Making Rope, Embedding Indigeneity

On publishing and the Indigenous international exhibition

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Photo Credit

Detail of AKA (2019). Mata Aho Collective. Copolymer fibre marine rope, steel. Exhibited in Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu Continuel, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Collection: National Gallery of Canada.

Matariki Williams
Aug 25 2021



If publications augment significant exhibitions, I’m interested in how exhibition readers may keep these exhibitions alive for artists, curators, researchers, and a wider public. How might they translate something of the exhibition experience to those who never made it? Recent major international exhibitions that featured significant inclusions of Indigenous artists are my testing point, specifically the 2019 Honolulu Biennial, To Make Wrong / Right / Now; the 2019-2020 exhibition Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu Continuel and its 2013 predecessor Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art; and the 2020 Biennale of Sydney, NIRIN.

This essay is born of curiosity from seeing exhibitions alive with Indigenous excellence that I didn’t attend taking place overseas. With these exhibitions, comprehensive accompanying publications have also been released. These publications feature artist profiles, a rich selection of images, and introductions from the exhibition curators explaining the curatorial premise. Most importantly, they provide space for invited writers to expand on these premises and provide new art historical insights.

In seeking out these readers, my first hurdle was access itself. Having recently left my role in a museum that has an extensive art library, my new workplace had to interloan each of these publications. All but the Àbadakone reader were located. The latter was on its way from the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) library, which was on the verge of sending it before Queensland went into another lockdown. These are taonga that I know exist and can access through the privilege of my job. What about everyone without this privilege? This is my first observation, that the wider promotion and distribution of these readers be considered integral to a successful exhibition. The examples used are major exhibitions with significant infrastructures and profiles, which therefore have the potential to amplify the Indigenous thinking that is explored in the readers. Beyond augmenting the themes explored in the exhibitions, as I expected they would, these readers have their own implicit value and contributions to make to Indigenous art histories.

Honolulu 6

Photo Credit

Honolulu Biennial 2019, To Make Wrong / Right / Now catalogue. Designed by Stripe SF. Edited by Devon Bella, Josh Tengan, Nina Tonga. Commissioned for the Honolulu Biennial 2019.

These are taonga that I know exist and can access through the privilege of my job. What about everyone without this privilege?

WITHIN THE SAKAHÀN READER is a fascinating essay by Ngahiraka Mason (Ngāi Tūhoe, Te Arawa, Ngāti Pango) titled ‘The State of Māori Art in an International Context’. Mason who was then the Indigenous Curator, Māori Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki interrogates the tensions contemporary art rouses among Māori engaged in academic and artistic explorations of identity. Mason analyses the state of contemporary Māori art using criteria from the esteemed scholar Sir Hirini Moko Mead (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Tūhourangi), which she expresses as such: ‘A critical dynamic of Mead’s definitions requires that artists comprehend that Māori art must represent the continuity and constancy of Māori culture as it relates to ancestral times and customs.’ (1) Although it has only been eight years since Mason wrote this essay (Mead’s original kōrero is from 1996), I wonder if this requirement to adhere to ‘ancestral times and customs’ is still a consideration for contemporary Māori artists in 2021. Indeed, is any requirement that demands, as mentioned later, acceptance from wider Māori society, still applicable for Māori artists? The reason for questioning this is that it assumes a connection or access to culture that, admittedly, not all practicing artists who whakapapa Māori have. This could then prompt the question of whether or not their work qualifies as ‘Māori’, itself an ultimately damaging pātai.

