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The Tidal Rhythms of Māori Curating

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Powerpoint and Plug. Image courtesy of City Gallery Wellington and Toi Māori Aotearoa. George Hubbard and Anna Marie White. Image courtesy of City Gallery Wellington and Toi Māori Aotearoa. Ngahiraka Mason. Image courtesy of City Gallery Wellington and Toi Māori Aotearoa. Nathan Pohio and panel. Image courtesy of City Gallery Wellington and Toi Māori Aotearoa. Mario Caro and Megan Tamati-Quennell. Image courtesy of City Gallery Wellington and Toi Māori Aotearoa.

Refreshingly, the curatorial history discussed throughout Tai Ahiahi /// Tai Awatea placed Māori at the vanguard of the curatorial turn in Aotearoa and revealed an institutional shift that has arguably maintained its integrity. This movement was also predominantly driven by iwi and artist-led energy and it paved the way for a generation of specialist Māori curators to emerge.



Invited speakers and symposium participants
Tai Ahiahi /// Tai Awatea: Curating Contemporary Māori Art


8 September-9 September 2017

There is currently an ethical crisis in contemporary art curating. The agency of the curator has long been a problem for contemporary art but due to the recent popularisation of curating, what it means to curate has invited increased scrutiny. The accusation is twofold: that the practice of curating has been reduced to an expression of personal taste and selection (1); and that the profession has become overrun by practitioners who prioritise their own career advancement and style of exhibition making over the art, the artist and the public (2). Not to mention a cunning ability of curators to sublimate critique by willingly discussing the contradictions of their practice (3).

At a two-day symposium run by City Gallery Wellington, a curatorial history was discussed that has creatively navigated these hotly contested issues. It is the history of curating contemporary Māori art and when considered as a continuum of energy stretching across a vast trajectory of time it yields a rich spectrum of innovative practices and no shortage of sincere debate.

Originally titled 50 years of Curating Contemporary Māori Art, the symposium was set to take place on the 8-9 December 2016 but was rescheduled two days after the 7.8 Kaikoura earthquake hit on 14 November 2016. However, a more modest ‘workshop model’ event did take place at the City Gallery on the originally planned date in 2016 and it gave the opportunity for a hot discussion to emerge-about what constitutes Māori art, who should curate it and what could it mean for this discussion to take place at a ‘mainstream’ art institution rather than a marae or a regional gallery. This debate was enriched with the presence of a delegation of indigenous practitioners from around Aotearoa and visiting from Australia and Canada who had attended an event the day before: If we never met—A wānanga on curating indigenous art run by Pātaka Art + Museum and held at Takapūwāhia marae.

This critical energy seems to have been a productive challenge for the City Gallery and the Symposium Committee who, after yet another date change (rescheduled for June 2017 but then later moved to 8-9 September), delivered the symposium under the more apt title Tai Ahiahi /// Tai Awatea: Curating Contemporary Māori Art.

This title was translated during the opening mihi by Tamahou Temara, Operations Manager of Toi Māori. Temara explained that it signifies the tidal movements of the ocean, the last tide at sunset (tai ahiahi) and the new tide in the light of day (tai awatea). Metaphorically, it expresses the acknowledgement of tīpuna, our ancestors that have gone before us, and the breaking of new dawns or waka venturing into unknown horizons to attain fresh knowledge. Artist and curator Huhana Smith rearticulated this in relation to curating by stating that “we are all part of these tidal rhythms … being aware of those that have gone by” and curating in this sense is to utilise a “means to gather people together”.

It is from this basis that Tai Ahiahi /// Tai Awatea was organised. The first day was dedicated to exhibitions of the 1980s to early 1990s and the second day starting with the 1990s and paddling into the international horizons of the 2000s. This historicisation charted a legacy of Māori communities, artists and curators who were determined to rigorously self-define their culture in discussion with their Pākehā colleagues and their international indigenous contemporaries. From this self-determination, a Māori curatorial history has emerged which the symposium organisers defined through a series of core questions: What is Māori Art? What is contemporary Māori Art? What is curating? How has contemporary Māori art been curated and by whom? And what does it mean to curate contemporary Māori Art?

