Don’t look to Auckland Art Gallery to center Maori artists in Matariki

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Auckland Art Gallery does not have a distinct Maori presence, says Janet McAllister.

Abigail Dougherty

Auckland Art Gallery does not have a distinct Maori presence, says Janet McAllister.

Janet McAllister is a freelance art commentator.

OPINION: “Can you please tell us where we can see works by Maori artists?” I asked the staff at the Auckland Art Gallery on a recent Sunday. Their eyes widened as they blanched at a question with no satisfactory answer. “Uh,” said one. “There is Guide Kaiārahi outside? »

Yes, I could have turned around and gone back outside, in the cold, to see Reuben Paterson’s glorious waka looming. But the few pieces of Maori art currently inside are mostly pushed into the back corners or lonely at a bare maximum of one Maori artist per crowded room.

The enforced near-absence of Maori art appears to be a deliberate “trick” in the triumphant tour de force of Toi Tū Toi Ora, last year’s contemporary Maori survey exhibition, at which its genius curator, Nigel Borell has resigned, apparently over concerns over the approach of gallery director Kirsten Lacy. Adding insult to injury, Romancing the Collection’s current flagship semi-permanent exhibition is as Eurocentric as it comes, with its living room hangings, portraits and “exotic” landscapes. Like any moldy attic or second-hand bookstore, it normalizes the ideas of dead whites (who, not coincidentally, make up about 75% of featured artists).

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The problem isn’t the quality of the art; it is the lack of space left for anyone else, and more specifically, the sidelining of the tangata whenua. The answer is not to string more others under the label of individualistic romanticism. The answer is to ensure that Maori art organized in Maori terms is always well displayed. To quote Borell: “It’s about Maori being at the center of their own history”.

This is what I saw the last time I was at the gallery a little over a year ago. Then I visited as often as possible to witness the utterly thrilling Toi Tū Toi Ora. Regardless of the staggering amount of excellence, it was a curatorial landmark relying on ao Māori tea rather than Western art history. (Public Service Announcement: The exhibition’s must-see catalog is finally available – impossibly beautiful and criminally underpriced, at $65).

To this casual visitor to Pākehā, Toi Tū Toi Ora seemed like the dawn of a new era for public gallery curation. It offered an example of what Aboriginal art history looks like in practice, at a prominent address. It has changed what visitors want and expect.

A performance at the official opening of the Toi Tū Toi Ora Contemporary Māori Art exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery in 2020.

Auckland Unlimited/Provided

A performance at the official opening of the Toi Tū Toi Ora Contemporary Māori Art exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery in 2020.

But walking into the gallery now, it’s hard to believe it’s the same place. Instead of completing the thrilling Toi Tū Toi Ora challenge, it is double-crossed, ruining the visitors’ experience. I would not disrespect the heads of one of our country’s major cultural institutions by suggesting that they don’t know what they are doing. The current crackdown on Maori art and Maori conservation is probably not due to oversight – it seems deliberate. Romancing the Collection seems to be a backlash for Toi Tū Toi Ora, the conservative reform after the thrilling revolution. Romancing the large size of the collection adds power to outdated and outdated ways of thinking. It is to recolonize – to take back – the space of the gallery which barely had time to breathe. Make art even better.

Oh, the gallery has some interesting distractions and fig-leaf excuses to try to hide the shame of its fundamental negligence. There are translations of wall explanations into te reo Māori (but where is the Māori exhibit that needs to be translated into te reo Pākehā?) Two rooms are full of Lindauer and Goldie performances of tūpuna. The superb and powerful humor and horror of the Declaration: Pacific Feminist Agenda show features Pacific Maori performers. Events are planned for Matariki, but none of them have a Maori exhibit to tie into. One of the events is a wānanga toi Māori at the Aotea Center – but tickets cost $335.

Maori thought leadership, cultural tradition and innovation are of vital importance, both here and abroad. The gallery should humbly ask itself: how do we make ourselves more attractive to Maori artists, curators, designers? The gallery – full of good people – has recently made a few Maori nominations; it needs a Maori curatorial team with real power. For the benefit of all Aucklanders – all New Zealanders – and for its Tiriti obligations, the gallery should ask Maori what decision-making roles they need (co-leadership at the very least, perhaps?), and what exhibition spaces should be dedicated to kaupapa Maori.

A 10 meter tall waka by artist Reuben Paterson in the forecourt of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

Phil Walter/Getty Images

A 10 meter tall waka by artist Reuben Paterson in the forecourt of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

This advice is common. The gallery is out of step with the one million people who participated in last year’s o te reo Māori wiki. It’s out of step with the new history curriculum, Auckland Museum and Taika Waititi fans. It allows Whangārei – with Wairau, its new public art gallery dedicated to Maori – to give Auckland a provincial aspect. Organize your Mostly-Dead-White-Guys exhibits if you wish. But your permanent exhibitions of Maori art must be much bigger than one (1) wonderful waka, alone, outside, in the cold.

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