Indigenous art curatorial practice; ideas and observations

Indigenous art curatorial practice; ideas and observations

I am blogging a paper, as below, written in response to an invitation to talk about Indigenious art curatorial practice for the recent Pacific Art Association XII International Symposium. The symposium was held in Auckland during the week of 14 – 17 March 2016 and in a number of venues across the city including Orakei Marae, Auckland Museum, Auckland University of Technology and Toi o Tamaki, the Auckland Art Gallery. The paper (as below) was delivered on the 15 March, 2016 at the Auckland University of Technology. It was 15 minute paper and panel discussion that featured three speakers – two Pacific art curators; Ioana Gordon-Smith and Leuli Eshraghi, and myself and was moderated by Pacific Art Historian Dr Caroline Vercoe.

Te Maori

Te Maori, 1984

Te Maori was the first exhibition of taonga whakairo to have left New Zealand with the approval of Iwi communities. The exhibition which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1984, was a turning point for Māori art and created a paradigm shift in the way that Māori art was valued and viewed in New Zealand and radically transformed museum and art gallery practice here.

The exhibition, Dr Hirini Moko Mead said, launched Māori art into the consciousness of the art world, took Māori art out of ‘obscurity’ and redefined it as ‘a great art that could take its place alongside other great art traditions’, [1] It also opened the way for the recognition of contemporary Māori art within the art mainstream, 30 years after the first attempts at acceptance from a small group of post-war Māori artists. Māori artists who are now acknowledged as the pioneers of the contemporary Māori art movement and often now referred to as the Maori modernists.

In the late 1980s following Te Maori, New Zealand art galleries began collecting contemporary Māori art seriously and contemporary Maori art became viewed as an important and distinctive strand of New Zealand art history.  Development continued in the 1990’s with the advent of biculturalism and with the graduation of a new generation of artists from art schools dubbed by the late Maori Art Historian Jonathan Mane Wheoki as the ‘young guns’ or the ‘Māori internationals’ with currency both nationally and globally. There is now a third and developing fourth and maybe even fifth generation of contemporary Māori artists.  The 2000s saw the rise of contemporary Indigenous art globally, with new communication technologies, social media and cheaper and more accessible international travel ‘creating art worlds everywhere to connect more closely’, as Australian art historian Terry Smith contends in his book Contemporary Art: World Currents.[2]

Te Maori also highlighted the necessity of a Māori art curatorial practice and saw the establishment of Taonga Maori curatorial positions in many metropolitan Museums in New Zealand. But what about the development of contemporary Maori art curators?

Despite contemporary Māori art moving from strength to strength and continuing to evolve as an art that does not ‘collapse into sameness’, another Terry Smith quote,[3] the sector has placed little importance on the advancement of contemporary Māori art curators to work in tangent with and grow the scholarship and meaning related to contemporary Maori art through research, exhibition and publishing.

There have been no focused strategies, no foundational initiatives, no convergence of influence or  development of critical mass created by the sector to provide contemporary Māori art curators with opportunities to evolve our curatorial practice further. Most of the expansion of contemporary Maori art curatorial practice I would submit has been self-seeded and created by the art curators themselves.

Australian Art Historian Ian McLean in his essay Surviving ‘The Contemporary’: What indigenous artists want and how to get it, describes indigenous art being accepted as contemporary art, as being ‘it’s defining struggle in the modern era.’   And goes on to say, ‘Indigenous artists cannot rely on either an epochal change that seemingly brings them into the fold, or perceptive Western critics to get them what they want. They have to go out and get it themselves…There is no point having a seat at the table if you can’t speak the language, narrate the narrative, or dance the dance…[4]

Native American art curator Paul Chaat Smith, adds to that by saying in his book ‘Everything you know about Indians is wrong; ’Most native artists … (and I think this also relates to contemporary Indigenous art curators), ‘are professionally not so different than their non-native peers. But this does not mean we don’t have something unique and valuable to offer…

‘This new generation must dare for something bolder. For those willing to leave behind the cheap, played-out clichés, a great project awaits. It is nothing less than reclamation of our common history of surviving the unparalleled disaster of European contact and the creation of something new and dynamic from the ashes…[5]

Contemporary Māori art like other art is now diverse and not easily defined. All art is contemporary in that it is of its time but can only be approached from the continually changing present. Contemporary Māori art like Maori culture can be defined by both its persistence and connection with our rich tupuna (ancestral) culture and past, but also by its ability to constantly move, change and renew itself. So like Māori people and the culture post-colonisation, modern and contemporary Maori art deals with notions of the constructed, the changing, and the redefinition of the self and world. Contemporary Indigenous art curatorial practice I would suggest is the same.

