“It has now been a few weeks since we closed the doors on the physical space of ORA Gallery. I have had a few weekends to unwind, relax and reflect on the journey. And what a journey it has been! KA ORA (I LIVE) was the last show for ORA Gallery New York and a celebration of the extraordinary life of a small Chelsea gallery. ORA has been a window into Aotearoa New Zealand and a marae (community hub) for many New Zealanders in New York. Please stay connected through this website or follow us on Facebook. We don’t know what will happen next but we definitely want to keep in touch with our New York whanau.”
- Giarna TeKanawa, Gallery creator, August 2017
Keep in touch
We will continue to share the work of our artists as well as events occurring by indigenous and New Zealand artists in New York. To keep up to date with current on-goings please follow our instagram and facebook pages.
Interview with ORA Gallery Creator Giarna TeKanawa
I sat down with ORA Gallery Creator Giarna TeKanawa to talk about the evolution of the gallery and her personal journey.
- Amanda White
AW: How did Ora get started?
GT: One of my clients in my other life owns the building and he asked if I wanted to do something creative in one of the vacant spaces and I said I would love to do that and I took the opportunity—having no idea what I was going to do with it—and one day for the idea of having an art gallery popped into my head.
AW: Did it really just pop into your head?
GT: I wanted to reconnect with New Zealand. Over the years—having had the theater company Aroha Productions and volunteered with Achilles New Zealand—it had been a few years since I’d been connected with the New Zealand community in such an intimate way and having some type of day-to-day interaction with other New Zealanders and I felt like I wanted that. But the concept of the art gallery came from… I have no idea where.
AW: Did you know artists, already?
GT: I knew a few artists, but it was very organic. There were a few artists in town and I went and met them. They already had work available and it was easy—a ready-made show. Conceptually it was going to be this fun, three-month thing that a bunch of us kiwis here were going to do and that was going to be it. And then due to circumstances with the landlord the lease just kept getting extended and extended and extended and there were a few so-called closings along the way. But this is definitely the real closing!
And then the community just got bigger. Lots of people came in. The whole thing really evolved.
I feel like it was really organic but I definitely felt like I was pulled along a little kicking and screaming with it. But the gallery itself was very organic; I just didn’t feel organic with it.
AW: When that first three months was over, though, you had a choice at that point, right; you could have shut it down then? Did you feel a sense of obligation to keep going?
GT: I did, yeah. I felt a sense of obligation and then I felt like people would be disappointed in me if I didn’t keep doing it... why wouldn’t I keep on doing it if this amazing opportunity had been offered to me… so yeah, I felt pressure on myself and I did feel pressure to keep on giving people the opportunity to do it.
AW: I feel like from the time we met you, what I always saw was the enormous joy you got out of doing this and offering the space to people.
GT: Yes there’s all the good stuff that came with it as well, and a huge personal journey in two years for me as well. A lot of things happened, a lot of recognition, definitely a lot of joy but along with that there was a lot of work. 90% of the time the joy won, sometimes the work won.
Just seeing other people wanting to be involved and other people wanting to be part of this thing that I inadvertently created but at the same time me not being comfortable with having created this thing that people wanted to be part of. It doesn’t sit well with me…
AW: I’ve always known you to take a step back from the front. I also think it’s part of your nature… you have amazing humility.
GT: Thank you. Yes. Well, I was given an opportunity by someone who was in a position to give me an opportunity. So I guess it’s that hokey saying of “paying it forward” but it’s not just that. It became something that I didn’t even know was possible. With people like Jack [Gray] and Jerome [Kavanagh] involved, people who were working at certain level… and yourself and Andrew [White] and Keke [Brown]… so many people, that it gets overwhelming. Overwhelming not only in the sense of aiming to have the best show, sell work for people, give some money back to artists who usually desperately need it.
AW: This whole idea of running a gallery can throw you into a spotlight, too. I think I’m beginning to understand… there are expectations about running a gallery space.
GT: It’s that and there’s the expectation around cultural aspects. Being a New Zealander, being a woman, being Māori.
It’s been amazing having so many Māori women in the space too like Tawera [Tahuri], Tina [Ngata], Serene [Tay], Taryn [Beri], Shona [Tawhiao]—all these amazing strong Māori women who have come through the space and I was asking myself where do I fit in with that, from my personal perspective? These women didn’t seem to think about that with me because they just get on with it, they just see me and do. But then why do I? Because I don’t feel like I’m “there” and that’s been my biggest struggle.
Over the past two years I think I figured out that even when you’re away for 23 years and even when you have a whole life here, people will come in [to a space like this] and recognize you. Even though they don’t know you. It’s…overwhelming and intimidating for me on a personal level.
In a positive way, too.
