In the continuation of its publishing activity, on occasion, HUM facilitates special events. The following discussion was held at the New Zealand High Commission in London on 29 September 2018 with panelists Jamie Belich and Matariki Williams, and was chaired by HUM Editor Pauline Autet and Lana Lopesi. The panel gathered to discuss and interrogate Oceania, a temporary exhibition of ancestral and contemporary Oceanic art held at the Royal Academy, London. As the largest group display of New Zealand and Pacific art in Europe this year, we felt this was a significant moment and one that required space for open and critical debate. This special project was funded by Creative New Zealand.

Lana LopesiWhat is your relationship to Oceania?

Matariki WilliamsMy people, Ngāi Tūhoe, are inland people. I have spent most of my life returning to the hills of Te Urewera and the valley of Rūātoki. We trace our lineage back to the union between Te Maunga, a comet, and Hine-puhoku-rangi, the maiden of the mist.

My relationship with Oceania is not where my identity immediately lies. But through my work and relationships, it’s become a really important aspect to how I express the term in my work title, Mātauranga Māori, translated generally as systems of Māori knowledge. These systems are as expansive as the ocean, the islands and the people that make up Te Moana Nui a Kiwa (the Pacific.)

James BelichI’m part of New Zealand’s reverse diaspora whose project is to recolonise Britain and reframe it as the very north island of New Zealand. Brexit, some of you may not realise, is only stage one of this project.

Oceania in the east stretches to Easter Island and had some contact with South America, - because the kumara, the South American sweet potato was redistributed through the Pacific. What’s less well-known is that Oceanic influences also stretched west, to Madagascar. So Oceania was part of a remarkable globalisation that spread across the whole Southern Hemisphere, from South Africa to South America, the long way.

When European expansion began, this was the widest-spread culture group in the world. So what you see in Oceania is not just local and particular histories, though it’s that too, but also artistic expressions of one of the world’s great globalising cultures. That’s the big history of Oceania which engages me as a global and New Zealand historian. It’s relatively unsung compared to European driven globalisations, but it’s very important in terms of global history.

The other thing that intrigued me is that its history is not only big, but it’s also fast.  The latest evidence suggests that New Zealand Māori arrived in the 13th century. So even a culture as dynamic and sophisticated as the Māori is only 800 years old. Tahiti and Easter Island are not much older. And, of course, the Pākehā people of New Zealand, of whom I am one, have an even shorter history, of around two centuries.

What Oceania teaches us is that history does not have to be long to be resonant and significant. This is something my colleagues in the Northern Hemisphere have yet to fully grasp.

Pauline AutetCould you expand on the significance of this moment, the unprecedented collaboration between museums from both New Zealand and the Pacific and European museums such as the Royal Academy, which have loaned works and contributed to making Oceania happen?

JBI think this is an interesting moment for this kind of cultural enterprise. Until about 1970, European New Zealanders, as they’re still described, and European Australians saw themselves as pretty comfortably British. Not in a colonial cringing way, but as better British, capable of teaching the old British of this location a few lessons on rugby and battlefields and climbing mountains.

The world has changed since then and settler societies, like those of Australia and New Zealand, have undergone what I call a settler’s somersault. They suddenly change from being contented colonisers to positioning themselves among the colonised. Up to the 1960s, Pākehā had privileged access to what was effectively their own metropolis, namely London. But that access came from being ‘Better Britons’. Since then, we have had to recalibrate our identity. We sometimes turn to Māori culture for this purpose.

In many ways this is a good thing. It generates the wonderful hybridity you can see in Michael Parekowhai’s piano in the exhibition (He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river, 2011).

But it also creates problems. To whom does historical Oceania belong? To whom does contemporary Oceanian culture and art belong? How do Māori react to increasing Pākehā willingness to co-opt Māori culture as it’s symbol? The haka in the rugby game, the koru on the aircraft, the Māori greeting for the VIP visit. All very well but how far does this process go? And to what extent might it be in   Māori interests to encourage an autonomous Pākehā culture to which it is connected but from which it is distinct?

LLMatariki, you’re here because of your connection to Kiko Moana, the contemporary work by Mata Aho Collective which greets you as you enter the exhibition. Could you tell us about that work?

MWI’m one of four curators in the Mātauranga Māori team at Te Papa (New Zealand’s national museum.) Historically, our engagement has been mostly with taonga tuturu (object that relates to Māori). We have 30,000 taonga (treasures) in our collection, predominantly from the 18th and 19th centuries. Myself though, I have much more of a contemporary interest and that is often where I work.

