Books: Kupu Hou

Karl Chitham surveys recent toi Māori publishing, making the case for it as an essential vehicle to show the distinctive qualities of Māori art and creativity on Māori terms.

I remember a time when I sat around with friends lamenting the impending demise of print publishing.

As digital publishing took hold, the death of the book as a deliciously covetable object seemed inevitable. Surrounded by Kindles, iPads, and speed-reading smartphone fanatics, I would feel like someone out of the Dark Ages if I pulled out a dog-eared paperback. I could almost hear the derisory snorts from the superior techno-junkies as they scrolled through the hundreds of titles at their fingertips. At the same time, other conversations were taking place about the lack of toi Māori publishing. Here, the issue wasn’t about the tactility of a book in the hand versus one in the Cloud, it was the realisation that little toi Māori was being published in the real world or in cyberspace. Fast forward to a not-quite-post-pandemic 2022 and we see a fresh crop of hard-copy publications that signal a shift in attitude and methodology in toi Māori publishing.

A conversation about the changing publishing landscape cannot happen without highlighting the impact of the 2020 exhibition Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. The lead curator Nigel Borell (Pirirākau, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui,Te Whakatōhea) created an uproar when he resigned from the institution on the eve of his exhibition’s opening, citing cultural differences with senior management. The resulting conversations, articles, and commentary cemented the exhibition as a turning point for toi Māori within the art world, and raised the profile and cultural capital of contemporary Māori art in mainstream Aotearoa New Zealand. The resulting increased appetite for more content from an authentic Māori perspective gave other projects a broader, more prominent platform and greater audience reach.

So it was with much anticipation that we awaited the release of the Toi Tū Toi Ora publication. It came out in February this year, nearly fourteen months after the exhibition opened. I met with Borell after advance copies had landed from China. As I greedily thumbed through one, Borell told me it was Moana Jackson’s copy. Jackson (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou), who sadly passed away a few weeks later, contributed a foreword that acts as a generous scene setter and an abridged history of Māori culture for the unfamiliar reader. The publication’s stylish black cover with its bright-white debossed typography, devoid of any artworks, makes a bold graphic statement, and appears to take its cue, like the structure within, from Borell’s curatorial premise of ‘Māori concepts and frameworks of time and creation’. Tracing a journey from Te Kore (the nothingness) through to Te Ao Marama (the world of light), the book and exhibition also emphasised ira tangata (humankind), grouping works by themes such as Te Poropiti me te Whakapātari (prophecy and provocation), Ko te Hauora me te Oranga Tonutanga (towards health and wellbeing), and Kei te Eke Panuku te Wāhine (women far walking).

A book of this magnitude—there are nearly 200 images—could be mistakenly perceived as a one-stop shop for contemporary toi Māori. However, what has been achieved is something more considered. Yes, it provides a comprehensive account of toi Māori practice up to this moment. It does a great job of contextualising this through Jackson’s foreword, Borell’s essay, and the chronology by Taarati Taiaroa (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Apa, Te Āti Awa); however, the project’s most valuable contribution is not its size, but its prioritising of a kaupapa Māori approach to the content and voices. In the book, art and artists take centre stage, but framed through a Māori lens. The selection and organisation of works reflects topics of continuing relevance to Māori communities.

Opening on the same weekend as Toi Tū Toi Ora was the ground-breaking solo exhibition Tai Moana Tai Tangata by Brett Graham (Ngāti Korokī Kahukura, Tainui), curated by Anna-Marie White (Te Āti Awa) for Ngāmotu New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. The striking publication—which was also released after the close of the exhibition—is not a radical departure in design or layout. However, once again, the content exudes a mātauranga that is often difficult to articulate to non-Māori. White’s opening essay, for instance, does not situate Graham’s practice within an art-historical chronology, but contextualises it through a heartfelt description of the opening-day pōwhiri. Accompanied by images of the manuhiri and mana whenua making their way through the exhibition, alongside photographs of some of the historical sites and monuments Graham referenced when making the work, it shows how a te ao Māori perspective can have a profound impact on a publication’s tone and understanding.

Within exhibition making and publishing, having dual English and te reo texts has become a way to represent a commitment to biculturalism, to address the absence of a Māori voice, and to provide access for Māori audiences. Toi Tū Toi Ora includes te reo texts alongside English for the artwork descriptions, but none of the primary texts are in te reo. By contrast, Tai Moana Tai Tangata includes key texts written by Te Ingo Ngaia in te reo that are not translated into English. Across recent toi Māori publications—including Sandy Adsett: Toi KoruPuhi Ariki, and Te Puna Waiora: The Distinguished Weavers of Te Kāhui Whiritoi—the approach has not been to conform to the obligatory translation, but to use te reo where it is most appropriate and meaningful. This is one of the most overt markers of divergence for recent toi Māori publishing, as it takes control of its voice and how that voice is communicated to Māori and tauiwi alike.

In 2019, Bridget Reweti (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi) and Melanie Oliver curated Māori Moving Image: An Open Archive for Lower Hutt’s Dowse Art Museum. At the centre of the exhibition, they presented a collection of publications and writings on Māori moving image generally and the artists in the show specifically. This meagre handful of resources was a sad reflection of the limited material that has been produced to date. Towards the end of the show, the Dowse hosted the launch event for the first issue of Ate: Journal of Māori Art founded and co-edited by Reweti and Matariki Williams (Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Hauiti, Taranaki, Ngāti Whakaue). This journal was intended to address some of the gaps in toi Māori writing—including those missing from Māori Moving Image—and to consider what a kaupapa Māori approach to publishing might look like. At the beginning of each issue (two have been published to date), the pair have held wānanga with a group of Māori writers where they engage in whakawhanaungatanga—sharing their ideas, knowledge, and ambitions for the publication. Although not necessarily obvious to the reader in the printed journal, this investment in doing things differently and within a Māori space filters through into the content.

Although released in 2015, the book Māori Art: History, Architecture, Landscape and Theory by Rangihiroa Panoho (Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Whātua) resonates with these more recent publications in its unapologetic kaupapa Māori point of view. As you work your way through its chapters, it becomes clear that Panoho has embraced a framework that sits outside of the standard Western approach to writing art history. The content might appear jumbled—meandering between personal accounts, history lessons, international relationships, and toi Māori past and more recent—but, for a Māori audience, there is an innate familiarity embedded in the text. It reminds me of the whaikōrero I heard growing up. I didn’t always understand what was said, but, as the words washed over me, it was clear that the core message was rarely stated explicitly. Instead, we were led on a meandering journey—the soft retelling of whakapapa links, reverent acknowledgement of atua and tūpuna, and forcefully reiterated past grievances occasionally punctuated with laughter. The whaikōrero was delivered with the odd head gesture and pointed tokotoko—the more adept the speaker the more poignant the final message, whether you understood the words or not. Panoho’s book has a similar cadence. The rhythm is sometimes jarring and hard to follow, but its implication—that a history of toi Māori is something that is deeply complex and difficult to put into a single publication—has been tackled in a unique and thoughtful way that should resonate with all readers interested in the topic.

With the sheer quantity of written material being churned out at this moment, it feels like toi Māori publishing is in good health. There have never been so many exhibitions, books, and articles about contemporary Māori art and artists. There is a sense that Māori are shaping their own place within the art establishment and standing up for, and owning, what that looks like and who it’s for. But this is a long game, and, to make the most of the opportunities being offered, Māori need to be mindful as to why toi Māori publishing is so important. It is an essential vehicle to show the distinctive qualities of our culture and creativity on Māori terms.

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