AW: I imagine that a lot of people look at the gallery from the outside and see an attempt to give a presence and visibility of New Zealand art in New York. When we first met you and started to come into the gallery and get to know everybody we just felt this incredible sense of whanau that surrounds this place. The thing that was extraordinary to me—and you and I have talked about in the past—was so much of it was actually about creating this kind of collective love for a lot of us within the space. And when people like Tawera came in and Tina and then Jerome and Taryn and George [Nuku] and then Serene and Sio [Siasau] arrived… there was such an extraordinary feeling of… it wasn’t so much about demonstrating our practice to New York as much as it was finding a place for our practice to exist in New York, to live here.
GT: I’d never thought of it that way. So you’re saying that, yes, the space is here as a practical space, as a space to sell art, but also about what happens on the inside of the space, in the space in between, in the breath…
AW: Yes. I always felt that the nights we were here for example when we had performance going on and the art was here and everyone was here—the gallery’s always had great parties—when I would look out at New York I would think that’s great, New York’s right here looking in, but it felt like we had created a little piece of Aotearoa right here, and we were all connected to each other and there were many moments when I think we all felt that and we were singing and everything. I felt more reconnected to the homeland than I had since we’d arrived [from Aotearoa].
GT: I definitely feel that way and I think a lot of people felt that way. It was interesting that a lot of New Zealanders would come to New York to visit and would come in to the gallery. So there is a practical side to this place, it’s trying to make money for the artists, but it’s also creating a place that people can be themselves and the true kiwi and supportive and you don’t have to explain yourself.
AW: So then how does this look from New Zealand, I wonder.
GT: I wonder. I think there is a little “tall poppy” going on. I think some people would accuse me of elitism in the mere act of having an art gallery, and then in having an art gallery that is inclusive of all New Zealanders.
AW: That’s inclusive, not elitist! That’s the extraordinary thing that you’ve done. You didn’t look to affiliate with dealers; you didn’t look to create a new narrative about New Zealand art or its contemporary presence in New York. You were looking to welcome people in and say “we have a space here and if you’re interested we can work with you”.
GT: That was it. It was that simple.
AW: That’s the beauty of it. I’m not sure that that’s ever been a concern for you… how it’s perceived from home—and why would it be?
GT: This has been such a huge journey for me and I’ve got so much out of it and I feel like I’ve learnt a lot about myself, I feel like I’ve learnt a lot about aspects of what it is to be an human being and sometimes it’s making a hard decision, it’s accepting responsibility, it’s apologizing, it’s understanding that my version of what it is to be Māori is different form someone else’s but that’s just as much okay as their version is. Sometimes people will like you, sometimes they won’t. There’s not much you can do about it—how you learn to accept that—when you make yourself vulnerable it’s not always pleasant. And I didn’t think this would be a vulnerable process and yet it was.
AW: and yet it was because you were opening yourself up to so many people, their requests. And artists can be tough!
GT: And also people’s energy. In a good way too. Artists can be tough and demanding but also sometimes I didn't even feel like I had choices on a emotional and spiritual level because when you have a whole bunch of people around, shutting down or not being emotional or not acknowledging a vulnerability… you guys just don’t give that as an option!
On a really personal level…it felt like opening up the gallery was like opening up something else that I wasn’t prepared for. And then with the whole whanau around, there were times that, emotionally, not for any other reasons… or maybe more spiritually or organically, there was a lot of catch up to understand why I was feeling a certain way. Nothing specific. But when you open up a space—and you were talking before about how this space became a kind of safe haven where people could talk and express themselves—creating that emotional space also created the possibility that… my levels and barriers became irrelevant but I wasn’t prepared for them to become irrelevant. Which is the beautiful side of this. Tough as well. People just see you in a certain way and you don’t know why people see you that way… when people ask for your opinion about something and you don’t know. Or presuming that I spoke Māori but I don’t, but they seemed to understand. And the level of intellectual discussion that happened. And there’s a presumption that I’m at that level. It’s about how people see you and then figuring out how do you not disappoint them.
AW: What now? What do you take from this?
GT: I’m okay! Yeah… in the most simplistic terms, I’m okay. We’re so far away and I left so young and I grew up in a time in New Zealand when it was still a rugby culture and a lot of social hierarchy. So you leave New Zealand with these ideas based on what you lived with so you sometimes inadvertently carry on with those and so I feel like I have a whole different sense of self with it.
My next thing… I’m not sure. I don’t think I can not do something again. It may not be a gallery but I think there’s a need and a desire and people want to feel connected with home. We’re so far away. There’s a lot wrong with New Zealand and there’s a lot right with it too. We’ll hopefully find our way. I think because of this gallery I look at New Zealand very differently than I did before. So I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do but it’ll be something. But not yet.