Here: Kupe to Cook is an exhibition that challenges the discovery narrative that’s the cornerstone of Pākehā national history. Reuben Friend, director of Pātaka Art+Museum in Porirua, discusses the ethical framework for a show that serves up the skeletons in our collective closet.
I had reservations about using Greg Semu’s photograph The Arrival as the hero image for Here: Kupe to Cook, our major spring season art exhibition at Pātaka Art+Museum in Porirua. A good hero image should be engaging, and it’s not uncommon for an art gallery to use a contentious image to generate media hype for a new exhibition. It’s a particularly successful strategy in the age of call-out culture, where hot topics make great media bait. But filling up the internet with ‘call outs’ about Greg Semu and misunderstood representations of Māori in the media is not what we wanted for this show.
More than the provocative imagery in Semu’s photograph, it’s the circumstances surrounding the season that posed real difficulties.
October 2019 marks 250 years since Captain James Cook and the crew of the Endeavour arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand, and tensions are running high over the government’s Tuia250 commemorations, with Māori artists and activists calling for a total boycott of these events.
This dilemma presents itself at a time when the International Council of Museums (ICOM) is proposing a new definition for museums. The proposed definition sees the words ‘social justice’ included as a moral obligation of the 21st-century museum – an assertion that has many European institutions up in arms, as it abandons the political neutrality that museums are purported to uphold. Pātaka is a public museum and art gallery with a specific focus on Māori art and culture, so playing the ‘politically neutral’ card can still feel like choosing sides.
Working through the legacies of colonisation, within institutions inextricably tied to its history, requires a certain amount of courage. We have to serve up the skeletons in our collective closet. This can be upsetting for people who want to believe the version of history that they have been taught, and we have to accept that not every visitor will be totally happy with the perspectives they encounter.
So how do we support our artists and communities who feel affronted by these commemorations, while also attending to our mandate as a museum and art gallery to address this important part of our national heritage? And how are artists able to respond to these issues in the contemporary moment, if cultural institutions censor opportunities to “call out Cook”? Developing this exhibition became a process of laying out an ethical framework, as we sought to balance our audiences’ differing – and occasionally conflicting – expectations and needs. This led to decisions including refusing to seek funding from the Tuia250 grant system, and giving our exhibition a standalone brand distanced from the official commemorations.
The Tuia250 website was taken down last week after a serious security breach, rendering our attempts to distance ourselves from the commemorations somewhat moot. Regardless, we are aware that our framework does not please everybody. Some members of our audience feel affronted that we have not fully supported the boycott, others feel slighted by our desire to distance ourselves from the government commemorations.
We can’t change the past, but we can challenge the way that people think about our history. Artists, in particular, have a powerful role in this regard, and enabling our artists to challenge discovery narratives became the cornerstone of the exhibition we developed.
As the title suggests, Here: Kupe to Cook is an exhibition that looks at the arrival of people here in Aotearoa, beginning with the great Oceanic navigator Kupe who came to these shores over 1000 years ago, leaving his anchor stone here in Porirua to claim and name the land after himself and his family. Stories about Cook and his crew are featured in the exhibition, but neither Kupe nor Cook are the main protagonists, and visitors who come expecting to learn of their exploits may leave feeling unsatisfied.
This is an exhibition that looks at the mistakes, the misconceptions and the malign effects of our various arrivals here in Aotearoa. The exhibition begins by unpacking some of the greatest misconceptions in the mythology of our nation’s discovery. Cook did not discover Aotearoa, but nor is the popularisation of Kupe as discovering Aotearoa entirely correct. While Kupe is credited by numerous iwi as the person who first navigated a course from Hawaiki to Aotearoa, it is the legendary historical figure Maui who Māori most readily associate with the discovery of this land, pulling it up out of the sea from beyond the horizon.
That’s where Greg Semu’s The Arrival comes in, a striking and challenging artwork that confronts these complex histories. The Arrival is a photographic restaging of Louis Steele and Charles Goldie’s infamous 1899 painting, The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand. Created in the style of Theodore Géricault’s 1819 painting The Raft of the Medusa, Steele and Goldie sought to celebrate the tenacity of the human spirit with their dramatised recreation of the arrival of the first settlers in Aotearoa.
It is easy to see how Kupe’s journey and the idea of ‘discovery’ would have been an exciting narrative to popularise among early Pākehā settlers, who themselves possessed an identity-narrative based on discovery and migration to new lands. Today however the painting is emblematic of refuted 19th-century views, with its inaccurate depiction of the vessel and the travellers as forlorn, unprepared, and lost at sea.
Greg Semu is not the only artist asking big questions. Christine Hellyar questions Cook and Joseph Banks’ supposedly unwitting transmission of European illnesses during their travels in the Pacific, while Michel Tuffery’s paintings and documentary film collaboration with Lala Rolls investigates the role of Tahitian navigator Tupaia in the first contacts between Māori and the crew of the Endeavour. The documentary includes the tragic deaths of Te Mārō and Te Rākau during the very first engagement in Tūranga.
There is a well-known Māori proverb, “ka mua, ka muri”, that speaks about facing the past because the future cannot be seen. I’ve thought about this idea a lot since I began working in museums. When we look at the past through the lens of the present, we don’t look at it objectively: we reinterpret it with all of our own contemporary thoughts and feelings cast over it. National commemorations tend to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses, while Indigenous perspectives on colonisation and discovery narratives can be a lot darker. A part of me wonders if the exhibition has swung too far in one direction or the other, or whether a more formal history exhibition might have provided a more digestible analysis of the events and issues for our visitors.
I’ll leave it to you to decide. Here: Kupe to Cook is on until 23 November and it features works by many of our leading contemporary artists. Come check it out and give us a shout out one way or the other on our Facebook or Instagram.
HERE: Kupe to Cook is showing at Pātaka Art+Museum, Porirua, until November 23, 2019.