Reflecting on the curatorial approach of James Tapsell-Kururangi

Te Pō | Papatūnga, Tāmaki Makaurau

19.08.22 | written by Misong Kim 

Cheshire Street

In March 2017, after many years of delays, Parnell got an operational public train station. Transplanted upon the station’s new platform was the historic Newmarket station building, a 1908 wooden railway building designed by architect George Troup.1 The remodelling of Newmarket Station from 2008 meant the building had to be dismembered and placed in storage, until it was reincarnated nearly ten years later, emerging a few kilometres north with a refurbished exterior—freshened terracotta roof tiles and ornate ridging, and timber cladding painted in Resene Canterbury Clay.

The station’s operational infrastructure was contained within separate, newly-built booths—satellites of glass and steel placed in the Troupian orbit—relegating the historic building to a sort of existence that Harriet Gale identified as ‘Disneyland transit’,2 where the aesthetics or touristic value of a transit system are foregrounded above practicality or functionality. A logical, high-traffic site initially proposed for the station, near Carlaw Park Avenue along Parnell’s busiest intersection, was rejected for an undeveloped plot tucked away in the recesses of the gully on the suburb’s fringe. A few months after it had begun operations, Gale wrote about the placement of Parnell Station at its current site—at best inconvenient; at its worst an embarrassing product of poor local government decision making, and an enduring public transport deterrent—clocking precious minutes of transfer time, not to mention the repeated retracing of steps a first-time user takes when attempting to find the place. Peppered throughout with fluorescent orange obstacles, the station’s arterial pathways metastasize across sprawling narrow streets, steeply descending driveways, outlying underpasses and a makeshift gravel carpark, which is now the construction site for an impending multistory retirement village.

With commercial use ‘not currently feasible’ due to the lack of development and foot traffic in the immediate surroundings, the historic building was deemed ‘underutilised’ and suitable for ‘adaptive reuse’.3 In Aotearoa, smaller galleries have often emerged in intermediary, transient spaces, or half-baked commercial real estate—unable to be filled due to a lacking element, maybe an unattractiveness of the area. These vacant spaces may be momentarily revived by an opportunistic cultural entity until rents increase, or the project becomes unsustainable in other ways. Seeing an opportunity, Te Tuhi proposed to use the Parnell station building as artist studios and a small gallery, which was accepted by Auckland Transport. Funding was acquired to pay a salaried curatorial intern, who could use the rough-and-ready gallery space—initially named Platform Gallery—as a curatorial playroom, or laboratory of sorts—with access to training and resources available to an older, larger institution, but without so much of the contractual obligations or public accountability—granting a kind of experimental freedom with exhibition making. What had struggled as a Disneyland-level train station inadvertently came to serve a group of artists and an artist-slash-curator.

Reeves Road

It was early 2020, and I was working at Te Tuhi as their programme and communications coordinator in the primordial period of pre-Covid optimism. I had no desire to curate personally, but a vague dissatisfaction coloured my perception of curatorial practice as I observed around me, near and far. In the past I’d seen that it wasn’t uncommon, or unusual, for artists in group shows to hardly spend any time together in the lead up to the exhibition. In this sense, exhibitions could sometimes feel like portfolios of a curatorial personality—Vera Mey identified the sense of ‘being strapped to the self-conscious treadmill of shows and its corresponding careerism’.4 I wanted to see more of the type of curating that prioritised mutualistic exchange, collaboration and reciprocity; that valorised pastoral care over output through challenging periods; that allowed more time for ideas to simmer and relationships to develop long-term.

There is a phrase often cited in the corporate realm, attributed to the Austrian-American management theorist Peter Drucker: culture eats strategy for breakfast. It refers to the critical role of a team’s culture in determining the success of an organisation, over and above its strategic plans. While it is easy to be cynical about anything that advocates for a contrived manipulation of social environments for corporate managerial gain, I was beginning to think about the practical implications of Drucker’s outlook in relation to what we do in the arts.