Further reason for this consideration is Mason’s question regarding to whom Māori artists are beholden, especially in relation to wider movements that occurred in the museum and gallery sector, precipitated by the behemoth Te Māori exhibition in 1984. Te Māori took taonga tūturu to major museums in the United States, and consequently, Māori culture to the world stage. (2) In doing so, Te Māori also raised expectations around museum accountability when it came to taonga Māori. No longer was it acceptable to think of our taonga dwelling in overseas institutions, let alone the remains of our tīpuna sitting in overseas collections, as a given. Rather, Te Māori was the starting point of a matured approach to how taonga Māori are interpreted, displayed, researched and considered in museums here in Aotearoa, and to a degree, institutions overseas. The Te Māori experience influences the way Mason considers the work of Fiona Pardington (Ngāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Ngāti Kahungunu, Scottish) whose photographic work has made taonga in overseas institutions more visible. Mason assesses Pardington’s work, specifically her photographs of tīpuna life-casts, as follows: ‘For Māori people and art professionals, including me, this trend abrades the values, views, insights and aspirations inside and outside Māori culture. In this way, Pardington’s photographs inhabit a neo-liberal agenda.’ (3) The ‘neo-liberal’ assessment is further explained in the endnotes, as Mason states: ‘I use the term neo-liberal to shed light on the acceptance in the art market of the commodification of Māori art.’ (4)

A text earlier in the reader by the Sakahàn co-curator Candice Hopkins (Carcross/Tagish First Nation) provides a different view of Pardington’s work. In ‘On Other Pictures: Imperialism, Historical Amnesia and Mimesis,’ Hopkins looks at the way Indigenous artists revoke the colonial and imperialist gaze to make Indigenous viewpoints more visible. Here, Pardington’s photographs are seen as a visibility-raising exercise for these tīpuna, some of whom remain unknown, while acknowledging the artist’s own whakapapa connections to some of the tīpuna she has photographed. Pardington’s artistic approach is also considered in Hopkins’ essay, in which the writer suggests Pardington’s photographs add further layers of meaning to those depicted: They are both a replication of the life-casts they portray, which are themselves replications and taonga in their own right. Through Pardington’s work, the life casts are at once object, objectified and reclaimed. Though there are differing views in how Pardington’s work is assessed, it is gratifying to see that multiple are included in the reader. I hadn’t come across discussion of Pardington’s work like this before, let alone in a single publication. Māori art circles are not large, and my experience has been that critical engagement within it is largely present kanohi ki te kanohi and not necessarily reflected in published writing. This is an ongoing consideration of mine as I query whether the lack of published critique ultimately underserves Māori art, artists, curators and writers, while acknowledging that art publishing can be an uncomfortable space to inhabit for those within these circles.

Honolulu 2

Photo Credit

Honolulu Biennial 2019, To Make Wrong / Right / Now catalogue. Designed by Stripe SF. Edited by Devon Bella, Josh Tengan, Nina Tonga. Commissioned for the Honolulu Biennial 2019.

This is an ongoing consideration of mine as I query whether the lack of published critique ultimately underserves Māori art, artists, curators and writers, while acknowledging that art publishing can be an uncomfortable space to inhabit for those within these circles.

WHEN IT COMES TO the Honolulu Biennial 2019 (HB19) reader, multi-vocality is embedded in the profiles, in which participating artists are asked who they are, and who they are bringing with them in their work and their participation in the exhibition. The curatorial premise for HB19 is drawn from the ‘aha, fibre made from the sennit of the coconut that can be woven, and which provides the prompt: How are the artists and their works woven together in the exhibition? Within the reader this is expressed by the way artist profiles are ordered, that is, from oldest to youngest. On the surface, this arrangement could be seen as incidental, however it is a deliberate choice from the Biennial curator, Nina Tonga (Vaini, Kolofo'ou), to embed and express Indigenous realities into the body of the reader. In this instance, the reader manifests the tuakana / teina relationship that is evident in many Indigenous Pacific cultures, and acknowledges the experience of elders and the symbiotic teaching and learning relationship they have with those younger than them. The title of the exhibition comes from ‘Manifesto’ by 'Īmaikalani Kalāhele (Kanaka Maoli). ‘Make Rope,’ another poem by Kalāhele, is also included in the reader. A quotation in the latter reads: (5)

“...one by one strand by strand we become the memory of our people and we still growing so be proud do good

and make rope boy make rope.”

Kalāhele’s poem reminded me of how art can be a māngai for the past, how it can twine histories together. It is through art, specifically Ralph Hotere’s (Te Aupōuri, Te Rarawa) Godwit/Kuaka (1977), that I learned the history of how Hotere’s tīpuna became Te Aupōuri. Godwit/Kuaka features the tauparapara that charts their escape from the island of Murimotu to the mainland, aided by a long rope that the people pulled themselves along. Kalāhele’s gentle imploring to make rope and take our histories forward emboldens and inspires me, reminding us that art has a role to play in conveying history.