Interestingly, this timeframe of the 1980s onwards in curating contemporary Māori art parallels the ‘curatorial turn’ that emerged in a Western European dominated international context. This gave rise to a plethora of innovative methodologies that created a radical shift in the profession globally. Yet today practices of the curatorial turn seem to have lost their effectiveness. The allegation is that the curator has become little more than an expert rhetorician who waxes lyrical about institutional critique, bringing down neoliberalism and enacting decolonisation. Curator Paul O’Neill argues that this empty curatorial rhetoric is a type of myth creation that obscures power relations (4). According to critic David Blazer, this has also resulted in a curatorial relativism where the term ‘curating’ now refers ‘to any number of things we do and consume on a daily basis’ (5).

This curatorial dead-end was highlighted in the symposium by Mario A. Caro, a lecturer in contemporary indigenous art at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his paper, Caro focused on recent US art controversies—the Whitney’s display of Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket and the Walker’s plan to permanently install Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold—to reveal that curators are still the institutional power brokers that to some extent maintain conventional discriminatory practices.

Refreshingly, the curatorial history discussed throughout Tai Ahiahi /// Tai Awatea placed Māori at the vanguard of the curatorial turn in Aotearoa and revealed an institutional shift that has arguably maintained its integrity. This movement was also predominantly driven by iwi and artist-led energy and it paved the way for a generation of specialist Māori curators to emerge.

The symposium considered seminal exhibitions to plot out this history such as Te Maori: Maori Art from New Zealand Collections, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1984); Kohia ko Taikaka Anake, National Museum, Wellington (1990); Choice!, Artspace Auckland (1990); Korurangi: new Māori art, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki (1995); Turuki Turuki! Paneke Paneke! Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki (2008); and also the influence of movements such as the annual Ngā Puna Waihanga hui of Māori artists and writers originally formed at Te Kaha Marae in 1973.

These exhibitions were not influenced by chasing the zeitgeist of European curatorial trends but by Māori self-determination in a genuine attempt to put in motion the wheels of decolonisation. Some of these exhibitions were also noted for the way kaupapa Māori principles were used as a type of curatorial methodology. Kaupapa Māori in this context was presented as a significantly different alternative to Western institutional paradigms—especially in relation to fundamental philosophical concepts such as unity and disagreement, or time and space.

Artist Robert Jahnke illustrated this in his paper by claiming that rather than a division between traditional or contemporary Māori art, the reality is more of a nuanced continuum, oscillating within a spectrum of customary, non-customary and trans-customary practice. Proposing that change is inevitable, he called for a strategy to keep Māori art within a kaupapa Māori discourse that is motivated with exposing power structures that maintain social inequalities. He argued that the contemporary art world encourages individuality at the expense of the collective and that the definition of the ‘traditional’ stems from a hangover of modernism. Of which, he ended by quoting bell hooks: ‘It is always the non-white … who is guilty of essentialism’ (6).

The integration of a kaupapa Māori perspective within curating was also discussed by Taarati Taiaroa in her paper On a Typology of Maori Art Exhibitions. Taiaroa revealed that there has been an incremental momentum created over time to create a whakapapa of exhibitions-exhibitions as part of a wider social context and multifaceted typology of practice. Starting with exhibitions that had a very generalised focus such as the first contemporary Māori Art exhibition in 1958, an untitled show at Auckland University (7) or Contemporary Maori Art at the Waikato Museum in 1976; through to more considered media or iwi specific exhibitions grounded in kaupapa Māori such as Te Puāwai o Ngāi Tahu: Twelve Contemporary Ngāi Tahu Artists, at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu in 2003.

Te Puāwai o Ngāi Tahu was also noted elsewhere in the symposium as a significant exhibition that knitted together the customary and the contemporary to ‘highlight the fluidity between old and new practice … and place the contemporary artists in the broader Ngāi Tahu whakapapa’—as noted in the exhibition catalogue by exhibition curators Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, Felicity Milburn and Megan Tamati-Quennell (8).

