I Exist in Relationship to You

Johnson Witehira, Half-Blood, 2016, image courtesy of the artist
In this essay, Kim Paton reflects on how Aotearoa New Zealand gallery Objectspace engages culturally diverse practitioners, communities of makers and audiences

Galleries, museums, artists, makers. We are all very good at talking about the ways in which our work teaches us something valuable about the world we live in. We are good at talking about reaching audiences and connecting outwards.

It is increasingly rare to encounter a themed group exhibition or international biennale that doesn’t offer up some kind of critique of power structures. The exhibition is presented as a potent framework for delivering criticism and offering a unique alternate view (at times even acting as problem solver) on the gravest of global issues - ecological catastrophe, social and cultural inequities and the politics of neo-liberalism. There is an assumption, a belief, that art and culture makes us better, offers us a democracy and a morality that will guide us through uncertain times.

The contention with this, is of course the power structures and inequities that shape the cultural system. Shaping who walks through the gallery or museum doors as a visitor, and whose work, whose culture, whose histories they will encounter once inside.

«What are the preferences, biases and assumptions that shape our organization?»

Kim Paton

In Aotearoa New Zealand, a colonized remote south pacific set of Islands, we exist within a bi-culturalism between Māori – the indigenous peoples, and Pākehā – the descendants of European settlers. Layered over and throughout this complex relationship is Aotearoa’s unique position as part of Moana Oceania. With high migration from surrounding Pacific Island countries (many of which are under threat from rising sea levels) and a wider evolving multi-culturalism informed by a rapidly growing and increasingly diverse migrant population.[i]

In digital video work Half-blood, commissioned for Objectspace in 2016 graphic designer and artist Johnson Witehera created two playable digital artworks that challenge the history and myths associated with both Māori and Pākehā identities. The works, projected side-by-side in the gallery space, present two narratives; the arrival of Māori and the arrival of Pākehā to Aotearoa New Zealand. The audience are invited to take up the controls and navigate an indigene or colonizer character through the alien landscape, with each forced to overcome challenges in their newly-discovered worlds. For Māori this included taming the harsh environment; for Pākehā it was taming Māori.

Playing the game as Pākehā, points are scored by hurling bibles at a wandering ‘native’ figure, converting them to Christianity. Playing as Māori you are required to attack a native seal cub with a large wooden club, or eat from the flesh of a living whale to restore your health and avoid a video game death. Witehira moves between design and contemporary art forms. Aesthetically the works draw on influences including early Māori figurative painting, contemporary Māori art practice, and video game art of the 80s and 90s.[ii]

Strikingly though, by drawing together polarised ideologies side by side with a brash satire, Witehira creates a work not about us or them but about Māori in relationship to Pākehā. Pākehā in relationship to Māori.

We start here, from this position. We exist in relationship to each other. I exist in relationship to you.

I am Pākeha and I am the director of Objectspace, a publicly funded, non-commercial gallery based in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, the largest and most diverse city in Aotearoa with one third of the country’s total population. Like many galleries, museums and cultural organizations we are grappling with understanding our relationship with others.

What are the preferences, biases and assumptions that shape our own organization? That in turn shape who walks through our gallery doors? Whose work, whose culture, whose stories are we telling?

American academic Michelle Fine describes the notion of Working the Hyphens.[iii] "The hyphen that both separates and merges personal identities with our inventions of Others”.[iv] A qualitative researcher working across cultures, Fine identifies the complex space between Self and Other, drawing on the colonizing research discourse of the Other where by the subject of research is excluded from the dominate culture. The researched is the subject or Other, studied and interpreted by the mainstream.

New Zealand academics and Māori / Pākehā collaborators Kuni Jenkins and Allison Jones suggest that in the context of cross-cultural inquiry this “…hyphen, mapped onto the indigene-colonizer straddles a space of intense interest”.[v]

Jenkins and Jones write: “The colonizer-indigene hyphen always reaches back into a shared past. Each of our names – indigene and colonizer—discursively produces the other. In New Zealand the local names ‘Māori’ and ‘Pākehā’ form identities created in response to the other.” Drawing further on the local context Jones and Jenkins quote Linda Tuhiwai Smith “Maori is an indigenous term… a label which defines a colonial relationship between ‘Maori’ and ‘Pakeha’ the non-indigenous settler population.’ Each term forced the other into being, to distinguish ‘us’ the ordinary (the word māori means ‘ordinary’ in Māori language), from the others, the white skinned strangers.”[vi]

«Whose work, whose culture, whose stories are we telling?»

Kim Paton
Lakiloko Keakea opening celebration, Fafetu, Objectspace, Image courtesy of David St George

In late 2016 we began a project with members of a Tuvalu arts collective based in Auckland. Tuvalu is situated halfway between Hawaii and Australia comprising of nine islands and atolls. The collective has a membership of women largely all living within two neighbouring West Auckland suburbs, all originating from one of the Tuvalu Islands. While ties between Aotearoa and Tuvalu are strong (the New Zealand-based Tuvalu population is almost one third as large as its total island population) we knew very little about Tuvalu or its culture.

The outcome of the project was two exhibitions, a major exhibition of a single senior master artist, supported by a smaller exhibition featuring the wider collective. What manifested deeply over a period of two years was the testing of Objectspace’s capacity. In early discussions we had been quietly urged to: “Give us space to do it our way – let our voices be heard first, and our people will come. You’ll know when you have failed, because we won’t be here.”[vii] This caution came to shape the projects, and they were the first exhibitions at Objectspace to ever be developed on the basis of co-leadership.

We developed three central pillars to our co-leadership model: Self-determination, Removing barriers to access and equity. For us the approach felt radical, it instrumentally changed almost every detail of how we undertake exhibition making. It urged us to try and better understand how the colonizer-indigene hyphen space exists within the walls of our own institution, and in turn how we express it (knowingly or unwittingly) in our relationships, and to audiences through our exhibitions, public programmes and publishing.

It included some simple but utterly transformative pragmatic details:

* We met and worked in Tuvalu homes and community centres more than we did at the gallery.

* The Tuvalu language was given primacy, prioritized first before English.

* We implemented a transport plan providing free bus services and suburb-to-city connections.

* We did not allow free labour or goodwill to govern the project - alongside the traditional roles of curator or exhibition producer, we appointed and paid community knowledge holders, community leaders, translators and family members.

* We transformed fee structures to account for artforms that are practiced collectively.

Over the course of the two-month exhibitions, audiences to Objectspace temporarily transformed. We hosted live performance, weaving, and Tuvalu singing and dancing, drawing new visitation from Tuvalu audiences alongside wider Moana Oceania communities.  The projects were heralded for their promotion of artforms and artists largely unknown and unseen in mainstream gallery spaces.[viii] It was only several months after their conclusion that I began to see and understand the less visible and less successful residue of the projects. We had stumbled through a series of missteps and misunderstandings along the way. At times we made assumptions, asking some questions and not others, and the impact of this had quietly rippled throughout our relationships and within the community we were working with.

Jones and Jenkins acknowledge the desire in colonizer researcher / collaborator relationships to dissolve or soften the hyphen. To change the ‘you’ and ‘me’ into an ‘us’. And to this they write: “It does not work… indigenous peoples, as a matter of political, practical and identity survival as indigenous peoples – insist on a profound difference at the Self-Other border. The hyphen is non-negotiable.”[ix]

Lakiloko Keakea, Fafetu, Objectspace 2018, image courtesy Sam Hartnett

«Critically now I can see how challenged an organization like Objectspace is by giving power, authorship and voice to another (the other)»

Kim Paton

This softening speaks to our biggest failures. Too often we assumed that we were working in the best interests of our collaborators, we assumed they would speak freely, air grievances and ask questions and when they didn’t, we congratulated ourselves for understanding what they wanted and needed. We homogenized the collective, assuming agreement existed within the group at all times and that each member shared the same goal. We softened the difference, we avoided tension.

Critically now I can see how challenged an organization like Objectspace is by giving power, authorship and voice to another (the other). How do we learn to do this in a space we consider to be our own, that we have shaped from our own voice? Linda Tuhiwai Smith writes:

“A critical aspect of the struggle for self-determination has involved questions relating to our history as indigenous peoples and a critique of how we, as the Other, have been represented, or excluded from various accounts. Every issue has been approached by indigenous peoples with a view to rewriting our position in history. Indigenous peoples want to tell our own stories, write our own versions, in our own ways, for our own purposes.”[x]

During the exhibitions we commonly received congratulatory feedback that we were assisting in the preservation or revitalization of the Tuvalu artforms on display. It is certainly true that some of our audiences were seeing these artforms for the first time, but it is a misconception to say they are at risk, rather we are at risk of not seeing them. Because an artform is not seen by the dominant culture, or the artist’s name is not widely known does not mean it is impoverished or endangered. It may be alive and flourishing in its own sacred spaces – in marae (meeting grounds), homes, churches, community halls, and in galleries we do not attend.

Jones and Jenkins argue that the hyphen encourages “…colonizer peoples to seek to know ourselves in relationship with Others, to locate ourselves in the “between” to develop a stronger sense of how our Selves are and have been formed in the troubled engagement with indigenous peoples and their land and spaces”[xi].

When we first began to speak about this work publicly, we described a softened version of it, it is easy to cite successes and claim victories. The persuasive rhetoric of biculturalism and multiculturalism is the pursuit of overcoming difference of seeking a sameness. But as we have come to see the project in its entirety, we are also trying to see ourselves. We are trying to accept our own discomfort.

It is in this space that we continue to move forward into this work, we are coming to understand that the hyphen space is easily misunderstood as the moment where two things are unified. Rather it is a place where a relationship exists—where we are likely to begin from a place of difference, of mis-understanding, of unbalance —to sit still inside a long moment of tension and let it pass (if at all) in its own time.

Kim Paton is the director of Objectspace in Auckland, the leading public gallery in New Zealand dedicated to craft, design and architecture.


[i] https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/97684647/fact-check-new-zealand-has-the-fastest-growing-population-in-oecd

[ii] http://archive.objectspace.org.nz/Exhibitions/Detail/Half-Blood.html

[iii] Fine, M. (1994). Working the Hyphens: Reinventing the self and other in qualitative research. From the Handbook of qualitative research (pp 70 – 82).

[iv] Ibid, pp 70

[v] Jones, A with Jenkins, K. (2008) Rethinking Collaboration: Working with the Indigene-Colonizer Hyphen. From the Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, pp 473.

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Phone conversation Kim Paton and Malama T Pole, 2017.

[viii] http://www.physicsroom.org.nz/media/uploads/2019_05/TPR-Hamster_4-FINAL_WEB.pdf

[ix]Jones, A with Jenkins, K. (2008) Rethinking Collaboration: Working with the Indigene-Colonizer Hyphen. From the Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, pp 475.

[x] Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, pp 29.

[xi] Jones, A with Jenkins, K. (2008) Rethinking Collaboration: Working with the Indigene-Colonizer Hyphen. From the Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, pp 482.