a conversation with lana lopesi
building a history
Lana Lopesi is a multidisciplinary artist and writer based in Auckland, with an interest in social practice and print media. Her work often explores diaspora and the various issues for indigenous communities, with an interest in the cultural exchange that occurs via migration.
Lana’s writing has featured in a number of publications in print and online and she is a columnist and contributing editor for Design Assembly. She is the Visual Arts Editor for The Pantograph Punch and was the Founding Editor of #500words.
You can find out more about Lana's career and her work on her website lanalopesi.com.
What came first for you – visual art or writing (if the two can be easily decoupled)? When did you first begin to write about art, and what was it that triggered this?
I made a lot of things with my Nana as a child, we used to do watercolour drawings and sewing as well as a whole raft of craft activities. My mother is a graphic designer so the first word-processing software I learnt to use was InDesign. We were a really creative family. In saying that I never did art in a formal sense until university. During my Bachelor of Fine Arts at Elam, The University of Auckland, I turned to posters and publications, that’s where I started to see how text can be used within an art practice. From there I started to look at publication as a curatorial space, how we can guide a reader/audience member through an interestingly compiled selection of information in a similar way to how a curator builds an exhibition to comment on something. It always seemed generous, open and accessible.
Writing about art though is very different. I first started to write in 2012 on a personal blog. There just wasn’t enough art writing and public commentary. I started to think about the power that art writing has in terms of how it essentially archives art and creates history. So with that in mind I noticed that art history had a particular lean and I wanted to decentre that.
Can you remember any writers or particular pieces that extended your borders as a young writer, changing your views on what writing could be? Do you currently have any favourite New Zealand art writers, or writers generally?
When I first started writing, I just had a lot to say and wanted to say it, I didn’t think too hard about what writing was or anything like that. That’s the blessing and the curse of the multidisciplinary artist – we think we can weave in and out of things perhaps more that we actually should. But I do remember people like Daniel Satele and Ema Tavola writing about art and artists in a really confident and non-apologetic way. I had a lot of admiration for what they were doing. Art writing is a strange field in that there are actually very few people who have committed themselves to the discipline and even fewer who are doing it well. Two New Zealand art writers who I do appreciate reading are Megan Dunn and Anthony Byrt.
At only 20 years old, you became a founding editor of #500 words: an online critical arts publication. How did this come about? What was the aim of the project, and how has it developed since its inception?
#500 words came about really from just trying to fill a gap. When we started, the only place writing about art online in New Zealand was EyeContact, it didn’t feel like a place for us. We wanted to start a platform for young diverse writers to write about younger diverse artists. Somewhere that they could publish anything essentially, something that was theirs. The name is based on a word length of 500 words, we thought that if we limited the word count we could encourage multiple pieces of writing on a single exhibition. That way we could shift the notion of the singular power reviewer and present a multitude of different positions. #500words published its last piece at the end of last year. Louisa Afoa (my co-founder) and I decided that it was the end of the natural life cycle for the site and that we were ready to move on to other ventures. The key position when we set it up was that it was a for a younger voice, and Louisa and I think we’re ready to pass that on. It’s time for the next round of brave, young writers to give it a go.
Would you have any advice to offer your younger writing self?
When I first started writing I was pretty gung-ho. I didn’t think too much about the consequences until I was confronted with them. I think that’s a great attitude to have as a young writer although I would advise my younger self to be more cautious and talk to people doing the same thing, people who you look up to – buy them a coffee and listen to what they have to say. I would say to think about why people want you to write for them, the responsibility that comes with that and the permanence of your words.
How has writing affected your visual art practice? And vice versa?
My art practice essentially is publishing, it’s graphic design and various digital printing processes. So in that case I guess you can say that writing has had a huge influence on my art practice. Although I would be cautious here to differentiate writing in general and writing about art. I came to writing about art by making art, which is a common path for New Zealand art writers, as much so as art history training and curatorial practice. I write about things I am interested in, which naturally has huge crossovers without my own art practice.
Do you think an art writer also needs to be an artist? What type of ‘credentials’ do you value in the art writers you admire? What would you like to see more New Zealand art writers doing?