It is clear that the curatorial field I inhabit has not been actively grown when my curatorial position is one of only two dedicated contemporary Māori art curatorial positions in the country. I am probably the most established, having a curatorial career that spans 26 years and in a position that progressed from an initial 10 month internship founded at the National Art Gallery in 1990 to what is now the Curator of modern and contemporary Māori & Indigenous art at Te Papa.

Curatorial practice to me is an accumulative process with knowledge and understanding of both artists’ work and curatorial practice gained and strengthened over a sustained period of time. So having dedicated positions within the art mainstream, to shift ground for contemporary Indigenous art, but to also learn your ‘curatorial craft’ is critical.  Using the analogy of weaving a kete, weavers say you cannot call yourself a weaver until you have woven 100 kete. It is perhaps the same with curatorial practice that through practice, your skill, knowledge and perhaps your influence evolves.

With my curatorial practice I attempt to do many things. A key impetus though is to open space, through researching, recovering, presenting and writing about indigenous art histories and through building the collection of modern and contemporary Maori and Indigenous art at Te Papa. Exhibitions and collections to me, are still two fundamental building blocks of art history.

I would offer that is it is the contemporary Maori art curators; Ngahiraka Mason ex Curator of Maori art at Toi o Tamaki, Auckland Gallery and myself who have actively championed the recovery of modern Maori art by curating shows and developing the collections of those first generation artists in our respective institutions, supported by the leading scholarship of Dr Jonathan Mane Wheoki, Dr Damian Skinner, Dr Peter Brunt, Dr Michael Dunn with his work on Theo Schoon and Gordon Walters and Luit Beiringa with his research and work on Gordon Tovey and other art scholars and historians. Which other art institutions in this country are exploring or looking critically at that art history?

Hotere works on paper

Te Ao Hou, Modern Māori art, Ralph Hotere, works on paper

Te Ao Hou, Modern Maori art 2.

Te Ao Hou, Modern Māori art, Para Matchitt, Theo Schoon, Ralph Hotere, Arnold Manaaki Wilson

I personally have also gained insight from international projects in this area, including the work of Native Canadian curator Michelle LaVallee, her groundbreaking exhibition and publication, Group of 7, Professional Native Indian Artists Incorporated, and the scholarship of the leading international Multiple Modernisms project that Dr Peter Brunt, Dr Ian McLean, Dr Nicholas Thomas and others are involved in.

With my curatorial practice (and I have used variations of these definitions, drawn in part from various pieces of writing by Metis academic and artist David Garneau, mixed with my own thinking to define contemporary Māori art, but they apply equally to my curatorial practice), I ensure there is an Indigenous presence always in Nga Toi, Arts, Te Papa, the key art project at Te Papa and work hard to build a strong and reputable collection of modern and contemporary Māori and Indigenous art that articulates and charts a Māori art history. That collection includes significant modern and contemporary Māori and Pacific art and artists, key examples of their practices. I have also recently been able to consider and look at the acquisition of contemporary Australian Indigenous artists for the collection, including artists such as Tracey Moffatt and the late and important Gordon Bennett, both of whom opened space and ‘changed the game’ for contemporary Indigenous art.

In all aspects of my curatorial practice I also work to deconstruct incorrect representations of Māori and Indigenous art and culture which includes reframing ideas about customary and contemporary Māori art and ‘unsettling the line’ between them.  Within that I actively work to present alternative notions and perspectives that shift limited thinking including signifying and displaying ‘different ways of knowing and being’ and demonstrating ‘bi-cultural competence’, not just in having bilingual text in exhibitions which Te Papa now does for every art show and which I applaud, but further than that and more obliquely, in the exhibitions’ conceptual underpinning and overall development.

Black Rainbow

Black Rainbow, Michael Parekowhai & Ralph Hotere

I also often curate for Māori and Indigenous audiences, so there is something specifically for that audience and so they can get/understand/read the exhibition on their own terms. In recent years I have also worked to locate ‘personal, familial and tribal experience in a global context’.   A final key provocation to open space that I work towards is, to create exhibitions that ‘resist ideological closure or fixed position’, in keeping with the art I represent which is also not fixed and continues to evolve.

Although I said there have been no developed strategies or focused opportunities from the museum and art gallery sector, New Zealand’s major arts funding body Creative New Zealand has recently begun creating schemes that endeavor to support the development of contemporary Māori art curatorial practice. But is it too little too late and are they strategies that will take us anywhere?

