by Jessica Douglas | published 25.10.18
In the continuation of its publishing activity, on occasion, HUM facilitates special events. The following discussion was held at the New Zealand High Commission in London on 29 September 2018 with panelists Jamie Belich and Matariki Williams, and was chaired by HUM Editor Pauline Autet and Lana Lopesi. The panel gathered to discuss and interrogate Oceania, a temporary exhibition of ancestral and contemporary oceanic art held at the Royal Academy, London. As the largest group display of New Zealand and Pacific art in Europe this year, we felt this was a significant moment and one that required space for open and critical debate. This special project was funded by Creative New Zealand.
Lana Lopesi: What is your relationship to Oceania?
Matariki Williams: My people, Ngāi Tūhoe, are inland people. I have spent most of my life returning to the hills of Te Urewera and the valley of Rūātoki. We trace our lineage back to the union between Te Maunga, a comet, and Hine-puhoku-rangi, the maiden of the mist.
My relationship with Oceania is not where my identity immediately lies. But through my work and relationships, it’s become a really important aspect to how I express the term in my work title, Mātauranga Māori, translated generally as systems of Māori knowledge. These systems are as expansive as the ocean, the islands and the people that make up Te Moana Nui a Kiwa (the Pacific.)
James Belich: I’m part of New Zealand’s reverse diaspora whose project is to recolonise Britain and reframe it as the very north island of New Zealand. Brexit, some of you may not realise, is only stage one of this project.
Given that Oceania in the east stretches to Easter Island and had some contact with South America, - because the kumara, the South American sweet potato was redistributed through the Pacific - the fact is that global Oceania was part of a remarkable globalisation of a culture group that spread across the whole Southern Hemisphere, from South Africa to South America, the long way.
When European expansion began, this was the widest-spread culture group in the world. So what you see in Oceania is not just local and particular histories, though it’s that too, but also artistic expressions of one of the world’s great globalising cultures. That’s the big history of Oceania which engages me as a global and New Zealand historian. It’s relatively unsung compared to European driven globalisations, but it’s very important in terms of global history.
The other thing that intrigued me is that its history is not only big, but it’s also fast.
The latest evidence suggests that New Zealand Māori arrived in the 13th century. So even a culture as dynamic and sophisticated as the Māori is only 800 years old. Tahiti and Easter Island are not much older. And, of course, the Pākehā people of New Zealand, of whom I am one, have an even shorter history, of around two centuries.
What Oceania teaches us is that history does not have to be long to be resonant and significant. This is something my colleagues in the Northern Hemisphere have yet to fully grasp.
Pauline Autet: Could you expand on the significance of this moment, the unprecedented collaboration between museums from both New Zealand and the Pacific and European museums such as the Royal Academy, which have loaned works and contributed to making Oceania happen?
JB: I think this is an interesting moment for this kind of cultural enterprise. Until about 1970, European New Zealanders, as they’re still described, and European Australians saw themselves as pretty comfortably British. Not in a colonial cringing way, but as better British, capable of teaching the old British of this location a few lessons on rugby and battlefields and climbing mountains.
The world has changed since then and settler societies, like those of Australia and New Zealand, have undergone what I call a setter’s somersault. They suddenly change from being contented colonisers to positioning themselves among the colonised. Up to the 1960s, Pākehā had privileged access to what was effectively their own metropolis, namely London. But that access came from being ‘Better Britons’. Since then, we have had to recalibrate our identity. We sometimes turn to Māori culture for this purpose.
In many ways this is a good thing. It generates the wonderful hybridity you can see in Michael Parekowhai’s piano in the exhibition (He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river, 2011).
But it also creates problems. To whom does historical Oceania belong? To whom does contemporary Oceanian culture and art belong? How do Māori react to increasing Pākehā willingness to co-opt Māori culture as it’s symbol? The haka in the rugby game, the koru on the aircraft, the Māori greeting for the VIP visit. All very well but how far does this process go? And to what extent might it be in Māori interests to encourage an autonomous Pākehā culture to which it is connected but from which it is distinct?