Going back to what I was saying about the definitions of Mātauranga Māori, and the limitless nature of what it is that we as Māori can do, I have collected a whole range of different things, working alongside the communities that they’ve come from.

When Mata Aho were selected for Documenta 14 last year in Kassel, they contacted me and I brought them into our collection storerooms where they undertook research into Māori sewing techniques.

One thing I find beautiful about their practice is that they surface some lesser known aspects of not just Te Ao Māori (the Māori World) but also wāhine (women) Māori. The main practice that is associated with Māori women creators and the practice of wānanga, is weaving. But what is lesser known is that Māori are also sewers.

Kiko Moana, an 11 metres long work made of tarpaulin sewn together, is incredibly multi-layered, physically but also in terms of everything that they wrap around it. Alongside the physical work, we also collected a recording of their Instagram account and collected the website that they produced featuring stories of taniwha who are guardians of many places, including our waterways. Collecting those stories from friends and whānau was a really important aspect of the creation of the work.

PAMatariki, you also work with many historic objects and ancestral belongings at the national museum Te Papa. We’ll call those taonga although the limitations of that word as being New Zealand-specific should be noted as the exhibition includes many pieces that are not from New Zealand.

Could you describe the way in which taonga are treated and the protocols around display and presentation within Te Papa and New Zealand museum practice and whether this might differ here?

MWFirst I want to acknowledge that I’m not here to speak on behalf of the other island nations represented in the show. Everything I say is specifically from a Māori perspective.

And just to immediately contradict that, the New Zealand artist of Samoan and Japanese heritage Yuki Kihara whose work is on display in Oceania, was talking about the Monday morning blessings that took place before the opening of the show. Because it was such a powerful experience for so many of the people involved, she commented that it must be such a decolonising process for them. And I loved that she positioned it as that. It’s a decolonising process for the institution.

The way I interpreted this is that it’s not a decolonising process for us, this colonisation of people throughout the Pacific and throughout the world. And that’s not our burden to bear. My take is that we work towards uplifting our communities. That is where I want to put my energy. I don’t see it as a decolonising process though, I see it as a Māori-fying or indigenising process. 

At Te Papa, the inclusion of taonga, tikanga Māori or a blessing is a very normal standardised process for every single exhibition that comes on the floor at Te Papa.

LLWhen I first went into Oceania, I did a really quick whip around to find what treasures were there from Samoa. I acknowledge that the show functioned on that level. 

Then I was also really gutted to see that one of the treasures was from Te Papa – I had come all this way to London and I wanted to see everything that was out back! The way I interacted with that exhibition was to see these treasures I really wanted to see, show them some love and let them see us again. I was also trying to find my space within the Oceania show.

A question I have for both of you is, now that you’ve seen the show, whose Oceania you find is represented in the exhibition and maybe more importantly, who or what is not there?

JBIt’s a complex question. One could talk about the kind of layers of exploitation and cultural homogeneity being imposed on most parts of Oceania by European expansion. But there’s another quality that strikes me and it has to do with the Tahitian priest and expert, Tupaia. Several of his realistic drawings which were made to illustrate things to his ignorant friends, Joseph Banks and James Cook, are in the exhibition.

When Tupaia arrived in New Zealand, his voyage enabled by Cook’s ship Endeavour in 1769, he was the only person who could actually speak to Māori. His Tahitian was still 80% comprehensible.

So from the point of view of Māori, the most interesting person on the Endeavour, the alleged discoverer of New Zealand, was Tupaia the Tahitian. It became clear when, on Cook’s second voyage, Māori described the Endeavour as Tupaia’s ship. So for all the venereal disease they also distributed, Cook and co. did enable a reunion of Pacific peoples. And in a sense there’s an analogy within this Oceania exhibition itself. 

There are incrustations of colonialism. The jarring sense of seeing a carving here that should really be in Rotorua. And there will be many Pacific people who see these wonderful treasures who wonder where do these really belong? There will be all sorts of other legacies of colonialism. Yet by inverting the process of colonisation and using some of the same tools, the British Museum, the Royal Academy, the significance of the Cook legacy, the New Zealand connection with London has managed a reunion of those Pacific peoples.

MWI’ve been to the show three times now, each time quite quickly. I did the same as you Lana, went searching for Māori taonga, I think it’s quite natural to want to see yourself reflected back at you but also to see how other people have interpreted you.