Soon I was informed that a James ‘TK’ had been appointed for the curatorial intern role; he would be moving from Rotorua for the job, which had a fixed period of 18 months. I had to gather together press materials for an announcement, and we requested a portrait that we could share on social media. Attached in earnest to a brief email from James was a shirtless beach selfie, with himself wearing sunglasses and a silver cross necklace. I couldn’t help but laugh; we asked for another photograph.

Grey Street

James Tapsell-Kururangi ran to work on his first day as curatorial intern, from his Epsom flat to Te Tuhi in Pakuranga, a distance of over ten kilometres. He had never lived in Tāmaki Makaurau before; he hadn’t curated much before. He unpacked his deodorant and his toothbrush. His energy startled me.

In Rotorua, James had been working in customer solutions at the local council. He’d lived in his Nan’s house for a year in 2019, at 30b Grey Street, Glenholme. She had died the year previous, and he lived there alone. Gains? Grandmother. Grey Street.5 One of his Grey Street projects included redecorating the letterbox, painting the front with deadpan black-and-white koru à la Gordon Walters. It was this letterbox that greeted the seven of us at the top of the driveway in June 2021—Abigail Aroha Jensen, Gabi Lardies, Katie Middleton, Tira Walsh, Tom Tuke, James and myself.6

We were a group that had formed somewhat incidentally. After a few months of going through the familiar institutional motions of exhibition programming—calendarised cycles of research, discussion, working with artists, marketing, installing, opening, events—James had wanted to spend the remainder of his internship exploring alternative ways of working, and make the most of the long leash afforded to him. What could a slower, longer-term engagement with artists look like? How could we work together, grow our practices, our relationships with each other, and to the community and place we worked in a sincere, sensitive, mutualistic way? How could James disrupt the artist-curator relationship in ways that acknowledged its inherent power differential, while attempting to configure his own curatorial practice, fresh as it was?

I accompanied James and the artists to as many of their meetups as I could fit in around my other work—as an extra set of hands, an observer, a record keeper, an occasional interlocutor. My position was fluid, selectively peripheral. The Papatūnga artists each came to be a part of the project at various points. Wai Ching Chan had had a show at Enjoy in 2019, Wishing Well, that James had seen when he was living in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Tom and Gabi’s independent print projects, The Java Script and Pipi Press, had appealed to James as forms of communication; Tira leased a studio at Parnell Station, where she was always painting; I had introduced James to Katie, with whom I’d studied at Elam; and Aroha had been involved with Papa in a smaller capacity for an earlier project.

I found Taarati Taiaroa’s articulation of ‘conversational research’ to align with the path James and the Papatūnga artists sought. Taiaroa’s essay is one of several from the series A Year of Conscious Practice—a series of curatorial projects run by the Physics Room and Blue Oyster in 2015–2016, which James looked to as part of his research for the Papatūnga project. Some of the principles of this form of research are described by Taiaroa in the following:

Conversational research is a process that places emphasis on engaging in an on-going and potentially immeasurable relational commitment. It requires a commitment to the facilitation and maintenance of kinship-human relations’; and ‘Geared towards a deceleration of outcomes, conversational research is a conscious decision to engage dialogically as a means to facilitate the emergence of knowledge, as opposed to focusing on the production of a predetermined outcome.7

Several constituents emulsified to amplify the gravity of James’ desire for this kind of deceleration: a palpable fatigue with attempting to go about business-as-usual in the pandemic era; the pervasive disillusionment felt in many corners of our community around this time; the desire to work collaboratively, generatively and generously with artists over a prolonged period. In tandem was James’ departure from social media, both personal and for Papatūnga, spurred by the desire to explore other forms of correspondence and engagement. For a relatively new and unknown space, exiting social media was viewed as a move that risked losing or alienating audiences, or inhibiting the profile of the gallery—but, James’ internship was an anomalous curatorial lacuna where experimentation was allowed and failure was not necessarily discouraged. At a time when institutions scrambled to retain audiences online, could a reticence, a withdrawal from the attention economy, or a redistribution of energy towards the artists directly involved with the project be more appropriate?