Coincidentally in Christchurch on 7 September 2017, the evening before the symposium, the second such exhibition of Ngāi Tahu artists opened: Paemanu: Nohoaka Toi—Ngāi Tahu Artists in Residence at the Centre of Contemporary Art Toi Moroki (CoCA). This exhibition proposes to tap into this continuum of Māori curatorial practice by being collaboratively curated by senior Ngāi Tahu artists who are part of the Paemanu organisation. Paemanu’s artist-led and collectively authored curatorial approach also actively blurs distinctions between customary and contemporary by being grounded by a taonga—a fragment of Māori rock art. In his opening speech, artist Ross Hemera explained that this taonga represents Aotearoa’s oldest art galleries that were contributed to by many people through seasonal camps over time.

The CoCA exhibition was briefly mentioned at the symposium by Nathan Pohio, a Ngāi Tahu artist and a curator at Christchurch art Gallery. He addressed the importance of rock art but preferred the phrase ‘expressions of consciousness’ or as Mario A Caro added, ‘cosmic totemic art’. Pohio explained that nohoaka as a curatorial strategy connects back to a time when Christchurch was used as a horticultural commons and site for mahinga kai (seasonal food gathering).

However, Pohio’s presentation was hindered by the short format of a panel discussion. This was a shame as there could have been much more insight drawn out by specifically linking the symposium and the CoCA exhibition. Perhaps more effort in institutional communication needs to be established here to sync our national discourse in time and space as is proposed in these rich exhibition typologies.

A clear highlight of the symposium was the artist and curator George Hubbard, well known for curating the show Choice! among other exhibitions of the 1990s. Hubbard created a humorous and critically sharp PowerPoint-based performance work riddled with art world and political satire. Performed by the curator Anna-Marie White who, in deadpan delivery, told the life story of Sooty of the UK children’s TV programme. Sooty was used here as an enigmatic radicalised moniker and a comical protagonist within a narrative fraught with societal and artistic career pressures.

Another highlight was the presence of Ngahiraka Mason, former Indigenous Curator, Māori Art, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Now based in Hawai’i, Mason’s perspective provided greater insight into how a Māori paradigm of curating might be challenged by the international. She noted that this newfound distance has enabled her to question whether “we just talking to ourselves”. Mason also called for the need of a dynamic understanding for contemporary Māori art and curating that is more open to interpretation: “it is a time of awakening … we have got into a post-Treaty mindset which renders issues black and white but the reality is more complex. We are in it together but we don’t have to agree with each other’s position … [Māori] can be the worst colonisers of other indigenous thought … We perceive that our model will work [in international contexts] but it doesn’t always.”

The symposium’s origins began with debate, and so it was also in its concluding session. Curator and Symposium Committee member Anna-Marie White argued for the importance of resisting the notion of a safe space for discussion and that in the planning for the symposium, they intentionally “went into dangerous territory”—insinuating that exhibitions that define or include Māori art curated by Pākehā should also be debated within this forum. The case in point being the impact shows such as Headlands: Thinking through New Zealand Art, curated by Robert Leonard and Bernice Murphy for the Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney in 1992.

Tai Ahiahi /// Tai Awatea marked a need to grow and focus the curatorial discourse within Aotearoa New Zealand. It also highlighted that curating contemporary Māori art has had a vibrant history shaped and contested over time by Tangata Whenua and Tau Iwi.

Bruce E. Phillips

(1) David Balzer, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2014).

(2) Paul O’Neill, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) (Cambridge, Massachusetts ; London, England: The MIT Press, 2012), 93.

(3) Ibid., 37. and Balzer, 7-14.

(4) O’Neill, 93.

(5) Balzer, 16.

(6) bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, ed. Gigi Durham Meenakshi and Douglas M. Kellner (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2001), 378.

(7) This untitled exhibition in 1958 was the subject of Ngahiraka Mason’s exhibition Turuki Turuki! Paneke Paneke! Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki (2008).

(8) Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, Felicity Milburn, and Megan Tamati-Quennell, “Curatorial Summary,” in Te Puāwai O Ngāi Tahu: Twelve Contemporary Ngāi Tahu Artists (Christchurch: Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, 2003), 8.

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