongi, Ioane Ioane and Kalisolaite ‘Uhila for their time and expertise – an important goal of the programme is enabling our young people to meet and work with practising artists, so we are very grateful to them for sharing their beautiful mahi and knowledge. Ngā mihi nui also to the many Gallery staff, including Head of Kaupapa Māori Te Arepa Morehu, the marketing and advancement teams and especially the school and learning team, who have been the working engine behind the scenes in addition to their work with ākonga. And of course, a big shout out to our kaiako and ākonga for participating in the programme, especially as we know that navigating the 2022 school year has not been without its challenges!


Benjamin Brooking |


David St George 

Below are images of the mahi toi made by ākonga in the Beyond the Walls programme: