Aotearoa, embedded within Te-Moana-nui-a-Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean), has always capitalised on being far away. This is especially true from the perspective of Europe and Britain, who sent their prisoners there when it was mostly a subchapter of Australia. One of the last places on earth to be colonised, it was one of the ‘last’ places to be reimagined, which, for both coloniser and colonised, triggered hope manifest by the Treaty of Waitangi (1840). The contested, wrongly translated and flawed document passed between the Crown and the Indigenous peoples would go on to shape social and legal structures in modern day Aotearoa. It would also initiate a national psyche that moves from isolation, to openness and potentiality. How can this imagination around Aotearoa New Zealand affirm its hyper locality and actively relate to the outside? How is that tension addressed through artistic practices that are changing meanings in response to reformed global rules?
Aotearoa is not a static place outside of the rest of the world but one that actively takes part in the world and its ways of envisioning. A mere recentring of the map could see Aotearoa proudly sitting in the middle – at the same time it could be argued that Aotearoa is nothing special, not more than any other geography; still, some of its social structures and behavioural patterns and the collective imagination resulting from its isolation can become resources to radically reinterpret the remains of colonialism and build up a different society.
Visual work in Aotearoa that oscillates somewhere between a desire for the world and a form of hyper localism seems to me to be at the heart of this. Most of its inhabitants are linked, through their diasporas, to the rest of the Pacific, to Europe, Asia and to many other parts of the world, embodying the remembrance of other cultural lives; they mix with the richness and social reality of the young nation fostering Indigenous and Pacific cultural and visual practices that stand tall and articulate a more innovative perspective on its supposed isolationism.
One example is SaVAge K’lub, a performative research and action group founded in 2010, led by visual artist Rosanna Raymond. In 2019, the group, which consists of a variable number of people, was commissioned to make a new work for the Honolulu Biennial.
Settling down in an empty Honolulu café, the members took it upon themselves to set up an alternative creative hub, replacing the administrative centre of the biennial and offering a simple stop for both ‘professional viewers’ and the general audience. Using a common artistic tactic, within a Hawaiian context, it suggested a way to rethink the militarisation and deprivation of Hawaii as state and Honolulu as a city. In one instance, they injected themselves into the architectural reality of Honolulu’s Chinatown in the inner city, using camouflage suits, rockets and other military aesthetics to visualise the understood colonisation of Hawaii through military occupation. The installation could be understood as referring to one’s position and various relations with wider contexts: one enters the work’s centre and simply invites people in; as particular urban environment it points to the US occupation of Hawaii and to the Te-Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. The work was an active meeting place, with a café open day and night that operated as a hub. DJ parties in the evening, workshops and performances during the day all delivered in a surrounding of fake palms, with self-made costumes, PA equipment, drawings, paintings, flags and Pacific artefacts. If on the surface SaVAge K’lub’s intervention looked like an ongoing party, in fact, the group advocated for Vā (the VA in SaVAge K’lub), a Sāmoan world view and concept that is often explained in English as ‘the space in between’ or as the ‘holder of many types of relationships’. Vā is the foundation of both the work and of the group itself. 01
The highly critical and practical form of investigation, in the centre of Honolulu, took up the political complexity that Hawaii as Indigenous land has produced while in conflict with US governmental takeovers. Connecting the many diversities that exist within Te-Moana-nui-a-Kiwa as a concept (it covers a vast geographical, political and social area) links the various knowledges that exist between cultural practices. Aotearoa connected with Hawaii. Raymond often calls this form of working ‘self-education’. For the artist, knowledge is created by actively retracing the steps where one comes from, eventually feeding back and contributing to one’s communal knowledge. Within Aotearoa, in Te Ao Māori – the Māori world view – this retracing, is called whakapapa, a form of genealogy that extends far beyond linkage between families. It is the first mode of operation in Aotearoa.
As a loose community of ever-changing members of performers, academics, artists and actors, SaVAge K’lub advocates for radical decoloniality through re-savaging the spatial elements or habitats they are invited to. They do so by using both the image of the savage often associated with the figure of the Indigenous as a vehicle for criticality, as well as by playfully subverting its recognition. Tracing one’s linkage to a place and time becomes the basis for getting out of isolation and articulating new thoughts about old places. Moreover, this redefinition of Indigenousness is also done through queer strategies. Queerness, perhaps one of the most recognisable characteristics of SaVAge K’lub, appears as the opportunity for the radical reimagination of all possibilities, out of isolation SaVAge K’lub’s multiple performative, political and artistic appearances, employ queer strategies to reflect on Pacific and Indigenous gender regimes as a ‘tool of normality’ towards change.
