Complicating the Narrative of ‘Oceania’

At the Royal Academy of Arts, an exhibition spans the histories of the Pacific

A week after the opening at the Royal Academy of Arts of ‘Oceania’ – an exhibition spanning the histories of the Pacific, which marks 250 years since Captain Cook’s first voyage to the region – I cradled a karetao in a nondescript London building that belongs to the British Museum. The wood was long-smoothed by hands, its markings deeply etched. In its materiality are a few clues as to where it may have come from; its easy curves are inscribed with meaning. I have seen a karetao described in English as both a ‘puppet’ and an ‘articulated marionette figure’, but the former is insufficient and the latter unnecessarily verbose. This linguistic exercise hints at a wider problem of how inadequate language can be at translating cultural nuance. 

Feather god image (akua hulu manu), Circa 18th Century, fibre, feathers, human hair, pearl shell, seed, dog teeth, 62 x 30 cm. Courtesy: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Visiting the karetao was a mission bestowed upon me by my neighbour, a puppeteer who has worked closely with the objects, and with this one in particular. She sees it as a friend, and desperately wanted me to visit him. I say ‘him’, as she does, ascribing a gender despite it being unclear as to whether it’s accurate. If the karetao had an ure – a carved penis – it no longer does; it possibly fell victim to the censorious practices of an early collector. Holding it was my final hui – a ‘meeting’, or a communion between peoples and taonga (Māori cultural objects which encompasses both customary and contemporary treasures). 

‘Oceania’ was the reason I was in London, as three objects from the collection I work for – the Mātauranga Māori collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington – are included in the show. Two of these are taonga tūturu, a cotton and wool pennant and carved wooden panel. The third is a contemporary artwork by the Mata Aho Collective, Kiko Moana. Of these three, I acquired the latter for the museum after it was commissioned for Documenta 14 and this was my first opportunity to see it exhibited. It is via these objects and the ways in which they are, and are not, able to be accessed, that tempered my impression of the show. 

Ahu ula (feather cloak) belonging to Liholoho, Kamehameha II, early 19th century, feathers, fibre, painted barkcloth (on reverse), 207 cm. Courtesy: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Once a taonga oran artwork enters the national collection, interaction is materially mediated by gloves. For taonga, this interrupts the natural processes of their lives: that they were held and used, that they lived with their people. It has interrupted how the Mata Aho Collective interact with Kiko Moana (2017) – a blue tarpaulin work that is eleven metres long and 16 layers deep; up until its acquisition, it was, of course, theirs. The name provides a clue into what the work is about: ‘kiko’ translates as flesh, and ‘moana’ as ‘speaking of water’. Kiko Moana can be seen as the physical embodiment of water, referencing both the water-dwelling taniwha of our mythologies, and water itself. The loss that occurs with tarpaulin, wherein a blue layer of the material flecks off to reveal a layer of white underneath, would previously have been coloured in by the artists with a permanent marker. Now, the work they spent months making cannot be healed by their hands. By acquiring their work, we have suspended it in a stasis. This is, of course, standard practice for collecting institutions protecting their investments. Outside of the institutional framework, I would assert that the change institutions introduce to taonga is experienced differently by Māori and that the disruption to access is cavernous. 

Making my way through ‘Oceania’, the cumulative contradictions of distance and access had a visceral impact. My joy at seeing a pennant and carved panel on display, each of which are from an iwi that I whakapapa to – the tribes that I affiliate with – knowing that they’d travelled together in the same crate, and will do so for their return trip, compounded the mamae felt at their distance from home. The iwi these two taonga are from have had a fraught history, yet their display in the exhibition is resolutely unified. I took this as a tohu, a sign, that visitors to ‘Oceania’who are descendants of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, must complicate the narrative presented in the exhibition through our responses. In doing so we will maintain mana motuhake – self-determination – in how our histories are shared.

Ta Moko panel, 1896-99. Courtesy: The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

With every visit, I found myself in front of a hei tiki, displayed in a glass case at head-height. The label explained it was collected by Johann Reinhold Forster during Captain Cook’s second voyage in 1773-74. It also includes an ethnographic description of a hei tiki, written from the distance that comes with writing of another’s culture. What was absent from the interpretation was a questioning of what its collection had done to the hei tiki: removed it from its people, their names not recorded, and taken it to the other side of the world where it remained in the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford for 246 years. Pounamu, the material of the hei tiki, warms in your hands and many Māori will wear it close to their skin. When was the last time this one was warmed? 

The events that followed Cook’s voyages brought devastation to the Pacific as waves of European settlement irreversibly imposed itself on the peoples of Te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa. In Aotearoa (the indigenous name for New Zealand), land was progressively alienated from Māori with the parallel effects of language loss and the erosion of our cultural practices. The violence wrought on our islands has also been exercised on our taonga. Working with a collection that pre-dates the arrival of Europeans is an immense privilege; I have daily access to taonga that lived at a time unrecognisable to a 21st-century Māori experience. Knowing that most Māori will not have that experience, either in Aotearoa or in London, complicates that feeling. Therefore, it is in service that I work, going where I can, to visit our taonga, warm them in my hands, and take their reo – their language – to them. I will say to them: ‘Pōuri ana te ngākau ki te wehe atu i a koe, engari, ā tōnā wā, tērā pea, ka kite anō tāua i a tāua. Ka hoki mai anō koe ki te wā kāinga.’

‘My heart is bereft to leave you here, but, in time, maybe, we will see each other again. You will return home.’

Main image: Lisa Reihana, In Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015-2017, detail, single-channel video. Courtesy: Auckland Art Gallery

Matariki Williams is a curator, writer, editor and Curator Mātauranga Māori at the National Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand. 

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