As the curator of Whānau Marama, a collection of nine sculptures for Commercial Bay’s Matariki celebration, artist Jade Townsend reflects on reindiginising, mothering and the mauri and magic of Māori art.
Read the Māori language version of this story here.
We unite on the birthing waters of Tāmaki Mākaurau
Becoming one eternal body of running water
We exchange storytelling
We learn from Māori art through all of our senses
We are fluid
Let us acknowledge the political and social distances between us
And run through them
Let us accept the gaps in our knowledge
For it is through the gap, the hole, the portal, te kore, whetū, Matariki, Tamariki
And in each other, we find infinite potential
Colour in darkness
Sound in nothingness
Energy in the stillness
Multiplicity under a single kaupapa
Thank you Matariki, a mother and her family of light.
Whenever I wrote “reindigenising” on my phone or computer it would autocorrect to “merchandising” – like a bad colonial joke. But it always brought me a smile, because I do love British humour and the algorithm was partly right: my historical search patterns favoured the semantics of fashion and retail over that of cultural restoration. I still have so much work to do, to undo the misplaced priorities I was raised with.
When I work on new collages at home, I’ll rummage through an old Saint Laurent shoe box of teeny, tiny, shiny beads and sequins. I’ll carefully select some, and sew them through found materials – to embellish an environment and to explore unity.
My toddler always makes a beeline for this treasure box. He wants to make some magic, too – like when he invented light by building scaffolding from pukapuka to reach the switch, or when he invented a waterfall in the lounge with the garden hose. He invented a disco volcano, a spectacle – with an attitude that I’m sure Susan Sontag would describe as completely camp, he emptied the box of teeny, tiny, shiny beads and sequins onto the carpet of our rental unit. Normally, I’d feel exasperated at the thought of cleaning them up, and sorting them into their groups of colour and form – but I liked what I saw, these superficial surfaces had grit against the backdrop of our real-life environment. Once the sparkling objects moved beyond the intentions of the toddler and his force it was attraction and chemistry which determined how these entities might connect to the landscape.
My son, Hayes-Ānaru Ladley is three years old and already he is a decorator, merchandiser, stylist, activist – and an anti-assimilationist.
Every morning I wake with aching hands from clenching my fists in my sleep, worried that I do not know enough about where I am from. Then I type, sew and pick up thousands of tiny beads. There are a few beads which I leave because I do not want to erase his performance entirely.
While writing this essay Hayes-Ānaru drew across the cupboards with a silver-cased biro a famous photographer gave me years ago. Everything is art to me. His drawing is a frantic layering of circles that shares the passion of a Ralph Hotere ink illustration with the bodily movements of a large-scale Emily Karaka painting. Hayes-Ānaru squeezed in as many rotations as he could, moving from “canvas” to “canvas” ensuring there was a cohesive series of works for our landlords to enjoy. He looked with pride as his audience arrived at his solo exhibition in the kitchen, and we congratulated him on his work before cleaning up together.
I wanted to keep his drawing and to paint kowhaiwhai in his bedroom but my husband Adam said in New Zealand, landlords are funny about painting on walls – he was trying to soften the inevitable blow.
It made me despair that if we – Generation Debt – are destined to rent forever, when exactly can I restore the mauri of the walls I live within? When will I be able to display the motifs and symbols that are needed to imbue the spirit and hinengaro of my Māori baby boy?
In the garden, the Puarangi plant I was gifted by my friends Harry and Emile showed its first three blooms that same day. I took this as a sign of good luck. I felt rich, nurtured, and seen in the presence of these unfamiliar forms that had come from nature. The objects and forms we live amongst have a direct impact on our sense of self, and when we encounter the gifts of people we know and love in public spaces it makes us feel that our world somehow reflects back at us.
By evening I was reconsidering whether I had been misusing ‘reindigenising’ and perhaps the algorithm knew my nature better than I did – that sometimes merchandising can be the answer and that the two words, in a very specific context, are interchangeable.
The Whānau Mārama exhibtion sees a group retail stores reimagined as spaces for artists and their taonga. Commercial Bay’s connecting pathways become sites for storytelling and knowledge exchange. The exhibition runs from June 19 – July 11.
What do you choose to display in places of prestige and power? What do you promote? What shine do you tidy away that should really be enjoyed for longer, even celebrated? What are you selling, exactly?
The concepts we display within our whare, our public spaces and influential platforms become our politics, beliefs and culture. It is in these “houses” where aspirational values are sold to our tamariki and to everyone.
When you visit Whānau Mārama and see Māori interventions co-existing within Commercial Bay’s shopping precinct, consider the many incremental steps that led these Māori taonga to be displayed here: the many relationships watered across generations so that these artists can bloom; the leaders who have tended to us thoughtfully and made space for us to grow. Allow yourself to engage with the visible and invisible labour within this project. Succumb to feelings that the Māori whetū sculptures might spark in you and know that you have earned those emotions. Leave with your kete of knowledge and apply it to your life.
In Aotearoa we are lucky to be able to honour such rituals while many other nations are still trapped in the isolation required to protect them from Covid-19. However, it is crucial in times of rest and peace – be that according to the Maramataka or politics or pandemics – that we foster progressive ideas and growth. While the messages within my art practice and parenting are positive, there is anger and frustration; the problems from colonisation fracture even the most reasonable requests. I feel that we must continue to ask questions. Whether one is a sceptic or an optimist, there is an unexplored unity that will benefit us all in the future. Whānau Mārama translates to Family of Light, let’s shine and paint this town kowhaiwhai for those who cannot do it at home and for our babies who are leading us into the indigenous future.