Elsewhere in the reader are contributions from Kanaka Maoli academic Dr Emalani Case, and CHamoru scholar and curator Dr Michael Bevacqua. Case’s essay explores how the 'aha is both a physical material as well as a conceptual device that enables us to think about identity. Her essay is personal and elucidating, gently explaining the impact of such an unwieldy entity as colonisation on her people: (6)

the 'aha was needed, not only to create a space for learning, but to also protect the men from those who did not support their work. Further, it was to re-establish cultural boundaries and to teach those of us, like myself, who no longer had the cultural literacy to know where we should and should not be. The rope, therefore, was necessitated by significant change, and perhaps more tellingly, by significant loss […] Its presence, furthermore, meant that we lived in a society where those customs the men sought to revive were no longer the norm, and perhaps more devastatingly, that we were no longer the norm.

Reading this passage after the recent passing of Kanaka Maoli academic and activist Haunani-Kay Trask, it feels ever more pressing. Trask’s conviction that Hawaiian people are not American potently resounds in the context of Case’s capturing of all that has been lost.

Bevacqua’s essay opens with the viral event of a young white man in a ‘Make America Great Again’ cap smirking in the face of a Native American elder, Nathan Phillips (Omaha tribe). This video was taken by Kaya Taitano, a young CHamoru woman, who experienced the unprecedented attention that comes with having your content go viral. Amid all this attention, Taitano was unable to bring the plight of the CHamoru people of Guam and their own experiences of US expansionism to the platforms this new-found attention gave her. Instead the focus remained on the smirk of, as Bevacqua describes it, the ‘self-assured imperialist’. (7) His smirk became the focus of attention in a way that gave platform to white supremacy and did not provide space for any other causes. In reading this essay, I thought of how little the smirking white man has to lose, and how little he has had to fight for. There’s no bravery in continuing the status quo, in having the majority behind you, a majority that he has inherited rather than earned. How different that smirk is to what Indigenous people experience. As Bevacqua states: ‘It [native nationalism] reflects a different drive, a different past and destiny […] an offering of a fundamental truth from which we can recall genealogies of our ancestors and tell stories of which our descendants can feel pride.’ (8)

NIRIN Catalogue 12 0 2344 0 1652

Photo Credit

NIRIN Catalogue. Designed by Stuart Geddes, Trent Walter and Kim Mumm Hansen. Edited by Brook Andrew. Commissioned for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney. Image by Tom Ross.

In this instance, the reader manifests the tuakana / teina relationship that is evident in many Indigenous Pacific cultures, and acknowledges the experience of elders and the symbiotic teaching and learning relationship they have with those younger than them.

THE INSIDIOUS NATURE of white supremacy is discussed in an exchange, reproduced in the NIRIN reader, between curator Brook Andrew (Wiradjuri) and contributor Francisco Godoy Vega (Chile). The exchange is taken from a mobile text conversation during which Vega explains his discomfort at having to explain, to white readers, concepts he explores in his longer article, also included in the NIRIN reader. The frustration stems from the exercise of explanation, and its use to invalidate his ideas inside a white-dominated academy. As Vega states: (9)

I find it uncomfortable, sometimes, questions of validity towards my ideas in writing. For example, when white people ask me ‘Can you explain to me what is biological racism?’ or things like that… I don’t know how to explain it but sometimes there are questions that are not believing in your ideas, like when I talk about long memory or that institutions are full of white people in general. They’re certain things that are kind of weird to explain to somebody you don’t know and somebody that is white.

The seemingly benign questions Vega receives from white people are akin to the smirking imperialist of Bevacqua’s essay; they plant seeds of doubt within Indigenous and minority minds and make us question whether or not our own knowledge systems are valid while simultaneously upholding their own. I am incredibly grateful for the inclusion of this exchange; it is generous of the authors to provide this insight into what it means to be a minority scholar.