Not at all, if anything I think that’s a conflicting position. We couldn't all be making art and writing about it, there would be no critical distance. I can’t imagine that I will make art forever, I feel much more at home writing, but again it’s through making art that I have come to writing and that’s something that always needs to be acknowledged. Commitment is probably the most vital ‘credential’ for a writer. Someone who is committed to art writing for a start (it is a pretty difficult industry), someone who is committed to art and the discourse around it, and someone who is committed to research and the sometimes painful editing process. I would just like to see more art writing, full-stop.
You’re an art critic but also a social commentator on the arts, demonstrated in a piece like ‘The Engagement Exercise’ for The Pantograph Punch. In their relaunch article where you were announced as a new Visual Arts Editor, they said that you and Co-Editor Francis McWhannell would be ‘playing at the edges of what art writing can be’. What can art writing be? In an ideal world, what role would you see art writing as fulfilling?
I often forget how niche art writing is. I will write a piece about an exhibition that is also tied to an important political world event and think that it is much more accessible to readers than it really is. The word ‘art’ turns people away, makes them bored, shut off even. In an ideal world, art writing would be able to serve the community it comes from, the art world, while also be able to open art up to those who may have never experienced it before, to those who just happen to stumble across it.
However the most important role that art writing has is to build a history. Exhibition-making is a temporary practice, it’s forever changing. So when an exhibition comes down, it is the writing about that exhibition that remains and becomes the historical record. Unfortunately, there is not enough art writing happening at the moment and so these art histories remain unbalanced and scattered. I would love to see an infrastructure built around art writing to support a more healthy and sustained writing of art.
You’ve written about the importance of recognising and creating space for indigenous artists as a curator. How does this – and the issues that you’ve raised where predominantly pākeha or tauiwi spaces fail to ensure access for and recognition of indigenous artists – extend to your work as a writer and editor?
As an editor I am always making sure the pieces I commission are well-balanced across the board. I am very conscious of whose voice is dominating the conversation and how we make sure spaces are safe. If you look at my writing history it is pretty clear that I focus on Pacific and indigenous art, artists and issues – that’s how these ideas are extended in my writing and editing practice, not just talking about it but actually doing it. That was the whole point of the article you mentioned, to not just talk about a failure of access but to use the power people have as curators, and in my case an editor, to make practical, visible change.
You’re now a curatorial assistant at ST PAUL St Gallery at the Auckland University of Technology in addition to your writing roles. What does a ‘typical’ working week for you look like, and where do your personal art and writing projects fit in?
What doesn’t my working week look like? I am at the gallery three days a week, Monday is my dedicated writing day for more time-intensive projects and everything else is squeezed around the evenings, my daughter, my family and other life commitments that art has no sympathy for. But that kind of work life in the arts industry is completely normal – unfortunate but normal.
Would you say that balancing the focus on your visual art practice and your writing work is harmonious, or do you have to closely manage the time you spend on each?
I work to deadlines. Whatever deadline is most pressing is what I focus my time on. So in that case it is a harmonious balance because you just do what you need to get done.
Last year you were selected for an Asia New Zealand Foundation residency in Taiwan, and also travelled to China on a curatorial research trip. What work were you exploring/creating during this period, and how did it affect your work?
In China I was researching for an upcoming exhibition project called lai-pā in collaboration with Ahilapalapa Rands. The exhibition looks at connections between food, labour and migration between Asia and the Pacific across the Pacific Ocean. In Taiwan I was looking at similar connections with food and migration but from a more ancient and indigenous place. Taiwan is the ancient homeland for Austronesian people, which includes myself being Samoan. While I was there I produced more Admixture, which is a publication series that looks at these things in an expanded way.
What will you be working on this year?
Having spent most of 2016 overseas (all of which was a much-needed and invaluable learning experience) I am ready to be making and writing from Auckland – home. I have a couple of projects coming up this year which I am really excited to dedicate myself to. I will be making another series of Admixture publications to be shown at Waikato Museum in an exhibition called Cold Islander curated by Leafa Wilson. I am also co-curating the previously mentioned exhibition with Ahilapalapa Rands, which will open at ST PAUL St Gallery in August. Alongside that I will continue my work as Visual Arts Editor for The Pantograph Punch and Contributing Editor for Design Assembly. There seems to be a renewed energy among younger art writers and I’m really excited to see how that pans out in 2017.