How would you feel about me writing something about ‘Toi Tū, Toi Ora' for CIRCUIT?

Rangituhia Hollis, Pania of the Reef (2021)

In this text I want to write & talk about the art that mattered from where I was, and where I have been looking from. Some art that wasn’t in Toi Tū, Toi Ora (i).

Art for me can be a movement, a physical one. A graceful gesture, that shows balance and poise, done with strength and power. Art in that space can be a violence, only exerted when necessary.

“Have fidelity in seeking a true way”. This was a part of a mantra that I was taught, that I spoke in unison with many others over years.

Art can be a fight. Art can be a hiding. Art is standing up. Getting knocked down and getting back up. But I don’t know if I believe that. That’s something I say to myself. Sometimes I stick to that, sometimes I can’t. Getting back up is something that I want myself to be able to do. And that’s something that when said, pricks people's ears, and draws out those that I want to be exposed.

Some people are still fighting dead people. I know I am. In some ways art can be about that. Struggling against a history designed to destroy you & everyone you love & everyone who understands that love. I’ve seen art since I left home that only exists to be a part of a mechanism of the rich. For those who want to steal your history and your land and your whakapapa and ideas, and talk about you and your history as if they know it better than you, and maybe they do. They know it from the outside.

Art wants to own and sell you. And that reading of art holds true, at least that’s what I see for us, if we stay ‘others’ in the western context.

Think, are you a tourist here?

Art for me is one drawing. It was the best drawing I’ve ever seen. It was of a cowboy being bucked off a horse. It was drawn right beside me. It was made by my father. And it wasn’t made for anyone else, and while it’s gone now the impression has stayed. He was home, so it musta been the weekend. I’d asked and asked him that day, pestered him to draw something. And it was the best. I saw it and wondered what else could he do? But that was all he drew then. I remember wondering about him, and asking him: “Were you a cowboy?” “Was your father one?”

Art always begins blank. Art is made from what you bring to it.

Another art is a pass thrown that puts someone into a gap. Art is a fend that lays someone out, and then you get that other pass away. Art is coming back when you're gone and everyone’s written you off. Art is true friends - and there aren’t many of those - in a shared battle.

In 1999: I remember the feel of the brightest sun, and the burn on my skin. I remember one bright day, and awkwardly lying down. Looking around from a place that has never been defeated. And listening to Hone Tuwhare read poetry up on Ōtātara Pā. Laying in the sun bleached grasses of the pā under the full sun at noon, listening & learning. Realising - ‘oh, so this is art as well’.

“I hear you making small holes in the silence”

Somewhere back - far back, on what is a long timeline for me - a way way back - someplace between growing and learning, and learning how to make, and speak. A colonial dementia pugilistica had me. It wasn’t the same as the rain that thundered down in a storm, on the tin roof of our house. It wasn’t beautiful power. It was that concussive hit, hit, hit of power. The one that takes many forms, that which seeks to put you in the place they thought you should be. At times I speak clear because of that, lots of times I don’t. I spent a lot of time looking at the stars, and I feel I’m clearer now. But maybe things were clearer back when I didn’t know.

Since the opening, I’d been avoiding going back to Toi Tū, Toi Ora. ‘Cos I’m worried about history repeating. I’m worried that through my own fight to make art, I never knocked out those who needed to be knocked out. And that despite me they’ve always kept on growing, irrespective of what I’ve done, and that they've always been creating clones of themselves, proliferating themselves to excess. I think that as a respondent to fight them back you need to unleash some kinda chain hit, some kinda unknown combo, summon a guardian to strike them down and all of them who’re connected to them - in order to stop them. But the best hits always happen when no-one expects them.