The first and most recent is the First Nations Curators Exchange, a two-stage cultural exchange that occurred in October/November last year. Four established contemporary Māori art curators, myself included, were supported to attended (APT8) the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane with four Indigenous curators from Australia and four from Canada. Later this year we will host the Canadian and Australia curators in New Zealand. The programme was delivered in partnership by CNZ with the Australia Council for the Arts and the Canada Council for the Arts. So it was a good initiative. I have included below, a link to an article in Artforum about APT8 and The First Nations Exchange and International Visitors programme.

When I asked was it too little too late, I wasn’t meaning to be ungenerous, it was a privilege to be selected and to be there, but as an Indigenous art curator I have been engaging with contemporary Indigenous art curators and artists in Australia and in Canada for over 20 years as it is part of the context I work within. I have a solid reputation and work record in those international contexts and I have been talking to Creative New Zealand about contemporary Indigenous visual art opportunities, artist and curatorial, since 2004.


Gifted, Aboriginal art 1976 -2011

Gifted 2.

Gifted, Aboriginal Art 1976 – 2011

Another initiative is the Maori Arts Internship (MAI) Programme. The programme however is not strictly a curatorial one. The webpage text says it focuses on; ‘Māori arts managers, professionals and producers, to support Māori arts infrastructure, and establish pathways for emerging Māori who wish to embark on a career in the arts.’  Chloe Cull, a Ngai Tahu woman and a recent art history graduate from Victoria University, who undertook a MAI programme is now an assistant curator at the Govett Brewster Art Gallery in Taranaki, so perhaps it is an initiative that will help.

There are two other internship programmes that emerging contemporary Māori and Pacific art curators have also benefited from, run by two New Zealand art galleries, The Dowse – with the Blumhardt Curatorial Internship that Reuben Friend, Ane Tonga and Bridget Reweti have been the recipients of and was a conduit for Reuben and Ane to move into art curatorial practice. And an internship programme at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery that Ane Tonga is currently engaged with.

I wanted to mention two other recent initiatives that I think support Māori art curatorial practice. The first is Rangi Panoho’s seminal book Maori Art; History, Architecture, Landscape and Theory published last year that creates a Toi Tahuhu (his term), an expansive Māori art history. Written from an interior position, from the inside out, it is a book that presents a perspective that is Rangi’s own, but also encapsulates the fluidity of Māori art in all its manifestations, its complexity and multiplicity.  I don’t think we have had anything like it before.

The last, to close my presentation, that I am involved with in a curatorial capacity and which opens space internationally, is the development of a documenta-style international Indigenous art project created by Native Canadian curator Greg Hill and supported by the National Gallery of Canada.  The first quinquennial exhibition of International Indigenous art, Sakahan an Algonquin word meaning ‘to light a fire‘, opened at the National Gallery in Ottawa in 2013, the next is in development and will open in 2018. The Indigenous quinquennial (working title) is a project that offers an international platform for global contemporary indigenous art.

Peter Robinson, Retorts and comebacks

Peter Robinson, Retorts and comebacks

In his essay Necessary essentialism and Contemporary Aboriginal art; David Garneau, declared that ‘The long gestation of the Indigenous as meta-discursive beings means, for example, the end of traditional anthropology – in the sense of Peoples in need of dominant others to read them into being. We read, write and critique ourselves into contemporaneity… [6]

For me the artists in Sakahan did not represent nations, Indigeneity comes before nationality. The artists in Sakahan and in the next Indigenous quinquennial, instead represent ‘the condition of being indigenous’. I think that nuanced position and notion, is where we now are.

Nga mihi kia koutou

[1] Hirini Moko Mead, ‘From obscurity to international art’, Magnificent Te Māori, Te Māori whakahirahira: he korero whakanui i Te Māori, 1986.

[2] Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents, introduction, (Laurence King and Pearson/Prentice-Hall, 2011)

[3] Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents, introduction, (Laurence King and Pearson/Prentice-Hall, 2011)

[4] Ian McLean, Surviving ‘The Contemporary’: What indigenous artists want, and how to get it, Broadsheet,accessed 7/3/2016

[5] Paul Chaat Smith, ‘On Romanticism’, Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), p.

[6] David Garneau, unpublished essay, ‘Necessary Essentialism and Contemporary Aboriginal Art, ‘Essentially Indigenous?’ National Museum of the American Indian, New York, 5-6 May 2011

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *