New Zealand, or Aotearoa as I have come to think of it, using the Māori name – the land of the long white cloud – is both familiar and foreign. Arriving into the Auckland summer from the UK winter is a sort of time travel. The seasons speed up. For the first few days it was not just the weather that was confusing me; I had a kind of existential panic: what am I doing here?
My trip was an opportunity to research the long history of pre-colonial performance in Māori visual culture, under the auspices of a British Council and Arts Council England fellowship: the Artists International Development Fund. From the outset, my hosts Auckland University and Auckland War Memorial Museum had warned me that it is both difficult and potentially discourteous to simply drop into an investigation of Māoridom. With a lived experience and history of racism and oppression, tangata whenua – the people of the land – are necessarily wary about outsiders coming over to ‘study’ them. There are also taboos against sharing knowledge with strangers. As Cleve Barlow states in Tikanga Whakaaro, his book which explains key concepts in Māori culture, ‘I have pondered for a long time as to how best to disseminate this knowledge to others without revealing too much (as I was taught in my own training), but still being able to offer a useful basis from which others could achieve greater understanding.’ [p.xvi]
It was certainly not my intention to pursue some sort of anthropological investigation, to appropriate, or even to fully understand Māori ritual. As much as anything I was interested to see how Māori culture operates alongside, without and within, contemporary pākehā (foreigner, white New Zealander) culture. A starting point for the research was to consider the pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony), whakapapa (statement of ancestry and belonging), and haka (war cry and celebratory). These ceremonies and rituals are what are superficially familiar, and in the case of the haka, internationally exported, but in terms of their rationale and context they are by no means familiar to those who have not spent time on a marae (the space of Māori community).
It was a good time to be in Aotearoa New Zealand, as discussions of national identity were everywhere.
The 1st February was Auckland Anniversary Day, a controversial commemoration, celebrating as it does the arrival of William Hobson, later the first Governor of New Zealand in the Bay of Islands in 1840. For the first time this year a dedicated Māori Festival ran alongside the regatta, funfair, circus and general merriment on a hot bank holiday weekend. Tāmaki Herenga Waka Festival maintained a separate identity (and a separate venue) to the other activities of the day. There was no attempt to conjoin cultural celebrations.
There were wood carving workshops, traditional healing, classes in the use of medicinal plants, food and craft stalls, and both contemporary and traditional entertainment on the main stage.
To a casual observer it may have been easy to dismiss the festival as a kind of historical cultural performance of the kind ‘put on’ for tourists at Auckland War Memorial Museum. At the museum I had sat in the auditorium feeling slightly uneasy at the 30 minute ‘Māori Cultural Performance’, which is staged 3 times a day for visitors. The performers appeared to relish the opportunity to share their music and performance traditions and they did so with skill, gusto and humour, but in the museum setting, robbed of any wider context, it was difficult not to be reminded of the way in which museums and collections have made a fetish out of human display, and reduced the ‘other’ to exotic savage.
At the Tāmaki Herenga Waka Festival however, it was not the same. For a start the audience was different. Friends, family and neighbours, had come to support Te Waka Huia performance group. On at least one occasion, a member of the audience sang a lengthy response from where she had been watching, and those on stage stood patiently waiting for this unplanned but not quite unexpected intervention to finish.
The song and dance were entertaining and enjoyable but to someone (like me) who doesn’t speak Te Reo Māori, it was very difficult to understand what they were singing and dancing about. This shifted dramatically when the the group leader, came to the front of the stage and vehemently protested the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) agreement that the New Zealand government was committed to signing in the following few days. He talked passionately about his belief that the TPP threatened Aotearoa New Zealand sovereignty and the rights afforded to Māori iwi (tribes) by the Treaty of Waitangi. He then announced that the Te Waka Huia had created a new protest haka, which they then went on to perform.
It was an forceful form of protest, full of emotion, and it also made clear that any casual understanding of the haka as a historical cultural performance, was untenable. The power of the moment was undeniable.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement was signed on 4th February, against a backdrop of mass protests in the streets. Auckland is an extremely diverse city, perhaps a bit ghettoised, with communities sticking together separately, but at the protests it really did seem like the population was represented. Māori writer and political commentator Morgan Godfery commented, “Personally, I haven’t seen Māori society this politicized in at least five or six years.” One of the main grievances is that the Treaty of Waitangi states that the government must consult with iwi before entering into international accords, and this did not happen. (Other concerns, shared by many, include corporate companies being given the right to sue the New Zealand government under the investor-state settlement clause, which many fear would result in big business being able to hold states to ransom, and profit being put ahead of national decision making.)
Waitangi Day, which commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 followed on two days later on 6th February. Although it is the national day, it is a day that has been marred in controversy since the treaty was first signed. There are differences in the English and Māori versions of the treaty, which has led many to conclude that the Māori chiefs were subject to fraud. Indeed not all chiefs chose to sign the treaty in the first place. The treaty has been observed or ignored by successive governments since its signing, but in 1975 the Treaty of Waitangi Act gave it contemporary legal standing.