Balamohan Shingade, Chloe Geoghegan and Rebecca Boswell, who were a part of AYOCP, among others, later spoke with us over Zoom, sharing their experience of the project and some of the issues encountered in curatorial and art practices. The impetus for ‘slow curating’ is described by Chloe Geoghegan and Chloe Reith in Tools for Slowing Down, where the sort of perpetual busyness intrinsic to institutional curatorial practice gives way to a desire for exploring alternate working methodologies, and an attempt at ‘disentangling ourselves from speed as one of the primary conditions today’s curator must work within’, or ‘stepping off the treadmill’.8

What a slowing of pace can also enable is a deeper investment in the artists a curator chooses to work with. In the cyclical systems of exhibition making, I thought Rebecca Boswell appropriately described one of the expectations in the role of the curator, ‘that you would invest in new relationships continually… It sometimes felt highly unnatural the way that, following a burst of activity and collective effort, those freshly minted working relationships would suddenly drop away, only to be replaced by an entirely new set of relationships and project requirements within the short space of weeks’.9

Though friendship served as a preliminary foundation for several of the artists engaged with Papatūnga, as well as incidental meetings and friend-of-friend introductions, the group was underpinned by a desire to challenge ourselves and work with new people. We shared an interest in possibilities for an extended collaborative practice where uncertainty was permissible, where we might be guided more heuristically by the questions we were thinking about. Proposing to work together for a longer period invariably meant that not all artists that James engaged with from the beginning could follow through to the end, with practical limitations of time and energy gripped by the all-too-common state of precarity that clenches the lives of many artists.

A weekend shared in a personal space is a sure way to fast-track the development of new relationships. The model of the intensive, retreat or ‘weekend away’, though somewhat romanticised, can carve out a particular period to think about practice and togetherness that might be harder to generate within the boundaries of working days. The curators for A Year of Conscious Practice participated in a retreat at the bottom of Aoraki Mount Cook. For Papatūnga, we stayed at 30b Grey Street.

James’ Nan’s things are still in the house—she collected the matte blue Wedgwood. Ornaments and picture frames rest under protective cellophane sheets. It’s an eighties house, with bubble-textured beige carpet that still feels plush. The couches are covered in floral upholstery; the dining table has a padded non-slip mat underneath the tablecloth. Here, across two days in June 2021, we made and shared food; read essays and watched documentaries; talked about what we had done in our individual practices and what we thought we might want; what we could do together; we tried and failed to write a manifesto. At night we went for a swim at Butcher’s pool, and the next morning we walked around the town, armed with the borrowed collection of umbrellas that James’ mother, Mary Kururangi, had dropped off for us.

One of our first stops was 1442 Hinemoa Street, James’ childhood home of 27 years, which is now an Airbnb. During his master’s, James booked a three-night stay there. Hinemoa tied gourds around herself when she swam out to her lover Tutanekai.10 For a while we sheltered in the carport while the rain grew heavier; the house was vacant. Our walk continued through the Government Gardens, around the Rotorua museum, through Whakarewarewa, through the shopping mall. Upon returning to Grey Street we cooked up a late breakfast, and that afternoon returned to Tāmaki; seven bodies squished across two cars. Over the second half of 2021, the group continued to meet up in the space at Parnell, sharing food, ideas, and knowledge around the lockdowns that continued to intersperse our sense of the year.


One of the aspirations for Parnell Station was for it to serve as a complementary historic attraction; a Troupian side salad to the neoclassical grandiosity that was the Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Somewhat overshadowed in the vicinity of both structures, at Pukekawa Auckland Domain, is the tōtara tree planted by Kīngitanga leader Te Kirihaehae Te Puea Hērangi (Princess Te Puea) in 1940, in commemoration of Hērangi’s great-grandfather, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, who lived at Pukekawa in the 1840s–50s.11 In Shifting Grounds, historian Lucy Mackintosh writes:

