Among the eye-opening experiences for a visitor to New Zealand (or Aotearoa, the nation’s traditional Māori name) is finding wonder in the prevalence of bilingual signage and didactics. Text often appears in English and te reo (“the language” in Māori)—the predominant language of the area until the 20th century—and for someone who lives in America, where multilingual exhibitions are so revolutionary that they inspire self-congratulation, such a small but meaningful decolonizing gesture feels radical. How stories are told and whose voices are acknowledged were recurring themes in the art on view from Auckland to Wellington, Christchurch to New Plymouth—where artists have complicated records, contested histories, and asserted truths of their own experience.
The most ambitious work comes from Ruth Buchanan, who exposes the power dynamics behind canonization. For her exhibition “The scene in which I find myself / Or, where does my body belong” (on view through March 22), Buchanan selected close to 300 artworks from the 50-year-old collection of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth to fill five galleries, each dedicated to a decade and showing works that are artists’ first acquisitions by the museum.
The crowded displays organized by categories of Buchanan’s own devising (Female, Male, Living, No longer living, Māori, In or Around the Pacific, Legs, Hands, Exception) pulled nearly one-third of the Govett-Brewster’s collection of primarily New Zealand art, and the imbalances in it are clear: Those in power have historically valued white artists more highly than indigenous ones, and men more highly than women.
Buchanan forgoes wall labels for a thick booklet that lists and maps every artwork, complete with acquisition notes and exhibition histories. Few museumgoers would attempt to absorb all such data while taking in the show, but Buchanan seems less interested in highlighting individual narratives than she is in highlighting the paradoxical nature of institutional language that simultaneously defines and flattens identity. Her chronology and “departments” help us digest the collection, but what are our expectations when we step into a space labeled “Female” or “Male”? How can museums address their limitations? What would an inclusive, accessible collection look like?
Similar questions lingered at the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, where “Māori Moving Image: An Open Archive” (closed January 26) showcased four decades of animation, film, and video work by 19 Māori artists, and served as a salve to the many collections of work by white artists who have treated Māori culture as theirs to consume. Te Rarawa artist Ana Iti confronted contemporary perceptions of indigenous people in a 20-minute video in which she crouches by dioramas of early Māori settlements in simplistic contexts at a historic museum nearby, her presence a quiet protest of museological representations that deny sovereignty.
In a three-channel video installation that immersed viewers in misty scenes of a polluted timber town, artist Natalie Robertson (Ngāti Porou, Clann Dhònnchaidh) lamented the desecration of land steeped in tribal histories and mythologies. Another installation by Terri Te Tau responded to state-sanctioned surveillance of Māori—with visitors entering an ominous black van inside of which dashcam footage played on the windshield, giving an eerie tour of houses raided as part of an “anti-terror” police operation that targeted Māori communities.
Teeming with indigenous knowledge, “Māori Moving Image” made certain viewers aware of their own relationship to Māori culture—knowing, unknowing, or perhaps somewhere in between. Standing at the exhibition’s entrance was a multimedia gateway by Lisa Reihana evoking traditional waharoa archways that are carved with ancestral portraits and frame the entry into important community grounds. The work enlisted 11 monitors showing looping videos of her friends and family in traditional Māori dress, colonial garments, and contemporary workwear, some posed as if in a photography studio and others performing stereotypes of the “noble warrior” and the “Māori belle.” Referencing ethnographic photographs of old, Reihana’s moving album reclaimed power in image-making while marking a threshold where cultures might meet.
Behind that streamed a video by Rachael Rakena (Ngāi Tahu, Ngā Puhi) engaging the fact that not all indigenous knowledge is everyone’s to access. Dancers moved in water as email snippets scrolled over the scene, with words revealing a dispute among whānau (extended family) over questions related to publicly sharing knowledge of a traditional food-preservation skill. Rakena suggests that, just as water serves as terrain tied to Māori identity, the internet can offer space to connect to indigenous traditions—though it complicates the protection of collective culture. For non-Māori, this means accepting that we are not entitled to certain indigenous information even if it seems to circulate freely.
Back on the North Island of New Zealand just outside Wellington, the Dowse Art Museum show “Strands” (up through March 22) brings together four rising Māori artists exploring identity in distinct ways that combat a singular, static concept of what it means to be Māori. Arapeta Ashton celebrates the role of a kaitiaki—a guardian of weaving techniques—through the laborious transformation of kiekie plant fibers into kākahu cloaks that connect wearers to ancestors. Hā, a serene video whose title translates as “breath,” shows Ashton’s dedicated preparation of long leaves to breathe life into, while a finished kākahu floats like an elegant cascade of light in the middle of the gallery.
Nearby, Ayesha Green’s small paintings repeatedly connect her name with those of her mother and grandmother in childlike cursive lettering. Ana Iti, too, considers the relationship between language and identity with letters that represent Māori pronunciation and dialects carved in boxes of sand, preserving oral and written forms in reliquaries that literally carry a (sense of) place. Chevron Hassett’s photographic series The Children of Māui more explicitly weaves personal histories with landscape, documenting intimate and joyful moments from trips around his home, or tūrangawaewae (meaning “domicile” or a “place to stand”).
Further meditations on home fill a neighboring gallery at the Dowse, where Olivia Webb’s affecting five-screen video installation (through March 22) visits five families in their living rooms, performing songs they wrote about place and belonging in New Zealand. Reminiscent of Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors, Webb’s Anthems of Belonging magnifies the diversity of lived experience, urging us to listen to expressions of a variety of values, concerns, and desires.
In Wellington proper, installed along the main street of the bustling Courtenay Quarter (through March 8), Jasmine Togo-Brisby has presented a series of haunting light boxes that illuminate her family history as a fourth-generation Australian South Sea Islander. Her work, titled If these walls could talk, they’d tell you my name, features larger-than-life silhouette portraits of the artist, her daughter, and her mother against images of Wellington Town Hall’s ceiling, which is undergoing restoration. The historic architecture is entwined with the story of a fourth woman: Togo-Brisby’s great-great-grandmother, who was shipped from her island to Sydney as a child and served the Wunderlich family, founders of the company that produced those ornate namesake ceiling tiles. Unmissable during both day and night, the matrilineage makes evident colonial traumas and asks: Whose heritage do we choose to remember, value, and protect?
Another outdoor work on the terrace of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tāmaki, Sorawit Songsataya’s The Interior (on view into November), pays tribute to lost nature by way of native and endemic birds sculpted from creamy white Oamaru stone surrounding a massive blue, resin-cast moa, a species of flightless bird that went extinct some 700 years ago. The arrangement draws on a 1907 painting of birds gathered to mourn “the last moa,” effectively placing viewers within the scene while inciting sympathy, sorrow, and shame. Although longing for the past, it could be an elegy for a not-so-distant future when creatures and beings of all kinds will be relegated to a history we cannot revise.