A Journey of Modern Pacific Art – By Rachel Smith

The logistics of taking part in an international art fair when you are an art gallery based on a small island in the Pacific is challenging at the best of times. When you add the year that has been into the mix, it all gets very interesting.
The 2021 Auckland Art Fair opens at The Cloud on Auckland’s waterfront on Wednesday 24 February, showcasing galleries from the Pacific Rim over five days. Bergman Gallery will be there, the only Pacific Island based gallery participating, showing work from artists Mahiriki Tangaroa, Sylvia Marsters and Raymond Sagapolutele.

“As we all know 2020 in general was a difficult year. Because of the pandemic, the 2020 edition of the Auckland Art Fair was cancelled,” said Ben Bergman, Director of Bergman Gallery. “It forced a rethink to our art fair presentation and I ultimately decided to produce a bigger show given that we had missed a year. Some of the works were held over from 2020 and some new works were prepared for 2021. It was a moment of faith as I had no idea if the 2021 art fair would proceed or be compromised by the pandemic.”

“Bergman Gallery has relied heavily on sponsorship to deliver its domestic exhibition program and international projects like the Auckland Art Fair. It’s not easy to source sponsorship for the arts but four companies have become long term supporters of Bergman Gallery and its stable of artists. Palm Grove, Bank South Pacific (BSP), Turama Photography and CITC Liquor all recognise the intrinsic cultural value of contemporary art development in the Cook Islands. Their support underpins our annual calendar of domestic exhibitions and contributes to our attendance at the Auckland Art Fair.”

Taking part in the Auckland Art Fair is a big deal for any gallery. Entry is by application only; Bergman Gallery’s first application, back in the 90’s when the gallery was known as BCA, was turned down. The gallery was successful in 2016 and has been a part of every fair since, with the exception of 2020 when the physical event was cancelled six weeks out and instead went ahead in an online format. With a four-week turnaround and New Zealand in lockdown, Bergman Gallery was unable to take part. The fair was a success for those who did, Auckland Art Fair reporting that 35 galleries sold over $1.6 million of art, and more than 13 000 unique visitors made up almost 800 000 page views. This year the art fair includes 40 galleries showcasing the work of over 150 of the region’s most exciting artists.

“This is a moment for New Zealanders – and now hopefully a few visitors from the Cook Islands – to engage with the incredible talent of the artists of our region, who are highly regarded overseas but, until now, not always so widely known at home,” said co- directors, Stephanie Post and Hayley White.

Up until mid-January, when the borders opened for travel from the Cook Islands to New Zealand without mandatory quarantine, Bergman was not even sure he would be able to attend the art fair. He hoped desperately that he would be able to make it and had the necessary plans in place if he could not.

“The Auckland Art Fair is an important annual showcase of regional contemporary art, attracting galleries from New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Rim. It is vital that Cook Islands and Pacific artists are represented at this level. As a Cook Islands based gallery, it is an honour to be included and participate in the ongoing development and showcase of Modern Pacific Art,” said Bergman.

“I like to think that our experience and presentations grow with each edition of the art fair and feel strongly that this years booth will be our best yet. I am particularly impressed with the works we have ready for the show – I think that they show each artist at a very strong moment in their practice and I am excited to get the art fair booth installed.”
Cook Islands artist, Mahiriki Tangaroa, will be showing her work for the third time at the art fair with Bergman Gallery. “The thrill and excitement has remained the same; to be selected as a gallery and as an artist is a prestigious honour, as only the top galleries in New Zealand are chosen to showcase their artists and work,” she said. “Delivering to an overseas audience is a special event and I’m thankful to Bergman Gallery for maintaining our presence in New Zealand…Ben has a progressive outward vision
which keeps contemporary Cook Islands art alive in the international arena.”
This year Tangaroa is showing two series of work, each of which were painted either side of the global pandemic. The first, Custodians and Kinship, was created as an extension of her 2019 solo show Earth, Wind & Fire….Irrespective of Place. When 2020 arrived, Tangaroa’s plans changed as the world changed around her. Her new series, inspired by her 2020 solo show, In a Perfect World, is reflective of this.
From one suburb of Auckland to the next, the physical journey of the work of Aotearoa based artist Sylvia Marsters is much simpler. Her paintings are filled with the essence of the Cook Islands, her father’s home, and the gardenias she has been painting for the past 23 years. In Marsters new series, Introspective, gardenias are represented in hyper detail as the grand cycles of life play out.

When Marsters last showed her gardenia works at the art fair in 2018, the paintings proved so popular that they were being bought as they were hung on the wall. And while the ultimate goal for any gallery and artist is sales, the experience of the art fair provides those who are able to attend with much more.

“Art fairs make it possible to interact with, respond to, and develop an audience. Oftentimes, the only interaction an artist has with viewers is a brief encounter on opening night of an exhibition,” said Marsters. “Andy Leleisi’uao (fellow artist) and I discussed the importance of being onsite at the 2018 Auckland Art Fair, of being available to respond directly to questions and feedback. We were also acutely aware of representing the gallery, ourselves and Pacific art with integrity and respect.”

Debuting at this year’s art fair is Raymond Sagapolutele, an Aotearoa-born Sāmoan artist, who first showed his work with Bergman Gallery at the group show MPA#1 in 2018. Sagapolutele’s photographic triptych for the 2021 Auckland Art Fair, O Lono Uiga, is a powerful narrative delivered within his ancestor skull motif.
“Raymond was introduced to me some years ago by artist Andy Leleisi’uao. I was drawn to the conceptual premise of Raymond’s photography. As a self described diasporic artist of Samoan descent, Raymond’s photographs delivered a powerful, personal experience I found impossible to ignore,” said Bergman. “Over the past year, Raymond has created a captivating series of photographs based on ‘ancestor skulls’ and woven his narrative within the composition. I have become a big fan of these images and this years edition of the Auckland Art Fair proved an ideal moment to deliver his work on the Bergman Gallery platform.”

A practicing artist for close to 20 years, the art fair builds on the momentum of Sagapolutele’s work to date. He says the art fair allows a connection with other artists, to view their work and in doing so provide “a mirror to hold up to your own work,” as well as the opportunity to interact with viewers.
Both Sagapolutele and Marsters will feature in the Artists Talks at the art fair, discussing their work and creative process in detail at the Bergman Gallery booth (B8), Marsters at 2pm on Thursday and Sagapolutele at 2pm on Friday. The Artists Talks make up part of the extended programme at the art fair, which also includes ‘The Project’ – a collection of commissioned art works by emerging artists, a new outdoor sculpture space overlooking the Waitematā harbour and an art bookshop.
All going to plan, Bergman will be there to hear Marsters and Sagatolupele speak, arriving early to set up the gallery booth before the fair opens; that nerve wracking and exciting moment when work of the past two years comes together.

“As they say, where there is a will…and despite some darker moments in 2020, it was that stubborn adherence that I relied on,” he said. “I also have a strong belief in the artists that I represent and the works that they have produced, so I was driven to create the best showcase I could for the fair.”

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