LL: Matariki, you’re here because of your connection to Kiko Moana, the contemporary work by Mata Aho Collective which greets you as you enter the exhibition. Could you tell us about that work?
MW: I’m one of four curators in the Mātauranga Māori team at Te Papa (New Zealand’s national museum.) Historically, our engagement has been mostly with taonga tuturu (object that relates to Māori). We have 30,000 taonga (treasures) in our collection, predominantly from the 18th and 19th centuries. Myself though, I have much more of a contemporary interest and that is often where I work.
Going back to what I was saying about the definitions of Mātauranga Māori, and the limitless nature of what it is that we as Māori can do, I have collected a whole range of different things, working alongside the communities that they’ve come from.
When Mata Aho were selected for Documenta 14 last year in Kassel, they contacted me and I brought them into our collection storerooms where they undertook research into Māori sewing techniques.
One thing I find beautiful about their practice is that they surface some lesser known aspects of not just Te Ao Māori (the Māori World) but also wāhine (women) Māori. The main practice that is associated with Māori women creators and the practice of wānanga, is weaving. But what is lesser known is that Māori are also sewers.
Kiko Moana, an 11 metres long work made of tarpaulin sewn together, is incredibly multi-layered, physically but also in terms of everything that they wrap around it. Alongside the physical work, we also collected a recording of their Instagram account and collected the website that they produced featuring stories of taniwha who are guardians of many places, including our waterways. Collecting those stories from friends and whānau was a really important aspect of the creation of the work.
PA: Matariki, you also work with many historic objects and ancestral belongings at the national museum Te Papa. We’ll call those taonga although the limitations of that word as being New Zealand-specific should be noted as the exhibition includes many pieces that are not from New Zealand.
Could you describe the way in which taonga are treated and the protocols around display and presentation within Te Papa and New Zealand museum practice and whether this might differ here?
MW: First I want to acknowledge that I’m not here to speak on behalf of the other island nations represented in the show. Everything I say is specifically from a Māori perspective.
And just to immediately contradict that, the New Zealand artist of Samoan and Japanese heritage Yuki Kihara whose work is on display in Oceania, was talking about the Monday morning blessings that took place before the opening of the show. Because it was such a powerful experience for so many of the people involved, she commented that it must be such a decolonising process for them. And I loved that she positioned it as that. It’s a decolonising process for the institution.
The way I interpreted this is that it’s not a decolonising process for us, this colonisation of people throughout the Pacific and throughout the world. And that’s not our burden to bear.
My take is that we work towards uplifting our communities. That is where I want to put my energy. I don’t see it as a decolonising process though, I see it as a Māori-fying or indigenising process.
At Te Papa, the inclusion of taonga, tikanga Māori or a blessing is a very normal standardised process for every single exhibition that comes on the floor at Te Papa.
LP: When I first went into Oceania, I did a really quick whip around to find what treasures were there from Samoa. I acknowledge that the show functioned on that level.
Then I was also really gutted to see that one of the treasures was from Te Papa – I had come all this way to London and I wanted to see everything that was out back! The way I interacted with that exhibition was to see these treasures I really wanted to see, show them some love and let them see us again. I was also trying to find my space within the Oceania show.
A question I have for both of you is, now that you’ve seen the show, whose Oceania you find is represented in the exhibition and maybe more importantly, who or what is not there?
JB: It’s a complex question. One could talk about the kind of layers of exploitation and cultural homogeneity being imposed on most parts of Oceania by European expansion. But there’s another quality that strikes me and it has to do with the Tahitian priest and expert, Tupaia. Several of his realistic drawings which were made to illustrate things to his ignorant friends, Joseph Banks and James Cook, are in the exhibition.
When Tupaia arrived in New Zealand, his voyage enabled by Cook’s ship Endeavour in 1769, he was the only person who could actually speak to Māori. His Tahitian was still 80% comprehensible.