Elsewhere in the reader, Professor Marcia Langton (Yiman, Bidjara) provides an overview of the legal and cultural tensions that occur when understanding what sovereignty means to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. The legal and cultural applications of sovereignty are at odds as the former are unable to capture what it means to be a First Nations person, thus this situation remains unresolved.

NIRIN Catalogue 16 0 2344 0 1652

Photo Credit

NIRIN Catalogue. Designed by Stuart Geddes, Trent Walter and Kim Mumm Hansen. Edited by Brook Andrew. Commissioned for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney. Image by Tom Ross.

It is worth discussing the way that artists have conceptualised what nirin, meaning ‘edge’, has meant to them. Interpretations of nirin are included in the reader, many of which position the artists/their cultures/their works as both the edge and the centre. Here, the edge is claimed as an empowering position, an example of which is the Sámi artist, Anders Sunna who states: ‘The Edge is the centre of everything. The Edge between the ice and the open water. An opportunity opens. The water that gives life.’ (10) This kind of unabashed positioning is empowering without having to labour through explaining Sámi concepts to an uninitiated readership. Together with Langton’s masterful ability to communicate complex histories and the limitations of legislation when interpreting cultural worldviews, and Vega’s willingness to share his experience, these articles from the NIRIN reader provide another platform for broad Indigenous realities to be explored.

Though my essay was initially interested in how exhibition readers can keep exhibitions alive for those who may not have visited them, or for those who want to look back on them after the fact, it became about how important they are in terms of their contributions to broader art histories. By focusing on exhibitions by Indigenous curators or including many Indigenous artists, these readers have the ability to contribute to the making of art histories told from varied Indigenous perspectives. They also provide opportunities for Indigenous curators to re-imagine the very convention of an exhibition publication and express Indigenous ways of thinking in their structures. From the acknowledgment of whakapapa to the expression of tuakana / teina, to thinking about stylistic treatments of non-English words, these exhibition readers have propelled my thinking. There is so much potential for us to entrench and embody mātauranga Māori, mātauranga-ā-iwi, in the very structures of our art histories and these readers have provided a starting point.


Endnotes

(1) Mason, Ngahiraka, ‘The State of Māori Art in an International Context,’ Sakahan: International Indigenous Art, Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 2013.

(2) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, was the exhibition’s first stop on a tour of the United States, followed by the St Louis Art Museum, the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, and the Field Museum in Chicago.

(3) Mason, ‘The State of Māori Art in an International Context,’ 96.

(4) Mason, 96.

(5) Kalāhele, 'Īmaikalani, ‘Make Rope,’ Honolulu Biennial 2019, To Make Wrong / Right / Now, Devon Bella, Josh Tengan, Nina Tonga, eds., Honolulu: Honolulu Biennial Foundation, 2019, 83. (NB: This poem appears centrally aligned, with vertical symmetry, in the HB19 reader.)

(6) Kalāhele, ‘Make Rope,’ 169-70.

(7) Bevacqua, Michael, ‘HACHA,’ Honolulu Biennial 2019, To Make Wrong / Right / Now, Honolulu: Honolulu Biennial Foundation, 2019, 173.

(8) Bevacqua, ‘HACHA,’ 180.

(9) Godoy Vega, Francisco and Brook Andrew, ‘Everyday Frustrations,’ NIRIN, Sydney: Biennale of Sydney, 2020, 87-91.

(10) Sunna, Anders, NIRIN, Sydney: Biennale of Sydney, 2020.


Places to purchase catalogues:

Honolulu Biennial 2019, To Make Wrong / Right / Now

Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu Continuel

Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art

Sydney Biennial 2020, NIRIN

About the Author

Matariki Williams (Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Hauiti, Taranaki, Ngāti Whakaue). Matariki is Pou Matua Mātauranga Māori | Senior Historian, Mātauranga Māori at Manatū Taonga | Ministry for Culture and Heritage. She is the co-author of Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance (Te Papa Press, 2019) and co-editor of ATE Journal of Māori Art. She is a Trustee of Contemporary HUM, and her writing has featured in frieze, Art in America, Pantograph Punch, e-Tāngata, ArtZone, and The Spinoff. She was formerly Curator Mātauranga Māori at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.


@ShelterousChild | @TuskCulture


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