As a child, it wasn’t just me who was hit by it. There were others too, in my schools, and before me, who were the focus of it. Maybe they learnt that If you get hit enough, that after a while it doesn’t even bother you anymore. You know the foot work, you know how to balance. You know how to get back up. But that’s the delusion I’m trying to walk toward, Cos maybe they didn’t get back up? Maybe they couldn’t fight and couldn’t speak? And I don’t know them well, so I don’t know. We never really spoke of this, & I never saw where they went home to & we weren’t friends. At school we were divided. And the school dividing us was what happened at school. And speaking of those like and unlike me now, sounds contrived, and it’s because I write of them now, instead of acting then, that I am worthless. I sit here writing, seeing myself in my classes as a child, and I look through me & look around the room and wonder, who else has ‘gone into the belly of the Pākehā?’ And while I know some of them, my great regret, & my guilt is that I never had it as hard as them, and I couldn’t fix it for me, let alone anyone else. I’ve started this text angry. Maybe it doesn’t need to stay that way. But maybe it will. The beauty of Māori art can be written in someone elses text.

Toi Tū, Toi Ora, is a slow heart beat under the earth. I feel the earth beneath my feet, and for me it’s a place to stand in anger. But that’s me. As a space full of art, the exhibition is a space that condenses a broad and unfathomable set of connections that can’t be simplified into something that I could ever speak of. I can see it, I can feel it. I walk through rooms and see the faces of people who made the works pop up in my memory, and I think of the marks they’ve made. And I drown in the combination of some of them.

On the last day of the exhibition I went back with my son and partner. We walked through the spaces. While I was taking my son around, I also wanted to see if my own work was ok where it was. Cos on the opening it was installed wrong, and the sound was wrong. And I forgot about that when I got there. When I found two Pākehā women in front of it. They looked like they hadn’t moved the whole day. Maybe they had been there everyday? It’s not a work that you need to look at for long. It’s pretty simple. But they were debating it with each other, like bad pantomine, all the places that it could have been shot from, and all of these other things that they were getting wrong. And I watched, and saw that room, like all the others I had to go through before that to get to that space. All of the exhibition spaces were busy. And I wondered how long those two had been there? And also wondered how they could get the place it was shot so wrong? So I corrected them. And then I left. And as I left, in my gut - which has become big - I was certain that they were a part of devaluing my work. And that feeling was overlaid by another feeling in my gut. When I saw someone that I had known for a long time, just outside that room. Someone that had been following me since I’d been in Auckland, who must have been monitoring them. And It reminded me of my life as a child. How those people with power kept - those of us you could speak, and who could think, and who weren’t afraid to act - in check. And then thinking back there are figures of memory that frame a lot of my thoughts in relation to things today. It reminded me of how I had the same teacher throughout primary school. And how horrible that time was. And then I thought why should I make art for these people to debate? We should make art from them.

Tonight: Here’s me sitting at my computer, typing this trying to make sense of the future. I walked through the spaces of the gallery and felt danger. But I’m used to that feeling. I worked as a Kaiārahi/Gallery Assistant in the first show - Pūrangiaho (ii). Which opened after the September 11th Attack. & I was in the second - Toi Tū, Toi Ora. And I’ve been thinking about the third. What will happen in 20 years? Will the same people still be in power? Will the same power be in power? And I’ll add as well, what a lot of people have been saying - 20 years is way too long to wait for another exhibition of this kind, AAG.

What I see in the future is an over-saturation of value, where nothing can be discerned, so we just step back and no-one can connect with anyone, ‘cos everyone's voice has been eroded. The ideal future should be one of freedom, and freedom is a ‘something’ that we are conditioned to be cognizant of as a positive. But really a lot of the time it’s not (I’m borrowing that notion from someone who was ‘disappeared’)(iii). The concept of freedom is a killer of those less powerful. In the future it’s the growing freedom of choice that I’m worried about.