So from the point of view of Māori, the most interesting person on the Endeavour, the alleged discoverer of New Zealand, was Tupaia the Tahitian. It became clear when, on Cook’s second voyage, Māori described the Endeavour as Tupaia’s ship. So for all the venereal disease they also distributed, Cook and co. did enable a reunion of Pacific peoples. And in a sense there’s an analogy within this Oceania exhibition itself.
There are incrustations of colonialism. The jarring sense of seeing a carving here that should really be in Rotorua. And there will be many Pacific people who see these wonderful treasures who wonder where do these really belong? There will be all sorts of other legacies of colonialism. Yet by inverting the process of colonisation and using some of the same tools, the British Museum, the Royal Academy, the significance of the Cook legacy, the New Zealand connection with London has managed a reunion of those Pacific peoples.
MW: I’ve been to the show three times now, each time quite quickly. I did the same as you Lana, went searching for Māori taonga, I think it’s quite natural to want to see yourself reflected back at you but also to see how other people have interpreted you.
The most recent time I went was this morning when the exhibition was officially opened to the public and that was the most overwhelming of the three visits because of the amount of people taking photographs. In the room where Fiona Pardington’s photographs are on display, there is a hei tiki (carved pendant) which I have gone to see a couple of times and have touched the glass of the case, but I’ve not been able to touch the pounamu (greenstone). The label says that it was collected in 1769, and that it’s not from a New Zealand collection. The sense of loss that is on display is immense and that it’s so far from home is awful.
One thing that is not in the exhibition is the people, and so many people from these islands would not be able to view the exhibition because it’s in London and the question was raised whether it could tour.
At the Royal Academy symposium this week, we spoke of the problems, even the financial reasons, for why exhibitions of this nature will possibly not be able to travel. These include insurance reasons and loaning institutions wanting to have reassurance that the buildings that they go into will have security and the right kind of humidity levels.
For me, that’s what’s missing: the people from these places being present.
PA: Indeed, I think it is an exhibition where the object labels are very important. I kept looking again for the collection name, to know where the item is held.
One question I had entering the show revolved around the way in which the histories of the items on display, especially the ancestral belongings, would be communicated. This is especially in this context of being outside the Pacific.
There is an audio guide accompanying the exhibition from which you can get an insight and an understanding as to where some of those items have come from, of their journey.
So my question is, what is the importance of the communication surrounding an exhibition like this, whether in an audio guide format, or within labels? And how important is it for people to have access to the information related to the journey, history and significance of the item they’re looking at?
Do either of you have comments on displaying works of this significance outside of their home context, and whether there are important things that we need to keep in mind to avoid the risk of them being exoticised: to be looked at and appreciated for their aesthetic value more than sometimes spiritual, religious, and cultural significance?
MW: Well, despite all the conflict I have about attending, you can’t deny the huge sense of pride it is to see these contemporary works and these taonga on display in the exhibition. It’s not a simple answer because we’re dealing with a third of the world’s surface. I like your interpretation, Jamie, that it is a bringing together of peoples again.
And then also from an institutional perspective, I know that what you see on the floor and what you read on the labels is not the final story. Any institution worth its salt will have public programmes where they invite in differing opinions or differing perspectives of the source communities. That’s when you get to complicate the situation. And I mean that as a good thing, to complicate these histories, because they are complicated.
JB: I don’t have a personal claim to any of the treasures that are in the exhibition but it does strike me that many of them demand to be seen. They’re rooted in particular places and particular times but they also have stories to be told.
It’s a dilemma, isn’t it? If these things are living things, what would they prefer? To be buried in a vault? Or to be seen, ideally in their original home? I’m inclined to think they’d choose being seen, especially if they’re seen in a context of respect.
In the end, everything is a compromise. And I think that on balance, the Oceania curators seem to have steered pretty damn cleverly between Scylla and Charybdis.
LP: Because I’m an art critic, I watch people watch art. Listening in to people’s conversations, there was real appreciation of the masterful craftsmanship and the materiality behind everything that was being shown which I had a lot of appreciation for as well. The show is not easy but I think there are props to be given as well.
