Singapore – Sydney – Auckland…. gotta say, the aerial view of Sydney was pretty impressive… all those inlets and coves lined with yachts… life-style is undoubtedly king. It’s clearly changed a lot since the Tolpuddle martyrs were transported there, given a loaf of bread , a knapsack and a pair of boots, and told off you go. Ironically, despite seeing myself as an heir to the tradition of resistance that the Tolpuddle martyrs represented, design-don Swift and I are being transported to these former British colonies, by the British government, not for sedition, but for the purpose of a “master class in creativity” which “involves aspiring artists and performers from Auckland’s diverse communities, working with the best of contemporary UK talent, to collaborate, create and celebrate.”
I still feel lucky when it comes to traveling. Having met and worked with kids who never been out of Hackney… not even to the West End… I feel privileged to be touching down places on the other side of the world. I like to go to places where I have a mission, a purpose. You can get into the place on a deeper level and from the moment we step out of the airport in Aukland it’s deep runnings.
On the way from the airport our driver, Tom, who hailed from Ealing and had arrived in Aukland after 5 years in Japan, suggested we check out One Tree Hill. It’s a vantage point that gives a 360 degree view of the city and its located in Cornwall Park. In fact, it felt like Cornwall, the neat stone walls and fields dotted with sheep and cattle. We pass the Stardome Observatory and ascend to the peak which hosts an obelisk dedicated to Sir John Logan Campbell.
“OK… where the the tree?” I ask Tom only to discover it had been chopped down. The original tree on this sacred Maori site of Maungakiekie had been an indigenous pohutukaw and it was cut down by the colonists. Attempts were made to reintroduce indigenous trees to the hill but all failed. Only two pines survived and both were felled by Maori activists on two separate occasions.
Therein ended our first lesson in Maori resistance against British colonialism. It gave us an indication of how vital Maori culture has been in shaping this unique country on the edge of the world.
We dropped the bags at the hotel and headed straight off to Conch Records in Ponsonbury where Swift was booked to do some live painting based on our forthcoming UK exhibition Word Sound & Power: Reggae Changed My Life. Basically, time was tight and everything had to locked down tight if were complete the tasks in time.
As we park up there’s huge billboard featuring a poster by NYC based artist Ron English advertising the Semi Permanent conference . Against a backdrop of the stars and stripes made up of a collage of comic strips the hulk – as baby! – stared out at us. It was a slightly nerve wracking, daily reminder, that Swift was scheduled to speak at this seriously high conference on on the Friday.
Conch Records is an Aukland institution. It’s situated on a four lane highway flanked by two storey buildings that look more like the mid west than the UK. It’s in a block that houses restaurants, cafes, an award winning women’s bookshop and the local radio station – George (where we were to hook up with Detroit legend Recloose). The Conch crew are pretty much all present and correct. Dustin was on the Mac sorting out orders, ???? has a the rep for making a wikkid flat-whites and organic de-toxifying juices, Bobby Brazuka of LatiAoteara was in and out and hard at it, working on a cafe extension, at the back of the shop was Brent. The only missing link was Cyan. He was scheduled to be spinning some tunes across the road later.
Conch is cultural watering hole and the cafe extension remind us that diversification is vital if you want to stay in the game. A glance round the shop reveals that along with CD s and vinyl – new and 2nd hand – they sell ‘Brixton’ stingy brim hats and caps (sadly, all too big for my tiny head), tees and sweats, art-prints and books (Soul Underground, Karnaval, Black Britain: A Photographic history).
It’s like a less packed version of Soul Jazz in Soho. The ethos is the same and the range of music equally eclectic. There’s a fabulous Doze Green original painting in the coffee area at the front of the shop and Swift was planning add his artwork to the Brent’s handiwork in the re-vamped yard space. Once the boards were measured up, spray paints and pure turpentine secured we head across the road to eat, drink a couple of beers from the local micro-breweries and say hello to Cyan and Gareth Farry – our man at the British Council and instigator of this mission.
Upon leaving the bar we encountered Aukland’s, tell it like it is, hip hip hop crew – Home Brew. Famed for being a bunch of rowdy, outspoken, caners they appeared to dragging a street-fighter game up the street. But before they could get into the pop up shop they’d acquired for the launch of their excellent double CD, ‘Fruit & Veges’ they spot Neil Finn – the lead singer and songwriter of Crowded House exiting a nearby restaurant. The man is a local legend. “Who are you guys, ” he asks us. “Are you street gang? “No man… we are Home Brew!” is the response of a geezer in a black hoodie proclaiming Young Gifted & Broke! “I like Home Brew.” Finn says with broad smile. Enuff said and he’s off into the night, the same as Swift and myself.
Monday began, just after dawn, in Myers Park adjacent the hotel. Several rounds of the spiralling Chen family xin jia taijiquan form was exactly what I needed after that flight. I needed to get some life into these old bones. The task of the day was to familiarise ourselves with the city and the venues that we were planning to use for the PIYN project. We dropped in on Bizdojo and the hard working Cut Collective who introduced us to their numerous and ambitious projects like Public Access: Picture Perfect In A World Of Chaos.
As time was tight we decided it was better to check Ron English’s exhibition at Webb’s Auction House sooner rather than later. Ron is one of the forefathers of NYC street art and famed for ‘liberating’ commercial billboards which were altered to broadcast political messages. Over three decades, much like Banksy and Shepherd Fairey, with whom he has collaborated and exhibited, his work continues to morph. The show consisted mostly of large laser prints and included his controversial Abraham Obama piece which was produced large scale for the 2008 election and provoked some serious debate but four years on I’m not sure what it’s saying.
There was a series of big Warhol pieces which focused on the iconic hair and included a prepubescent Warhol and a dead/skull Warhol, a couple of Marilyn Monroe pieces with Micky Mouse breasts – his nose for nipples and the Macdonalds clown amongst other smaller pieces. Ron is a skilled painter and has a serious track record, he loves his comics and cultural icons but as we left I could help feeling the shows’ immediate power was undermined by a paucity of ideas. It was slick and, for this viewer, disappointingly vacuous.
Tuesday morning began with Da Bei Qigong under the eaves of a building in the park. The heavens had opened and believe me, when it rains it Aukland it rains. In fact, it rained pretty much for the rest of the week.
Our first stop of the day was Bizdojo which is housed in in the architectural icon that is the Ironbank Building in Auckland’s vibrant Karangahape Road. It’s an innovative, creative and business comunity where you can rent a space and connect with others and as the PIYN project we were facilitating was aimed at uniting Swift and myself with aspiring artists and performers from the city it was good place to start the ball rolling.
To be continued….