The most recent time I went was this morning when the exhibition was officially opened to the public and that was the most overwhelming of the three visits because of the amount of people taking photographs. In the room where Fiona Pardington’s photographs are on display, there is a hei tiki (carved pendant) which I have gone to see a couple of times and have touched the glass of the case, but I’ve not been able to touch the pounamu (greenstone). The label says that it was collected in 1769, and that it’s not from a New Zealand collection. The sense of loss that is on display is immense and that it’s so far from home is awful.

One thing that is not in the exhibition is the people. So many people from these islands would not be able to view the exhibition because it’s in London and the question was raised at the Royal Academy symposium this week whether it could tour.

We spoke of the problems, even the financial reasons, for why exhibitions of this nature will possibly not be able to travel. These include insurance reasons and loaning institutions wanting to have reassurance that the buildings that they go into will have security and the right kind of humidity levels.

For me, that’s what’s missing: the people from these places being present.

PAIndeed, I think it is an exhibition where the object labels are very important. I kept looking again for the collection name, to know where the item is held.

One question I had entering the show revolved around the way in which the histories of the items on display, especially the ancestral belongings, would be communicated. This is especially in this context of being outside the Pacific. 

There is an audio guide accompanying the exhibition from which you can get an insight and an understanding as to where some of those items have come from, of their journey. 

So my question is, what is the importance of the communication surrounding an exhibition like this, whether in an audio guide format, or within labels? And how important is it for people to have access to the information related to the journey, history and significance of the item they’re looking at? 

Do either of you have comments on displaying works of this significance outside of their home context, and whether there are important things that we need to keep in mind to avoid the risk of them being exoticised: to be looked at and appreciated for their aesthetic value more than sometimes spiritual, religious, and cultural significance?

MWWell, despite all the conflict I have about attending, you can’t deny the huge sense of pride it is to see these contemporary works and these taonga on display in the exhibition. It’s not a simple answer because we’re dealing with a third of the world’s surface. I like your interpretation, Jamie, that it is a bringing together of peoples again.

And then also from an institutional perspective, I know that what you see on the floor and what you read on the labels is not the final story. Any institution worth its salt will have public programmes where they invite in differing opinions or differing perspectives of the source communities. That’s when you get to complicate the situation. And I mean that as a good thing, to complicate these histories, because they are complicated.

JBI don’t have a personal claim to any of the treasures that are in the exhibition but it does strike me that many of them demand to be seen. They’re rooted in particular places and particular times but they also have stories to be told.

It’s a dilemma, isn’t it? If these things are living things, what would they prefer? To be buried in a vault? Or to be seen, ideally in their original home? I’m inclined to think they’d choose being seen, especially if they’re seen in a context of respect.

In the end, everything is a compromise. And I think that on balance, the Oceania curators seem to have steered pretty damn cleverly between Scylla and Charybdis.

LLBecause I’m an art critic, I watch people watch art. Listening in to people’s conversations, there was real appreciation of the masterful craftsmanship and the materiality behind everything that was being shown which I had a lot of appreciation for as well. The show is not easy but I think there are props to be given as well.

PAConversations of these last few days have highlighted the positive outcomes that have already started to emerge from this exhibition. The forward-thinking discussions around museum practice and how that might be evolving. The understanding and appreciation for the craftsmanship but also the living cultures represented in the exhibition are definitely very positive outcomes. 

I’ve only heard good things from the artists involved, they are well looked after and appropriate protocol and events were put into place for the opening week. At the same time it’s important to encourage critical debate and reflect on the ways we can do things better. Certains issues raised by this exhibition are problematic and complicated, like you said.

So my next question is probably one of the first questions I heard being raised when the show was announced last year. It has to do with the potentially inappropriate and uncomfortable juxtaposition of conveying the exhibition as a celebration of Oceania and at the same time marking the 250 years of Captain Cook’s departure from the UK to the Pacific, because this moment is seen by many as the beginning of colonisation in the region. 

Now that the exhibition is here, how have these two things been negotiated and can they even fit together, is it possible to combine the two?

MWI’m not sure if I’ve seen any reference to Cook. But like Jamie said earlier, the reference given to Tupaia and the reverence held amongst Māori for Tupaia to be represented in the show, that is what is important for me. Māori were also going the other way, as voyagers coming to the UK.

I met someone the day of the exhibition opening, Ropata Diamond, who was invited because his tipuna, Tuai, set foot in the UK 200 years ago to the day on Monday just passed. That’s incredible.