PA: Conversations of these last few days have highlighted the positive outcomes that have already started to emerge from this exhibition. The forward-thinking discussions around museum practice and how that might be evolving. The understanding and appreciation for the craftsmanship but also the living cultures represented in the exhibition are definitely very positive outcomes.
I’ve only heard good things from the artists involved, they are well looked after and appropriate protocol and events were put into place for the opening week. At the same time it’s important to encourage critical debate and reflect on the ways we can do things better. Certains issues raised by this exhibition are problematic and complicated, like you said.
So my next question is probably one of the first questions I heard being raised when the show was announced last year. It has to do with the potentially inappropriate and uncomfortable juxtaposition of conveying the exhibition as a celebration of Oceania and at the same time marking the 250 years of Captain Cook’s departure from the UK to the Pacific, because this moment is seen by many as the beginning of colonisation in the region.
Now that the exhibition is here, how have these two things been negotiated and can they even fit together, is it possible to combine the two?
MW: I’m not sure if I’ve seen any reference to Cook. But like Jaime said earlier, the reference given to Tupaia and the reverence held amongst Māori for Tupaia to be represented in the show, that is what is important for me. Māori were also going the other way, as voyagers coming to the UK.
I met someone the day of the exhibition opening, Ropata Diamond, who was invited because his tipuna, Tuai, set foot in the UK 200 years ago to the day on Monday just passed. That’s incredible.
I actually can’t remember the question. Cook? See, I’d already forgotten him.
‘She got big bones and big hair, when she breathes her breasts rise and fall like the swell of the shallow sea,
Loves wearing mother of pearl and pounamu all at the same time, so she chimes when she walks,
Always busy so can seem a bit distracted, nevertheless, a no fuss, no bother, can-do, sort of a girl.
Pretty in a strange sort of a way, you can’t help stare at her eyes,
They are vast and can light up the night sky,
You see she has no pupils, they are vessels containing old gods …
Just don’t trip over and fall in them … you won’t come back alive. 1
I remember laughing out loud when I first heard poet and artist Rosanna Raymond recite a couple of her One-a-Day Maiden Rave On series. I loved the sass of these vignettes, these ‘maidens’, as Raymond conceived them, who were bold and mischievous, saucy with just the right amount of cleverness. I knew the girls she was channeling and recognised her Pacific ‘Dusky’s’ - modern-day Dusky Maidens reinvented with a generous pinch of London swagger. One day when I visited a new studio space she was taking over in Willesden Junction, I found she had tacked inspiration for the girls on the large expanse of wall. Fashion photos torn from magazines, photocopies of iconic works in museum collections and archives overwritten with her notes, ideas and quotes. These sketched fragments built a profile of each of these strong and vulnerable women - each, in some sense, an aspect of her own self. The room was brimming with outfits, props and all manner of tusks, raffia and bone in preparation for a major photoshoot she was planning at the studio the following week. Rosanna was pulling the girls out again, reviving them, reacquainting herself with their energy before she would inhabit them once again for a set of full-length portraits she had conceived for an upcoming exhibit 2 . Her take on the heroines of Pacific story was fresh and vigorous: myth and tale recalibrated for a new generation and very much in the spirit of what she had begun doing as a core member of the Pacific Sisters in Auckland during the 1990s 3 . This was her in Tusitala mode: tracing the diasporic journeys of these Pacific maidens, affirming their life blood.