The material traces of these stories in the Domain have largely disappeared from the landscape and from histories of the city. Despite this, they are still potent spaces that open up the history of Auckland and disrupt the grand narratives of a war memorial built on twentieth-century European notions of commemoration and recreation. The solidity and permanence of monuments can often make them appear as autonomous structures separate from the evolving world around them; fixed in time and place. If, however, the Museum is approached as part of a web of historical connections across the Domain and beyond, rather than as a single, separate structure, it becomes part of a more expansive and complicated story about Auckland.12

We gathered around this tōtara before dawn, on a frosty morning in July 2021. Led by Pita Turei, we had started our walk at Tāmaki Paenga Hira, and slowly made our way towards the central scoria cone of Pukekawa. Here the tōtara stands, enclosed by carvings made in Ngāruawāhia, originally placed in 1942 and restored in 2017.13 Around a fire lit within a large steel crucible, Pita shared hours of stories and histories of Tāmaki with us. For James, it was important that we could learn together about the Māori histories of the place we worked; to situate ourselves on a web of spatial, temporal, social connections and contexts. There was no expectation of responding outwardly, or explicitly through practice—the pūrākau shared with us permeated our thinking in less visible, but still-crucial ways.

Papatūnga was James’ name for the space. Papa—place, or space. In silver vinyl on the backseat window of his Nissan Navara, ‘papa’ headlined a list of words—kaupapa, papatūnga, papatūānuku, papa kāinga. The concept of place became a central part of the space’s kaupapa. When I saw the resulting exhibition that was Te Pō in March 2022, I saw it to be about the months we’d spent together—sharing about ourselves; allowing our understanding of each other, of histories, of place, to metastasize. In Gabi’s clay tiles, imprinted with Papa’s rusty pressed tin ceiling; Aroha’s swirling inky lines and haunting oro; Tira’s paintings, suspended back-to-back from the remains of a wall partition; Katie’s basket-like forms, woven from the local bush; in the broad stripes of coloured yarn, crocheted by Wai; and in Tom’s blended paper drawings—I saw tiny, transitory monuments to whanaungatanga, coalescing within perhaps the unlikeliest of places.

Rotorua noho, Hinemoa Street (2021). Photo by Misong Kim.
TK’s Papatūnga has been passed on to Te Tuhi’s new curatorial intern, Felixe Laing, to reshape, rename, and build upon.  

Article image: Te Pō, 2021, installation view. Curated by James Tapsell-Kururangi.
Works by Wai Ching Chan, Katie Middleton, Tira Walsh, Tom Tuke, Gabi Lardies, and Abigail Aroha Jensen.
Photo by Sam Hartnett.

    1.  Bernard Orsman, “Parnell rail station opens with heritage building sporting original colours.” New Zealand Herald, March 10, 2017.

    2.  Harriet Gale, “Parnell Station, next stop Disneyland.” Greater Auckland, July 11, 2017.

    3.  “About Te Tuhi at Parnell Station.” Te Tuhi.

    4.  Vera Mey, “We’re in This Together.” A Year of Conscious Practice. Accessed April 26, 2022.

     5.  James Tapsell-Kururangi, “Gains? Grandmother. Grey Street,” 155. In As needed, as possible: Emerging discussions on art, labour and collaboration in Aotearoa, edited by Sophie Davis and Simon Gennard, 155-185. Aotearoa: Enjoy Contemporary Art Space and GLORIA Books, 2021.

      6.  Wai Ching Chan, who was a part of the group, was unable to join us for the Rotorua noho.
      7.  Taarati Taiaroa, “Conversational Research: Praxis & Emergence.” A Year of Conscious Practice. Accessed April 26, 2022.

      8.  Chloe Geoghegan and Chloe Reith, “Tools for Slowing Down.” A Year of Conscious Practice. Accessed April 26, 2022.

      9.  Rebecca Boswell, “On Friendship.” A Year of Conscious Practice. Accessed April 26, 2022.

      10.  James Tapsell-Kururangi, “Gains? Grandmother. Grey Street,” 161.

      11.  Lucy Mackintosh, Shifting Grounds: Deep Histories of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, 47. Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2021.

      12.  Ibid.

      13.  Ibid.


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