I actually can’t remember the question. Cook? See, I’d already forgotten him.

JBIt is an interesting irony, isn’t it? Someone said earlier that people in the Northern Hemisphere weren’t as aware of Captain Cook as in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s an iconic name, a kind of symbol, of several things, actually, not just the spread of colonisation, but also of science, of a kind of humble Yorkshire man who manages to make a name in places like the Royal Society and the British Museum, despite the fact the British elite despised him.

I’ve always been intrigued by the possibility that the writer of Star Trek was fascinated by Cook’s voyages – Cook/Kirk, Endeavour/Enterprise, an interesting resonance, yes? Cook has been colonised in his turn by American television.

Then there’s the Tupaia factor which I think is important. But you raised the point that hundreds, maybe thousands, of Māori and also Tahitians and Samoans went the other way. One of the greatest collections of Māori artefacts in the world is in Salem, Massachusetts because that’s where whalers went. There’s a huge diaspora of Māori men.

LLA couple of reviews of Oceania have made comparisons to the exhibition Te Māori which is held in such regard in New Zealand, so it’s a big comparison to make. I wondered if you had thoughts about that comparison. It’s a big claim to make.

JBTe Māori (1984) was a major exhibition of Māori art which had a huge impact and on the whole, a benign effect. Te Māori was much more focused on one island people, although it had its own federalism, as it were, in terms of multi-tribalism, a powerful but problematic force in Māoridom.

In honour of Te Māori, let me note this. When my wife Margaret and I were involved in curating exhibitions at the Auckland War Memorial Museum in the late ‘90s, we proposed an exhibition called Te Pākehā which would have been about the Europeans of New Zealand as seen through Māori eyes. It would have presented Māori portrayals of Pākehā and early explorers and Cook and so on. That didn’t go down too well to be honest.

European New Zealand history was considered too recent to have museum-able objects. So there is an intriguing difference: Māori objects had the status of being in museums. Congratulations.

MWThat’s quite complicated, too. I work in a collection that has been built predominantly by European men so it’s very masculine and high status. From my perspective as a wahine Māori, it’s a collection full of gaps because there’s very little to do with women, children, the everyday. But there’s a huge amount of weaponry and tools that were arguably used by men. Great that our taonga is seen as having mana but to the founding collectors, only some of them were.

For a Māori person working or wanting to work in a museum, Te Māori is like an albatross around your neck. At the same time there is very little interrogation of the fact that there are no wāhine Māori artists represented. 

One similarity I see with Oceania is the amount of exposure that it is receiving and the way that is affecting mainstream media back in New Zealand.

I don’t want to speak on behalf of Mata Aho but seeing this clip of them with royalty make it to Māori media, and mainstream media, and that being the angle in which the exhibition is being spoken about rather than the virtue of their work... Last year, they were at Documenta, the first time New Zealand was selected for this incredibly important art exhibition. But it takes, until they have a hongi (pressing noses in greeting) with the Duchess of Sussex for media to pick this up – a year later.

PAPerhaps it’s also important to note that there are other forces at play and potentially other reasons – what with Oceania receiving a major sponsorship from the New Zealand government, as well as other Pacific nations. 

There are leveraging events that accompany these sponsorships to also push other agendas, such as tourism and diplomacy. I think it’s important to remember that yes, the cultural, the intellectual and educational elements are the core interests but other motivations also influence the way it is presented here in London.

To come back to the subject of contemporary works, several contemporary New Zealand and Pacific nations artists are included in this exhibition, and it seems quite unusual to present them alongside historic works, mingling within the same rooms. 

Do you think they influence or interact with each other or the way we read the exhibition as a whole? Do those contemporary works inform the way we read the historic works and vice versa?

LLI’ll switch into panellist mode, and say that for me, what is time? Time is not linear and actually it makes a lot of sense to have all these things together and to remind people that we’re not dead, not in the past. We’ve survived context. We’re very different. There’s a lot of diversity, thousands of languages still spoken, diaspora populations are big. It’s multifaceted and complex and complicated. So why wouldn’t you do that? Why don’t we see it happen more? 

When I walked into the show I was greeted by Kiko Moana and the spoken poem. Obviously I was there to see these ancestral belongings which had been locked away but to have that really contemporary introduction to the exhibition, I thought was a really exciting move. And while my curatorial mind thinks, of course we should hang it there because that’s the highest ceiling, I also think that makes a really politically strong statement. It’s a room full of young women. That’s dope.