Amongst a plethora of projects that included convening an open workshop ‘Museology and the Mused’ (July 22-23, 2017) to explore the interface of indigeneity at the museum, the producers for a new series ‘Artefact’ for Māori TV were in touch. The series, presented by our esteemed colleague and friend Dame Anne Salmond, was looking to explore stories pertaining to Pacific history, art and culture as they inhere in and around ‘things’ – objects, artefacts, people. Certain aspects of this series of case studies fell naturally within the framework of museums in terms of their complex histories and the relationships that might be drawn into play within their walls. They expressed their interest to film at the museum and interview both of us briefly for the series. Rosanna had packed her spectacular barkcloth frock to bring with her to New York - a spectacular tapa dress that she had worn when she created the portrait of ‘Back Hand Maiden’ in London almost a decade before in 2009 for exhibition. Fascinated with the architecture of the museum interior, we talked about the difference between the wood, plants and fiber of Pacific art in the Oceania galleries and the cool, smooth stone statuary of the classic world on display in the Greek and Roman galleries immediately adjacent to the Pacific galleries. The sense of permanence in the idealised portraits that once braced the architecture of political power in the Roman Empire seemed completely at odds with the transience and ephemerality of much Pacific art. In many instances, art in the Pacific is conceived to exist only for a short period of time – designed as a conduit, materials are assembled into a dynamic visual display that will bring the community together for a time before being disassembled and returned to the environment. Fiber and barcloth; stone and bone; male beauty and dusky female power... ideas were beginning to take root in the artist.
The moment ‘Back Hand Maiden’ appeared in the galleries in her full barkcloth bustle was a powerful one. Rosanna had described her as haughty and austere, a mistress of the manor. A towering turtle shell comb sat atop her scooped up hair. Wielding her tokotoko defiantly, she walked through the galleries like she owned the place. Stopping to courtsey gently, she paid her respects to the youthful beauty of a series of male nudes, their taut buttocks laid bare in an avenue of smooth plinths and stone. The back of her own dress split open to reveal her own behind clothed in the dark green ink of the tatau that marks her Pacific skin. Neither naked, nor nude but marked with the stories and genealogies of the Pacific. The statement was subtle and was an effective way to infuse the beautiful austerity of the stone galleries with the warmth and vigour of a Pacific body –a female body moreover, that highly contested site so central to the earliest European encounters with the Pacific. Wrapped in natural fibers, this strong Pacific body disrupted time to unfold its own storied past into the present, introducing its own ancestors to those of ancient Rome.
The remit to invite and encourage participation from a range of contemporary Pacific artists is of course vital in conveying to audiences that we are a culture not confined to the past. In the spirit of Pacific reciprocity and exchange, Rosanna Raymond’s projects extended to several collaborations with fellow Samoan artist and writer, Dan Taulapapa McMullin and the two actively produced and presented new works in dialogue with the Oceanic collections that fused costume with spoken word and performance. One memorable collaboration took place one evening on a Late Friday at the Met. Beginning in the European Painting galleries they stood for a time in front of two iconic canvases by Gauguin. The pair then processed through the museum, each fully enveloped in bodysuits 4 of foliage, fern and flowers - populating the paneled walls of the galleries with the flourishing island landscape of Polynesia. Moving steadily, their solemn procession through the museum was slow and purposeful, punctuated with cynicism and humor, and forced a dialogue with the unnatural and artificial environment of the museum.
If we believe in the active agency of things, the collections become more than a static resource from which to draw periodically for the staging of displays and temporary exhibits. Bringing people (physically and digitally) into the galleries helps connect the living dynamic with the collections to activate and enliven relationships. When I reflect on this series of ad hoc engagements with visiting artists that have taken root during my first three years of tenure as curator at the Metropolitan Museum, I see that they have stemmed from my own network of relationships, and as much from a desire and need to energise my own personal Pacific compass, to recharge my Pacific batteries as it were. There is nothing as powerful as watching our artists at ease in the museum’s galleries: simply ‘being’ in the space, sharing generously in the culture from the heart, breaking into song, responding instinctively to the taonga in the space. The public see this cultural dynamic in flow; they witness it, they understand it in a nuanced and embodied way that no explanatory text can communicate.
In this sense, these projects are a way to build on the original notion of the role of a curator [curare in terms of ‘taking care of, and attending to’ the art] and move closer towards a role of kaitiakitanga (or guardianship) that sees us looking to nurture relationships, to reinforce and establish alliances that may have become eclipsed over time. In this way, we can pull the knowledge backup and safeguard it going forward. For art not only offers us a window onto the past, it propels us forward into a consideration of what the future also looks like. This practice is cross-cultural and interdisciplinary. It can bridge the past with the present. These projects push at the boundaries of the institution, forcing it to re-assess itself, to become self-reflexive.