I spent the morning of Waitangi Day on the Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei marae at the open invitation of the community. Marae are on private land and it is common for there to be open days, where people are welcomed. These events are treated with formality and respect, in a similar way to an interfaith dialogue meeting.
The time-honoured protocol sets out a series of customs and rules. The pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony), includes the karanga (welcome call), whaikōrero (formal speech-making), and hongi (salutation of the pressing of noses and foreheads). After reading and discussing so much about Māori culture it felt both an honour and quite emotional to be welcomed onto a marae.
The difference between looking at a whare whakairo (carved ancestral house) and pataka (store house) in the museum close-up, that are being painstaking restored and the one at the centre of the Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei community, is like the difference between the dinner service mounted on the wall never to be used, and the plates you eat your off.
Both have value in different ways.
The current Prime Minister John Key has faced direct and personal protests on Waitangi Day, over several years. This year was no exception. Denied his usual speaking rights in protest at the TPP by the Ngapuhi Te Tii marae where the celebrations usually commence, Key refused to attend.
Key was also widely ridiculed for what many saw as an opportunistic and self-aggrandising attempt to change the New Zealand flag. Throughout my time in Auckland, there was ongoing consultation, debate and reporting about changing the flag ahead of the second referendum in March 2016. Alternative versions of the flag were seen flying on masts around the country.
Although many of the people that I spoke to agreed that it was inappropriate to have the Union Jack on their flag, they also felt the way the process of change had been handled was at best messy and at worst simply a way for Key to try and assert his own legacy. In the end the people voted not to change the flag. For many the real change that needs to happen is for the country to ditch the UK monarchy and become a republic. (What would happen to the Treaty of Waitangi, formed as it is between the ‘crown’ and the ‘iwi’, if Aotearoa New Zealand were to become a republic, I’m not sure.)
My impression over these weeks was that Aotearoa New Zealand is a politically active democracy with opportunities for public debate and an accepted convention of disagreement and dialogue. But as more than one of the many people I met told me, “It’s not normally like this. You’ve come at a very particular time.” It was extremely lucky, given my research interest, that there were these public conversations during my visit. It meant that the ‘performance of nationhood’ floated to the surface of social interaction.
Before I left the UK, I was invited to participate in a group show at the Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery in Titirangi in West Auckland. Knowing that my time in Aaotearoa New Zealand was going to be taken up with my project, I wanted to create a work that I could easily export without it reducing the time I had for my research.
The title of the show was ‘They Come From Far Away’, and I decided to take that literally. What does it mean for an artist to be shipped in from across the world and to enter into the aesthetic, artistic, intellectual and social complexities of a different land? My ongoing investigation into the anatomy of the nose, led me to a particular interest in the Māori hongi – the pressing of noses and foreheads. So I created a ‘golden hongi’: a gold-plated double false-nose, cast from my own.
My plan was that a wooden packing crate would stand in the Te Uru gallery, the kind used to transport art and precious objects across the world: to export culture. My head would comically poke out of a hole cut in the wooden case. Strapped to my face would be the ‘golden hongi’, a double sculpture of two noses touching.
This golden hongi is not the warm touching of flesh, of nose and forehead together. It is a cold metallic offer, waiting for the perfect fit, a Cinderella hongi, perhaps. My aim was to press questions about cultural appropriation and the role of the artist in international exchange.
But having actually been welcomed onto a marae myself, having experienced the pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony), whakapapa (statement of ancestry and belonging), haka (war cry and celebratory), and having pressed my nose and forehead along a line of 20 or so members of Ngāti Whātua o Ōrākei, I became increasingly unsure and uncomfortable about my plan. On the one hand I remained clear about my intentions. On the other, I was unsure about how the piece would be (mis)read. I felt uncomfortable representing a living tradition of a marginalized people, albeit that the representation was itself trying to raise questions about misrepresentation through meaningful engagement. I perceived a gap between my intention and the potential reception by an audience.
In the end I decided not to show the ‘golden hongi’. Instead I had a single golden nose that I had made sent express from London. The gold nose is at once a kind of protective armour and an ornamental piece of jewellery in a precious metal that is nevertheless still comical. Peering out of the packing crate, as if just shipped in from abroad, I still hoped to press questions about international cultural exchange, while purposefully making myself a comic curiosity.
In a way, my self-censorship – the removal of the ‘golden hongi’ – is symbolic of what I discovered from my research trip in general. I have left with more questions than answers about what it is possible to ‘know’ about another culture. I’m also not sure exactly how I can ‘use’ what I have learnt. Perhaps there will be no direct outcome but I have made many connections to the people and land of Aotearoa New Zealand and contributed to my thinking about the role of performance in the production of identity and nationhood.
In the words of the narrator of The Bone People by Keri Hulme:
‘I salute the breath of life in thee, the same life that is breathed by me, warm flesh to warm flesh, oily press of nose to nose, the hardness of foreheads meeting. I salute that which gives us life.’
(First published 1984 by Spiral, Wellington. 2001 by Picador, p.321/2)