I asked Auckland comic artist and pro wrestler Michel Mulipola what it was like to be the straw that broke the camel’s back with the recent censorship of his work by consortium Link Alliance, currently building Auckland’s City Rail Link.
The Mangere artist's works were to be part of Tautai Gallery's exhibition Oh My Ocean, due for instalment in early October - including an impressive 70 metre display along East Street (off Karangahape Road) known as the Moana Wall, fencing off City Rail Link's construction site.
But a row between partners Tautai Arts and Link Alliance broke out at the last minute. Chauvin-istic Pig, created last year in response to the killing of George Floyd, portrayed President Trump attempting to tweet while kneeling on the neck of a black body. Mulipola juxtaposes the pain of inconvenience against the senseless killing of an innocent black man, triggering the global BLM movement.
Link Alliance spokesman Ewart Barnsley says despite there being no explicit guidelines with Tautai Arts around the use of political imagery, its agreement stated: “The work should be uplifting, positive and create a sense of pride and connectivity with people engaging with the construction site.” Adding further that Link Alliance has an obligation to be apolitical in a whole range of matters, not just art.
The death of Elijah McClain, a young African American man who played violin for cats and dogs at an animal shelter also featured in Mulipola’s series of works. McClain was attacked by Colorado police officers and during his arrest he was put into a head lock with first responders injecting him with ketamine. On the way to the hospital McClain suffered a heart attack, dying several days later.
Rightfully Mulipola points to the inconsistencies of Link Alliance’s criteria given this image received sign-off and was very much political in content. He speculates it was considered appropriate for public consumption as it didn’t feature a politician.
Mulipola recalls the launch of the new Tautai Gallery last year with both prime minister Jacinda Adern and the minister of arts, culture and heritage Carmel Sepuloni opening the space. “I rocked up in my shorts and T-shirt because galleries aren’t really my scene,” he says laughing, unaware of what would eventuate.
The comic artist, pro-wrestler and semi-pro gamer says the censorship scenario unfolded quickly leaving him disappointed.
“I thought it’s the one time I’m finally embraced by the arts scene in Aotearoa and it feels like I’m being told to stay in my lane,” adding the stance to be apolitical was purely a palagi concept. “They [Link Alliance] don't understand, that as non-white people our very existence is political. I've been told many times ‘I like your work but we don't like the political stuff’, except my very presence is political, white people are the default, therefore everything I do is political.”
Making a stand over the Moana Wall was important for a number of reasons, with Mulipola referring to his rich history with East Street. His family having made the weekly trek from Mangere every Sunday to their church Ekalesia Fa'apotopotoga a Iesu (Congregational Church of Jesus), now the East St Hall eatery.
But shifting to a serious tone, he was emboldened by Tautai’s call to action for Moana people to draw a line in the sand.
“I have been making an effort, swapping out Polynesian/Pasifika and now using Moana, understanding that we can no longer be pacified,” referring to explorer and coloniser Ferdinand Magellan’s act of naming Te-Moana-Nui-A-Kiwa the Pacific Ocean [peaceful sea] 500 years ago, and the absurdity that the largest body of water on the planet and its people would be viewed as such.
Mulipola says too often Moana people are seen as happy, shiny people whereas this was so removed from reality. “We can no longer be passive and be told to be nice and calm, be peaceful, we’ve been living with this shit just too long.”
He likened the censorship by Link Alliance as yet another example of “white people telling our stories, profiting from our stories, gate-keeping what we can do”.
As for being the straw that broke the camel’s back (Tautai Arts and Link Alliance’s relationship breaking down after a successful 12 month partnership), Mulipola was pragmatic.
“I’ve always been that person that will give something a go and think 'what's the very best thing that could happen?’”, explaining how he’s managed to carve a successful career as a comic artist, professional wrestler and semi-pro gamer.
There’s a strong commercial demand for his work and moving onto the next project includes working for clients such as Marvel Comics. He’s also pleased that the contentious work Chauvin-istic Pig is now on display inside Tautai Gallery as part of the Oh My Ocean exhibition until January 29.
Tautai Arts director Courtney Sina Meredith [disclaimer: Courtney is Kim's daughter] reiterates Mulipola’s words, stating that Moana communities are central to Tautai’s worldview, with the rapid rise in the visibility of Pacific art and artists from various organisations, both private and public. Cultural awareness however is still playing catch up around the ways and means to support Moana creatives.
“A lot of what we do is actually pastoral care, standing in the gap between our community and organisations like Link Alliance/City Rail Link. Our artists think in ways no one else in the world does or ever will - they are resilient, unstoppable, expansive - their works inspire shifts in the very fabric of society.”