Stepping back then to consider art’s ability to disrupt and question in the context of 21st century globalized life: when someone walks into the museum, we do have an opportunity to help them stop and reflect and perhaps reconfigure the accepted narrative. Can we jolt them out of their own reality into someone else’s? Can we break down the overarching institutional voice to present more complex, multivocal and inclusive histories? Can artists & practitioners help us do this? A resounding yes. To cite the well-known Māori whakatauki (proverb):
He aha te mea nui o te ao? (What is the most valued and important thing in the world?)
...He tangata he tangata he tangata! (It is people, it is people, it is people!)
The power in art then is in joining up history with its people.
1. ‘Fully Laiden Maiden’ by Rosanna Raymond from the series One-a-Day 7 Maiden Rave On’ or ‘The Dusky ain’t Dead she Just Diversified’.
2. Several of that suite of photographs were exhibited in the show ‘EthKnowcentrix: Museums inside the Artist’ at October Gallery in London [10 Sept – 10 Oct 2009] a collaboration with Lisa Reihana, Shigeyuki Kihara and George Nuku which explored their ongoing relationships with museums as a site of research and reflection
3. The Pacific Sisters collective of Pacific and Māori fashion designers, artists, performers, and musicians electrified 1990s Auckland and was recently the focus of a major exhibition ‘Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists He Toa Tāera’ at Te Papa Tongarewa, Museum of New Zealand (17 March - 15 July 2018).
4. The bodysuits were originally created by Dan Taulapapa McMullin for an installation entitled Aue-Away at the American Museum of Natural History, New York during the Margaret Mead Film Festival (Oct 2016).
Dr. Maia Nuku is Evelyn A. J. Hall and John A. Friede Associate Curator for Oceanic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Born in London of English and Maori (Ngai Tai) descent, Maia completed two post-doctoral fellowships at Cambridge University as part of an international research team exploring Oceanic collections in major European institutions in France, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Germany and Russia.
In 2014 she moved to New York to become Associate Curator for Oceanic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her curatorial approach is driven by an ambition to distill core ideas pertinent to indigenous art, drawing out themes and cosmological connections that can assist visitors in fully appreciating this unique and spectacular art. Her latest exhibition Atea: Nature and Divinity in Polynesia is currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum, New York (Nov 19, 2018 - Oct 27, 2019)
Oceania: animating collections - activating relationships at the Met in New York
by Maia Nuku | published 28.11.18
In New York, I look after a collection of over two thousand works of Pacific art. These ancestral treasures (taonga) come from Pacific islands spread across a vast expanse of ocean that takes up over a third of the globe. The outstanding mobility of Pacific peoples over the course of several thousand years was a catalyst for the flourishing of an almost kaleidoscopic range of cultures and art traditions - some 20,000 islands and close to 1,800 different cultures and language groups, all of whom share common ancestry. The inter-connectedness of the Pacific and its people - wrought from many centuries of dynamic engagement - is a strand that unites all the art of the region. Storytelling is the other great connector for, broadly speaking, all Pacific art is a vital means to access story.
Art has always been used as a vehicle to channel knowledge, ideas and ancestral connections. Acting as a mnemonic to memory, when activated with song and dance, it is a crucial conduit for current generations to pass important knowledge from the past into the future. One of the challenges of looking after a collection of art is the static nature of display. How do we convey to visitors the vital components of artworks? when so much of the sensual repertoire of words and gesture originally conceived to accompany it - is now absent.