Back to Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, another form of isolation manifested itself in 2019 when the library of the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland closed its doors permanently and set off a wave of protests from the local (art) community. Despite a collective sense of loss, self-organised artistic activity started to emerge, first by a group that would call themselves Samoa House Library, named after the old Samoan Consulate once housed in the building they would occupy.
Organised initially by current and former students, one goal was to preserve the knowledge kept in the library by restoring the books and producing an alternative to the defunct old reading room, or to consider how things could be organised otherwise. This was driven by an ethos of ‘organisation making’ without relying on the institutional framework so far provided. In place of acknowledging isolation and loss, Samoa House Library produced not only a library open to the public, but also artists’ studios, a gallery and a rich events programme to reconnect to peers and knowledges.
This might be key in a place where there is little curatorial education, limited possibilities to exhibit work and an indulgence in a supposed disconnection from the world. Samoa House Library began to take stock of what the urgencies were for young students and how the gaps in their need for knowledge could be filled and organised. They initiated online talks with practitioners based both here as well as abroad such as curator Mohammed Salemy and writer Samuel Te Kani (before the Covid-19 pandemic) and concentrated reading groups on often sensitive social topics, such as escalating cybernetics and the uplifting of Māori knowledge. Similarly to SaVAge K’lub, the Samoa House Library mobilised clear communal forms of knowledge and proposed a positive alternative for educational change by illustrating on a larger and visible scale that there is space for many organised platforms in a place that has not always been hospitable to the needs of the many.
Another example of reimagining isolation has been proposed by Gisborne-based visual artist Nikau Hindin who is engaged in the remaking of Aute or ‘barkcloth’, a paper-like textile made from mulberry trees. Well-known throughout Te-Moana-nui-a-Kiwa for many centuries, in some communities its production has been forgotten and the knowledge lost. Aotearoa provides a base to retrace and reimagine the workings of these amazing cloths abundant with communal, social and cultural significance through their depictions and representations of life and addressing issues ranging from modernity to ceremonial practices in individual families. Hindin is part of a younger generation of visual artists and researchers who redefine the limits of the materials, their classic production and use, as well as reinterpret to investigate and reflect on contemporary Indigenous life. As a material, perhaps barkcloth provides one of the most natural bridges between generations, where those who hold knowledge have become a renewed inspiration for young artists, like Hindin.
Beyond the concentration on materiality, as an artist, what Hindin seeks to do is retrace and affirm her relationship to the outside world. If there is a stark example of Indigenous imagination that argues for innovative connections with the rest of the world – through the natural but also the political – it is Aute as well as the many other forms of traditional barkcloth. 02
Recent works by Hindin depict and shuffle star signs as meaningful spiritual and geographic wayfinders. Obviously a personal route for Hindin to reconstruct Māori knowledge, the work opens up to speak to larger groups of people who seek to reconnect to natural elements, and manifests a resurgence of the return to Indigenous epistemologies. Since its modern inception, Aotearoa has seen active governmental and social dynamics that undermined and discarded Indigenous identities. Indigenous languages were suppressed from schools and public life and the practice of many art forms was banned.03
Hindin, and with her many others, look not necessarily to relive materials or advocate for a direct return to nature per se; rather they channel lost knowledges about these materials into maturity and reorient them to be used in contemporary society, beyond their materiality alone. This perhaps underlines their regeneration through communal making and argues that knowledge, especially that of barkcloth, cannot exist isolated. Their processes of making and their size are simply too large and communal in nature.
Through barkcloth and its tactility, Hindin argues, we can approximate Indigenous knowledge and extend beyond it. What it refers back to then is not a traditional form of making alone, but an innovative approach to try and define contemporary life, by adding, firstly, knowledge back into the public domain and refit its social purpose. Rather than speaking for an individualistic celebration of the material, her work suggests that this knowledge is urgent and can be mobilised and embedded in our imagination to remind us that as a people in Aotearoa who want to truly progress, it is from here that we might be best equipped to do so.
The artistic practices of SaVAge K’lub, Samoa House Library and Nikau Hindin depart consistently and confidently from Aotearoa and are compelling cases of current visual work that sometimes dwells in isolation, but which in fact constantly addresses and searches for relationships with the outside. Somehow this outside performs a geographical function that defines a unique social interest or questions the way local identity is built. Perhaps it works because it can dwell both in isolation if it needs to and open up if it wants to.