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Can you smash concepts?

an interview with Faith Wilson
by Jackson Nieuwland


Hi Faith. Can you tell me how you came to writing and art? I know your mum is an artist. Did that play any part in it?


My mum is an artist, correct. I hate those clichés like ‘she comes from a creative family so there was only one path Faith would take’ lol. I do come from a creative family, but my dad’s a maths teacher, and every one of my five other siblings has a really strong creative and artistic thing going on, but I’m the only one who has pursued it so overtly. But, I am the only sibling who was as into reading as I am.

I took to reading and literature from a really early age, so I was the oddball growing up because I hated drawing and painting, unlike all my other sibs. So yeah, I’ve always ‘written’ and it comes naturally to me. Whereas ‘art’ is something that was always there, and I developed a criticality towards it unconsciously, as I was mum’s puppy dog at art openings so she could use me as an excuse to leave early.

I got to ‘adulthood’ (lol) and realised this, and the progression into the ‘art world’ was quite seamless, but was also aided by Tautai, the Pacific Arts Trust, who nurture young PI artists.


Do you consider your poetry and your art practice as two separate things, overlapping in some places, or one and the same?


I guess I consider my artistic practice as a whole to encompass writing. But I don’t always consider my poetry to be art. I mean it is, but … they serve different purposes. Sometimes poetry feels more appropriate to express something; sometimes other forms of art feel more appropriate. I guess the thing about writing, too, as an art practice, is that it’s very economical. All you need is a pen and paper or a laptop and you’re sweet.


When you’re working on a piece, be it a poem or a performance or an exhibition, what exactly are you trying to achieve?


That depends entirely on context. Poetry is a natural form of expression for me – it’s what I instantly turn to when something pulls a strong reaction within me. It’s words or phrases that pop into my head, not this would make a great installation. I have to think more strategically about performance, or an installation, and curating is a different thing altogether. So I guess, essentially, it’s context dependent.

Poetry is mostly a selfish act: I write for me, to clarify something, to help me understand the world. But I make other types of art to share … and then if I’m asked to make something for an exhibition, again, it’s about audience. Overarching aim – to educate, understand. Get rich lol.


What’s the game plan for getting rich off art lol?


Hard work and a sellable product. ;)


Do you think context should always dictate how we approach a work as a viewer, or can a poem or painting or whatever transcend context and have a fixed meaning?


Ummm, well everything is a product of its social environment, so I think it’s important to consider different histories when approaching work. But, you know, this also depends on what histories we’re considering. The same piece of art can be considered from a Eurocentric, or in my case, Aotearoa-Pacific-infused perspective, and the meanings would be completely different. It’s all political lmao.


Have you found any particular ways of achieving what you want with a piece which are more effective than others?


Interesting question. Achievement is weird, cos I don’t usually make things with goals in mind. I just do … people project achievement or success in whatever measure onto you.

If we’re talking about audience – a success to me is if I reach the right audience, people get it etc. And defining the audience is always tricky for me, because I work in a white institutional world mostly, and I’m often torn between wanting to educate them, or wanting to engage with a different, younger, browner audience. Or … I dunno. I guess where the audience has been clear it’s been successful, and when it’s not – for instance the exhibition I just curated at The Dowse – is when the message is possibly lost or obscured or is not talking to the right people.


I really liked that exhibition at The Dowse, but I’m probably not the target audience? Can you talk a little about what you were trying to say with that exhibit and who you wanted to say it to?


Thanks. Yeah, it’s interesting, because most people that I’ve talked to have actually said they don’t think they’re the target audience, which led me to question who the target audience actually is.

We had a great conversation at The Dowse last Saturday, at which this very question was proposed. And I kinda ended up saying that I was the target audience. Which sounds weird and selfish. But in retrospect, this exhibition probably only makes sense to me … possibly why I make a better artist than a curator. But I’m happy to talk about what I wanted to do with it.

It is meant to eschew stereotypes of what people and institutions often demand of a Pacific curator. I also, and I think this was a success, I wanted to create an exhibition where every artist was non-Pākehā. And within that pool of artists, many also eschew these essentialist notions of what indigenous art looks like and how it presents itself. I guess it’s also me talking to The Dowse, or to institutions: this is what Pacific curation is/can be. It’s a resistance to reading, which I think is why it’s confused lots of people. So I don’t know if that’s a success or not … but it’s resisting boxes and that’s always a general aim of mine.


Curating with yourself as the target audience seems like the right approach to me. That’s how I’ve approached all the projects I’ve put together. I don’t know how else you could produce a singular end product. Do you consider the audience while you’re working on a piece, or does that only come after it’s finished?


I usually write or make art for myself. It’s cathartic. And then I can only hope that it’ll resonate with an audience.


Would you say that all of your work shares the same ideal audience or does it vary from piece to piece?


Idk if I have an ideal audience. I think it definitely shifts from piece to piece and that depends on my philosophical and political motivations at the time, which are wont to change. Sometimes I’m all about peaceful conversion; sometimes I’m fuck them all, brown girl doing whatever she wants. Definitely switch between the two. Wish I could say I was more consistent, but I come from an in-between place, so changeability is in my blood.


I’m curious what your practice is like. How often are you creating? Where? What time of day?


Really sporadic. It depends on how busy I am in other aspects of life. I can find creating quite stressful. The pressure to create, that is. So often I’ll have a day where I’m doing nothing, and I think, I’ll write today. And then the pressure to write just gets me, so I don’t do anything at all.

My best writing comes really randomly. When I hear a certain familiar noise. When I’m staring out the window at work. When I’m in a bar. My most writerly habit is that I do carry a notebook (actually three) around with me in case inspiration strikes. And a pen, of course.


Is each notebook for a different thing?


Yes, but sometimes they overlap. I’ve got my work diary that I use for dates, deadlines, to-do lists etc. Then I have my personal diary which also doubles as to-do lists that aren’t to do with work, things I need to do for people, and this is where I’ll write poetry or love letters. And then there’s my other nice diary where I try to only use a special inky pen, and not scribble out things, and write really nice cursive letters, and that’s my self-counselling diary in which I extrapolate thoughts from my brain, troubleshoot, and remind myself that everything is gonna be okay, I’m loved and I’m awesome.


Seems like you’re kinda blowing up at the moment, curating exhibitions at The Dowse, being accepted to writing residencies in Canada with Chris Kraus. So what’s next? What do you want to do, in writing or art, that you haven’t done yet?


Lol, blowing up! Kaboom. Haha thank you but I haven’t really seen it or felt it that way. What’s next? No idea! I’m kind of in love right now, so it’s clouding my judgments. I can only ever really see one step ahead.


Finally, if you could choose one work of art to smash into a million pieces what would it be?


Hahaha ummm … can you smash concepts?


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