When I arrived in New York in October 2014 to take up the position of curator of Oceanic art at the Metropolitan, I was keen to work with Pacific artists as a way to animate the galleries, to populate the space with Pacific voices. I had wondered about the institutional memory of the museum with regard to Te Māori, the landmark exhibition that the Met hosted almost thirty-five years ago. At dawn on the morning of 10th September 1984, the traffic stopped on Fifth Avenue as a delegation of Māori leaders gathered on the front steps of the museum and prepared to enter. The call (karanga) of the women went out and a group of kaumatua (elders) climbed the front steps, flanked by two young men with taiaha. Chanting appropriate ritual incantations, they moved through the museum to the exhibition gallery clearing the pathway (whakawatea) for Māori and visitors to enter. The exhibition is frequently cited as a turning point in establishing an entirely new framework for cultural policy in Aoteraoa New Zealand, setting new precedents in consultation and shared decision-making.
Having opened to great acclaim in New York, it travelled for the next two years to three further venues in the US (San Francisco, St. Louis and Chicago). As it travelled, Māori organized formal protocols at each venue and led impromptu cultural performances in the galleries alongside the taonga on display. The constant presence of Māori and their insistence on overseeing appropriate tikanga (protocols) ensured that museum staff and audiences alike were introduced to the unique relationship of Māori with their art - that sculptures were not simply relics of a forgotten past but living spiritual ancestors who remained in close relation with their living descendants. It is this ancestral relationship that really drives the connection between people and art in the Pacific. Pacific art is acknowledged as having efficacy and agency; as such, it has a vital role to play in initiating an expansive cultural dialogue for the 21st century that extends far beyond the Pacific.
Animating collections - activating relationships
But what of today? What relevance does a show like Te Māori have for those of us working with art in large institutions with what are referred to as encyclopaedic collections? In the intervening years since Te Māori in the 1980s, the discipline of Pacific art has been steadily shifting. Curators of Pacific art work on the boundaries of many disciplines: art history – ethnography, anthropology, archaeology and museology. In Europe and America, I have been involved in collaborative research projects that bring Pacific artists, scholars and cultural practitioners together to work alongside museum curators and conservators. Accessing collections of Pacific art together, it has been possible to pool our knowledge bases, bringing new perspectives to bear on the research that lessens the gap between ‘knowledge’ and ‘practice’. Shifts in the academic landscape mean that written documents are no longer perceived as the only robust or valid primary sources. The discourse of materiality - an analysis of ‘things’ in and of themselves - has taken center stage to direct a discourse that acknowledges the active agency of objects, opening up pathways to different kinds of knowledge and understandings. Crucially, scholars in the Academy have begun to take the new perspectives and viewpoints of Pacific collaborators more seriously. This has impacted my own curatorial practice in the sense that I have moved towards an understanding of the gallery itself as a place of encounter. Shifting the perception of the gallery as simply a place where we present art from a particular region, I prefer to approach it as a place to host in the manner that Pacific people are accustomed to do. In this way it becomes a very active, dynamic space:
a place to dialogue
a place to confront difficult, complex histories
a place to honour and explore indigenous epistemologies, giving them the space and time outside the ordinary run of life where they might land and take root.
At the Metropolitan, it has been really productive to work with colleagues in our Education and Digital departments, allies in this shared project, to complicate the institutional narrative of the museum through a series of artist-led projects.
Artist projects (2016-2017)
These have included the Tongan artist and philosopher Visesio Siasau who was in New York with his family for a six-month residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP) after winning the New Zealand Wallace Prize in 2016. Visesio was involved in a series of events in the Met’s Oceania galleries: we beamed him into the galleries digitally and he formally addressed his ancestral ‘otua fefine (female deity figure) in his own dialect. During an evening event dedicated to the distinctions of the Tongan aesthetic, we discussed the sacred and cosmological landscapes inherent in the colors black and red. The discussion ranged from important Tongan figural sculpture created during the 18th and 19th centuries to his contemporary ngatu ‘uli (a huge painted ceremonial barkcloth), underscoring the continued innovation of Pacific artists who deftly navigate between the past and the present, often through the conduit of the artworks themselves. The audience were challenged to think very carefully about questions of authorship and validity: what is customary? what is contemporary?
Later that summer in 2016, Māori fiber artist and fashion designer Shona Tawhiao visited to investigate Pacific collections in museums. One glorious summer evening, she staged an impromptu fashion show for Matariki (the Māori new year) up on the Met’s rooftop, hosted by the Digital MediaLab as part of their Late Night Friday. We were joined by New York’s Māori and Pacific Islander communities based in Manhattan who were keen to come together for an event to mark Matariki. Shona’s energy and willingness to jump to the beat brought members of the Pacific community together, consolidating the Pacific network far from the shores of home.
I feel strongly that the Oceania collections of the museum ought not to be a static resource that waits to be drawn from for temporary exhibits. I enjoy encouraging dialogue around the collection itself. It is always rewarding to have the taonga stimulate conversations in the reserve section of the museum - stories just rise up to the surface. Benjamin Work (a young artist with ancestral ties to Tonga and the Shetland Isles) was so inspired by the iconography of one of the ’akau tau (Tongan war clubs) he had seen in the Met’s collection that he incorporated the design into a street mural in the last two days of his stay in New York. The results were fantastic! The bold, graphic Tongan designs leached out of the museum and literally exploded into the street. Benjamin was thrilled to democratise the museum experience by presenting Tongan iconography in an open-air venue where people can visit at any hour of the day or night without having to pay an entrance fee. Proud to have been able to throw up the first Pacific mural in the East Harlem mural project, Benjamin named the work Tauhi Va – a title that speaks to the importance of tending to and nurturing relationships. This dynamic mural takes pride of place amongst the basketballers shooting hoop in the schoolyard of my son Te Aonehe’s elementary school. For he and I , the work is rather like a Pacific anchor (tau) announcing our presence in the city and binding us to a distant (though ever present) home.
These projects build momentum in all sorts of interesting ways. The mural in particular continues to play out its magic, inspiring an emerging visual anthropologist Anna Weinrech to produce a documentary film Walking Backwards into the Future as part of NYU’s Graduate Program in Culture and Media. The film was shown at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York in October 2018 and has been selected for presentation back home in the Nuku’alofa Film Festival (November 2018). The return to Tonga feels significant. Words spoken out loud in the stores of the museum now have tangibility in brick and paint, and in sequenced frames of digital film. With the relevance of cultural heritage under fire in some quarters in the Pacific – where it’s validity and role can be questioned and challenged, indeed threatened, by sectors including fundamentalist Christian groups - the role of art as a global ambassador in establishing the coordinates for the Pacific cultural compass has never seemed so vital.
It remains important for me to not limit engagement with the collections to the visual arts and I always have an eye out for the performers who will integrate the movement and gesture, song and dance that is such a vital ingredient in activating our Pacific arts. Our orators and spoken word artists, our dancers and performers - these make up the rich landscape of creativity in the contemporary Pacific. Visiting scholar and artist from the Center for Pacific Islands Studies of the University of Hawaii Manoa, Dr. Moana Nepia also developed a fascinating inter-disciplinary project over the summer of 2017. Early on during his visit, Moana requested access to the galleries before opening hours. He was planning to create new videographic and choreographic works inspired by the gallery displays. As a trained dancer, Moana’s scholarly practice extends theoretical investigation with creative research that is infused with indigenous Māori concepts. The multi-media project - which he titled Archiving Intimacy - wove together fascinating threads of enquiry and culminated in a live presentation: a thoughtful and moving consideration of the absences and gaps in museum collections which the artist urged can, and ought to be, salient sites of enquiry. This powerful, contemplative series of vignettes produced a poignant narrative pertaining to art, knowledge and display. Exposure to this kind of interdisciplinary practice is precisely the kind of extension of boundaries that I am dedicated to promoting at the Met. The work, in its fusion of scholarly and artistic pursuits, draws in new and diverse audiences and opens up a dynamic space in the institution for important discussions about indigeneity and its interface with the museum.
In 2017, the artist, poet and fashion activist, Rosanna Raymond arrived from Auckland to take up a six-month residency at the Metropolitan Museum as the Chester Dale Fellow in Education and Public Practice. From the outset she established that as well as using her time to incubate ideas for various ongoing projects, her interest was to respond in her own way to the institution of the museum itself.