Censorship can mean the suppression of what we create, but also of who we are. Time passes, attitudes evolve, changes are fought for, and things which had once been considered hidden or risqué are now commonplace. With these social shifts, Aucklanders are increasingly able to openly express and celebrate their identity. In this blog, the Tāmaki Herenga Waka: Stories of Auckland curators share stories of people in Auckland who have pushed back on the restrictions imposed on them.


David Herkt said about Auckland in 2013, ‘there are no public monuments to queer people’.1 The ‘Golden Goddess’ costume which features in Tāmaki Herenga Waka is a towering, glittering drag ensemble designed and worn by Buckwheat aka Lealailepule Edward Cowley. Asserting a bold identity, the character Buckwheat stands for acceptance and tolerance and against oppression.

Buckwheat’s “Golden Goddess” costume. Collection of Auckland Museum, gift of Edward Cowley, 2019.5.1. All Rights Reserved.

Edward has experienced the good and the bad of changing attitudes towards not only drag but LGBTTIQ+ people. While the Auckland drag scene is loud and proud in 2020, it hasn’t always been that way. Drag performers have been in the forefront of activism for LGBTTIQ+ rights and while New Zealand can rightly be proud of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill of 1986, it is also important to remember the strength of feeling against the bill at the time and the attitudes that were revealed when the bill was championed through parliament.

Buckwheat and a who’s-who of Moana drag divas – Tess Tickle, Bertha, and the late Bust-Op2 – called the influential Staircase nightclub home.3 Queer Aucklanders were welcomed by Buckwheat at the door and the hostesses were famous for bringing a warm Moana vibe to the the LGBTTIQ+ nightclub scene. After 1986, society slowly began to reform too and with it the visibility of LGBTTIQ+ lives. Buckwheat has been a regular at events such as The Big Gay Out and multiple Hero and Pride Parades, as well as the Sydney Mardi Gras where she performed with other hostesses on special Air New Zealand ‘Pink’ flights to Sydney. As Edward says: ‘the way that people react to drag now, or the character Buckwheat, has completely changed’4 and she is as likely to emcee a corporate event as a night at the Phoenix Cabaret on Karangahape Rd.

Edward/Buckwheat's involvement with the Staircase and advocacy with other LGBTTIQ+ progressive movements and events in inner city Tāmaki connects to the culture and art history of New Zealand as a Pacific nation with a multicultural population. This highlights the involvement of Moana peoples in the negotiation and expression of new identities.

The Pleasure Chest

From the 1980s until the shop’s closure in 2015, the west end of Karangahape Road was graced with the distinctive pink shopfront of The Pleasure Chest. The main sign above the entrance of the sex shop featured illustrations of sultry ladies in of-the-moment ‘80s haircuts. Like the ‘Vegas Girl’ strip club sign across the road, the titillating subject matter and longevity of these signs made them K’ Road landmarks.

But in 1996 these iconic pieces of Auckland history were threatened. A member of the public submitted the signs to the Office of Film and Literature Classification claiming that they were indecent, and their proximity to the nearby Auckland Girls Grammar School meant that teenage girls walked past the signs every day. The Classification Office initially classified the signs as ‘Objectionable’, but after an appeal from John Nicholson, then-owner of Las Vegas Nightclub and The Pleasure Chest, they were reclassified as ‘Unrestricted’. The Office acknowledged Nicholson’s belief ‘that the publication has artistic and cultural merit’ and ‘that other groups recognise that the publication may have an icon status’,5 showing how some Aucklanders regarded the signs in spite of (or because of) their racy material. It is said, however, that underwear was later drawn on the ladies in permanent marker to mitigate objections over the depiction of nudity.

The women of the Pleasure Chest sign. Loan courtesy of Sam Coley.


In 2015 the store finally closed, and the signs were listed on TradeMe. Attracting a flurry of interest, they were eventually purchased as a gift for ex-pat Aucklander Sam Coley. Sam kindly loaned parts of the sign for our exhibition, though sadly the part featuring the lovely ladies was too large for the allocated display case.

The King's Arms

With one object in Tāmaki Herenga Waka, the challenge around appropriateness for display turned out to be an opportunity to enliven the exhibition. In our gallery “Taku Taone” we look at Auckland places where communities have come together to support each other and share a connection. Sometimes this can be a formal setting, like a church or sports club, but sometimes it can be a bit looser. In 2018 Auckland Museum collected three toilet stall doors from the Kings Arms pub, a legendary live music venue which closed down that year.

The doors are covered in “latrinalia” – a term used specifically for graffiti on the interior of a bathroom, written in guaranteed privacy. Some of the graffiti affectionately bemoans the imminent closing of the pub, while some was a little more explicit in nature, using language which we wanted to forewarn our visitors about. Our exhibition designers came up with a novel solution: a “door to a door” which would open to reveal the toilet door displayed in its case. The front of the door has a warning about the explicit language contained therein, but we also made the most of the experience by printing on the inside of the door a full-scale photograph of the very distinctive toilet stalls of the Kings Arms, complete with mural art by Guy Oscar Brock. 

To round out the toilet door display, we put out a public call for songs which reminded our visitors of a fond Kings Arms musical memory. We chose three songs from the submissions, all NZ artists who had played at the pub: “Crystalator” by Dimmer; “Machine Song” by Bailterspace; and “Neon Cowboy” by country music singer Al Hunter. Visitors who peek behind the door are greeted with a blast of music, giving them a taste of the Kings Arms experience. 


By Jane Groufsky (Senior Collection Manager, Human History) and Dr Andrea Low (Associate Curator, Pacific)

References and notes

1 Herkt, David, “Queen City: A Secret History of Auckland”. First published Jan 25, 2013. https://publicaddress.net/speaker/queen-city/ 

2 Also known as Anthony Hotere, Harold Samu and Chanel Logo. 

3 The Staircase was first at Fort St, then Albert St and finally the ʻsuperclubʻ on Karangahape Road 

4 Buckwheat in interview with Kirsty Cameron, The Hobson, July/August 2018, p43 

5 Office of Film & Literature Classification, “Auckland billboards classified”. Accessed April 3, 2020. https://www.censor.org.nz/resources/history/1980s-and-1990s/1996/