MWI had a really great manager when I first started at Te Papa whose viewpoint on this continuum between taonga tuturu and contemporary taonga was that everything is knowledge, it just takes a different form. He described contemporary art as being at the sharp end of that knowledge because it forces us to think. I’m definitely of the school that there is no division between this being taonga and this being art. 

There are three taonga from the Te Papa Mātauranga Māori collection currently on display in Oceania. A pennant flag from Tūhoe, a tā moko carved panel from Ngāti Tarāwhai and Kiko Moana. To me, they come from the same base of knowledge and world views but manifest in different ways and that is how I see this curatorial overlay.

JBThere’s an interesting tension between what’s just been said by both panellists and the historian’s perspective that time is linear and that things need to be seen in the context of their own time. There are dangers in letting times blur and merge because are you being fair to people in the past when you do that? 

At the same time, I think historians can get too precious and hung up on that.  In a sense what the contemporary art in the exhibition demonstrates is the importance of hybridity, of the mishing and merging, though not blurring, of these specific island cultures and how significant that can be. 

Hybridity is a very powerful force in history which has been underrated by the propensity to nationally package history so that it’s not the interaction between two cultures that matters but the separation between them. It’s possible for those two perspectives towards time to learn from each other or at least benefit from each other to some extent.

PAI wanted to share a testimony included in the audio guide of the exhibition that seems quite fitting to finish. The Hawaiian woman speaker describes her visit to London and her finding in various museums that Hawaii has little to no footprint within the displays while she also knows that some of the most significant cultural items from her country are held within these collections.

She says that “in order to reconnect with and to recall with clarity and dignity what those items mean and continue to mean to my community, it is important for those objects to come home.”

LLSo our last question, to rephrase the last part of that quote, is, how do we get these objects to come home?

JBThis is the Elgin Marbles question, isn’t it? My view is that the Elgin Marbles should go back to Athens, if there’s an Athens. But if that’s too hard, then there has to be some kind of compromise solution whereby if not the whole exhibition then a version of it. 

Several smaller, packaged exhibitions about the Pacific, drawing on immense collections of the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and Oxford, and circulate them amongst say the Pacific Islands, and perhaps throughout New Zealand. That might be some kind of solution.

The other point is that it’s not just a colonial issue but also a national one –  one that Te Papa engages with all the time when artefacts which have very specific tribal roots are displayed in Wellington. Not always to the delight of the tribes concerned. Te Papa has a lot of experience in negotiating compromised solutions as to how that might be handled, and maybe with its advice, the British Museum could be led into the 21st century.

MWThis is a complex question and one that probably needs its own symposium. Recently, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) requested the return of a Moai from the British Museum. The museum’s response was “six million people come through our doors every year, we do not want to deprive those visitors of this engagement with your culture”. They felt it was important that Rapa Nui was represented in the museum.

In response to that, where does the value lie here? Is it the quantity or the quality? How long do these visitors spend with the Moai? What is their interaction like? How can you compare that to a lived, engaged, involved engagement back in Rapa Nui? They are incomparable. 

I know that there are digital repatriations that take place around the world as well. Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti have projects whereby they digitally repatriate taonga that they know they may not have physically returned to them but they want to have their image and their likeness with them.

Some of these taonga have very long histories and are currently conserved in conditions that could not be replicated back home. But then the question is, well, they’re suspended in this almost false life at the moment, in museum collections where everything is controlled and they are packaged in various storerooms. What brought the immediacy of this argument to me was the recent fire at the museum in Brazil. How awful was that? Knowing that taonga from New Zealand and throughout the Pacific, human remains from New Zealand were lost in that fire and that they will never return home.

The loss is so immense and is felt so intensely knowing that taonga exist on the other side of the world. So my visceral gut reaction is that they need to come home and go to their people but the reality is undeniably complicated.

LLMaybe the replicas should be the ones that stay in the museums...

PAThank you very much to everyone who has supported us in making this event happen. That includes Jo Walsh of the New Zealand Studies Network, the New Zealand High Commission, Creative New Zealand, everybody we’ve been talking with in the last year. This has actually been a year in the making so thank you to everybody and all those conversations. Finally thank you to our amazing panellists and co-chair.


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


Special thanks to Creative New Zealand for funding the event, New Zealand High Commission in London for hosting, and New Zealand Studies Network for their support.