WHEN I FIRST encountered ‘Te Kete Rokiroki’ I was struck by its elegant clarity of form. Made by Hōhua Thompson (Te Arawa, Ngāti Awa, Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti, Ngāti Kahu), the work was exhibited as part of From the Ground Up: Community, Cultivation and Commensality at the Dowse Art Museum in late 2020. Banks of Wardian cases, arranged in three receding chevrons, housed uniform mounds of dark soil. A diffuse scatter of water droplets clung to the interior of each transparent case, the beading disrupted by small rivulets of condensation tracing downwards to nourish the soil. Young kūmara shoots emerged from this soil, the bright chlorophyll-green of their leaves tightly clustered, emergent, vulnerable.
The significance of this precarious new growth was contextualised by a pūrākau, passed down to Thompson by his father, detailing the migration of their tipuna from Hawaiki to Maketū in the Bay of Plenty. Thompson recounts part of this pūrākau in the exhibition wall label, writing, ‘most of the fruit, vegetables, plants and seeds were lost, except for the kūmara, which had been saved by Whakaotirangi. She held fast to the basket and didn’t let it go overboard—this basket became known as Te kete rokiroki o Whakaotirangi, the secure basket of Whakaotirangi’ . That kete, and the kūmara it held, were made secure through the care—rokiroki—enacted by Whakaotirangi. In Thompson’s work, the physical aspect of this kete is replaced by the Wardian case. This apparatus was invented in the early nineteenth century to transport plants on long ocean voyages, serving the enlightenment ideals of discovery and scientific categorisation which fuelled colonial expansion. By placing the Wardian case within the confines of an art gallery, Thompson utilises these tools of the European colonial project, but leverages their power to privilege indigenous modes of knowledge transmission. ‘Te Kete Rokiroki’ layers together multiple ocean voyages with culturally embedded systems of meaning, offering a complex meditation on whakapapa, colonisation, kaitiakitanga, and the power and politics of storytelling.
Over the five-month period that ‘Te Kete Rokiroki’ was on show, the kūmara plants continued to grow, thriving in their purpose-built environment. I returned more than once, observing the passage of time as it was made visible by the growth of each plant, their ability to flourish in the gallery striking me as something both fragile and miraculous. For me, Thompson’s work gains its power—in significant part—by explicitly situating the gallery as a site of care, a space in which the ideal conditions have been provided for life to thrive. The care embodied in this work is multifaceted. Most obviously care is given to the plants themselves, but it also extends to encompass the histories these plants embody.
The concept of care is, in one respect, central to the infrastructure of the art world. As a rapidly expanding archive of essays persists in reminding us, the word curate traces its etymological roots directly back to care. In the context of a European arts system, however, this care is grounded in notions of preservation and conservation—the custodianship of significant objects by people working within an institutional framework. But what apparatus of care exists for the people that operate within that framework? What provision of care is built into the arts ecosystem to nurture the careers of the artists, curators, conservators, technicians, administrators, educators, and writers who sustain it? In 2018, Creative New Zealand and NZ on Air commissioned research into the sustainability of artistic careers in Aotearoa. The findings, published in the report, A Profile of Creative Professionals 2019, confirmed what many of those working in the sector already knew to be true: that it is prohibitively difficult to make a full-time living working in the arts in Aotearoa. The scarcity of consistent financial remuneration, coupled with the highly competitive nature of an industry based on individual excellence, has resulted in a perpetual state of uncertainty for most arts workers. While the events of recent years may have wildly exacerbated the precarity of working in the arts sector, the burnout caused by temporary contracts, piecemeal funding, job scarcity, and volunteer labour is far from new. These issues are deeply entrenched and require more than surface-level alteration: the resulting iniquities must be challenged at both a fiscal level and at a more human one. An ethics of care offers one possible pathway through this terrain.
Caring remains a deeply undervalued concept in Pākehā society. This devaluation stems, largely, from gendered expectations around care work. The longstanding feminization of care may have its ideological roots in Victorian England, but it retains a powerful influence in the contemporary world. The labour of care remains predominantly unpaid—in the domestic sphere—and severely underpaid in the professional sphere. To work towards an ethics of care, the concept itself must be reclaimed as a dynamic, reciprocal one—a value that is crucial to an enriched human existence. The field of care ethics, which emerged in the 1980s, has reframed care as both a moral and a political concept. Olena Hankivsky has argued that within care ethics, ‘care is seen as a contrast to the individualistic nature of liberalism and a radical basis from which to rethink human nature, human needs, and how political judgments are made to ensure more democratic policies in which power is more evenly distributed’ . The even distribution of power is central to this understanding of care ethics, a principle antithetical to the hierarchical structure that has shaped the Pākehā-dominated arts infrastructure of Aotearoa since its establishment.