I am Māoridamus & this is a vision of 2041: There will be a Māori show, but if you don’t wanna see a Māori show? Then you're covered, as sorting algorithms, in virtual space will already have considered your viewing preferences, and curated the Māori’s out of your ideal exhibition. But then there’s no need to travel to the future, or wait 20 years when you could always just go to a dealer gallery in Auckland now. Or you could think of the future, by thinking of the present. Like MAGA wannabes, whose social media is set up to construct the world they want to see - so they only get to see one white supremacist world order. In the social media galleries of the future, the western canon will dominate in some spaces, and be absent in the ‘other’s’. Statues that celebrate the power of slavery, facisim or the merciless destruction of the weak will be downloaded and curated in the home - but you can check a box if you don’t want them, or alternatively check a box if you want to form a chat group with everyone who does. And you can take those same statues, put them up and pull them down again and again. Try experiencing the symbolism of the downing of the statue of the Czar, recreated in Battleship Potemkin, cos it can be recreated in your lounge. The technologies already here, mass-motion capture and facial recognition programming, can take the original recreated footage, and through VR can put you at the front of the mob. Likewise you could reenact the downing of that bronze statue of Saddam Hussein - Now and in the future we can all be the revolutionaries we could have been, if we lived back when revolutions were possible.

When I was a kid, I was told about the book Black Like Me (iv) (1961). Where a white American took some kind of pharmaceutical drugs to make himself look black, and spent his time documenting his experiences. I wanna do that too, take a pill to become rich and white and take a private tour through the gallery for the patrons only. To hear and see what that tour is like, and to maybe see another level of art. The one that the artists and the public don’t get to see.

Napoleon said "History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon". And by that he didn't mean ordinary people, he meant people with power. Have things changed since then? 'Our' hegemony has worked as hard as it can to diminish the relevance of people who speak who don't have power. But that doesn't mean that our 'real' stories don't matter. There are 'new hegemonies' born out of social media, born in the homes of people who come home from the servitude of the low paid workforce and who are free until early the next morning or after the late late night shift. There and then our expectations have risen & we are free, for a time. To enjoy freedom of speech or song without dominance. Without threats of suppression. Power has tried to control this freedom, the freedom to connect, to learn & advance and be free. Power that delimits voice and ideas and communication needs to be identified so that we can move on. We, who are of the Polynesian peoples who have travelled the farthest, who had knowledge of the largest expanse on earth, long before the whole of the earth was fully known. Have ‘since predator came’ been learning the language of our oppressors.

Good ideas and good people are now viral. And we have to now, like we have always had to, discern what is good from what is trying to delimit us. But good ideas from us are stolen, stolen, stolen, and turned into money for the already rich or those heading that way. They will steal as much as they can from us and replace it with servitude and their dominance.

In 2021: I agreed with the kaupapa of the curator, or at least of his people, his friends and supporters. In as much as I have seen it on a badge that I was given. “Not today coloniser”. It probably should have read “Not ever!” ‘Cos those ()’s always come back. And come back in new forms. Still speaking and looking and thinking in the same ways. There needs to be a test of intent. I don’t know all the possible tests within that, but I know one for sure. If they talk to you, and talk to you at a level lower than they usually speak to everyone else, then they think you don’t matter. They think that they can exploit you, and that you are a step of a perfunctory protocol. They will use you. I used to think that someone should write a list of all of their practices, but now I think those ()’s would just take that list, learn the tests and just get better at being racist.

The best art I have seen or that I have ever felt has been from Māori for Māori.

This is an aside, something that I wrote ages ago, during the lockdowns last year, that I thought I’d copy and paste and put here:

There are always notions of self-interest in every group setting, which I feel are especially necessary in a communal one. Structures that are set up, need to allow for the capacity for difference in order to shape the form of the communal. And offer ways of speaking through differences, in order to make responses to the past and present, and anticipate the future. Without this, the social will simply replicate itself - as well as pre-existing hierarchies - and suppress itself into redundancy. I've been thinking about this in order to consider how the world may be reframing right now. Maybe it's happening around us, maybe we're a part of it at least locally. I'm wondering about our agency right now. & how the world may change or not, in relation to the 'plague' and 'dis-ease' that is upon us. We are closer now to our own spaces of sovereignty than ever before. The areas that are ours, are like the borders of our own domain. We are face to face with how we live. In a broader sense we are our own Iwi from house to house. Essential public spaces are not contested in the same way as they once were by commercial interests, they are now about providing neutrality and equanimity in the face of a potentially drastic change in the cognisance of humanity. Things may change, they may need to, or they may not. I think now is the time to put this type of local thinking that we are experiencing in our 'own' spaces forward in order to consider what we value. So that we can, as a grouping of cultures, negotiate how society may be reframed.

This is 2021: We went into Napier city today and had a look around. It's weird being a tourist in the place you grew up. I went with Annabelle to have a look, cos I never wanna go anywhere. I thought I'd see what's changed since the last time, and see what that made me think of. The United Video had finally closed in Taradale, that was sad. But Annabelle wanted to see the Marine Parade, so we went there. Pania of the Reef is a statue on the Parade that's been there for a long time. I would say that despite the cities’ Art Deco artiface - that we may need to be reminded that there have always been Māori here. You can see us in every old school photo, every sports team photo, we were a part of the history of this place. Even if the city doesn’t want to admit it to itself. Pania was the only representation of Māori in the centre of that old city, when I was a kid, and it was the same in this new 2021 one that we walked through today. We didn’t walk as far as the Paratene Matchitt sculpture, cos everything was closed, it was ANZAC day, and mini golf didn’t open till 1pm. Pania has been a representation of Māori in the city since 1959. I am a Māori who used to go into that city. Wear my club colours and help out my mates, dance with the girls and make bad decisions.

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Rangituhia Hollis, Pania of the Reef (2021)

Pania was taught in school, a way back then. I won't go into what that meant then, the statue or her, or the links it may have been brewing in the minds of those who commissioned the statue (Hans Christian Anderson marketing hype). But as someone still thinking of the impact that city had on me, I was looking for places on the outside of the Museum where Māori could be seen. Annabelle asked what the outside of the Museum meant and that was a good question - she was asking and talking about why it wasn’t a Māori design? I made a glib retort, “Well maybe Māori’s don't fit with the broader business model”. Maybe it’s not the museum, but the ‘city’ not wanting to alienate those with money - making things seem too Māori might make some people think? And having people think might not be good for business. But in thinking back - and I don’t think that I’m good for business - to the 80’s, 90’s 00’s there weren't any other totems of Māoriness then - well we didn't see any in the Central City today. Anyway, lots of people paused while we were there to look at Pania. That statue means a lot to a lot of people. Others took photos, so did I. Then I used photogrammetry techniques to make a 3D model. Above is a rough render of the subsequent scan.

As a child of the 80’s & 90’s, thought and forethought were things that we had, that were denied that we had. In the school system we were properties. To be held up as tokens, and then dismissed as too difficult to teach. Back then, If you listened to power, and had power, then it made sense that we were to be controlled and monitored. For those of us who just wanted to live, we Māori, or I as a Half-caste, we didn’t matter to those with power. They wanted our role to be to provide an example of why those with power deserved their power, treating us like low was an expression of their power. Sometimes I think that's how they get off. I saw a lot of horrible shit at a child, and I still feel that guilt. I didn’t or couldn’t do anything then. This text was never about art. My art was never about art. Art was the only place that in school I could create and have my own rules. I never passed high school art at bursary, in thinking back. I had a teacher then, but the way things worked I had to be my own teacher. At my school taking Te Reo Rangatira clashed with art. So I did art off-line. I taught myself and didn’t do well, then. And I’ve kept going. I still hope that there is a point to education. Even if it’s just to placate those who are discontent with reality, even if it’s just for a time.

I’ve talked about this next part for years, and I thought I’d add this too: C F Goldie’s The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand (1898) was just a copy. He was a copyist and a popularist, just trying to sell to those who had the money, a facsimile of real art - I’m pretty sure Géricault woulda told him that that work was shit. If I could go back that far I would say the same thing. I coulda have gone missing - disappeared, by either saying that or saying nothing. That was his grand narrative, the dying out of Māori as a race. How long has that narrative been spoken? 123 years since it was painted. And I go back to my 5th form history class workbook, and I still talk about how that ‘artwork’ was on the cover. Framing our entry into NZ History. NZ ‘History is a set of lies agreed upon’. And only recently it may be that questions asked of the NZ education system’s reluctance to teach NZ history may have been superseded and may now be irrelevant? Now that the new NCEA standards have introduced Mana Orite mō te mātauranga Māori into every aspect of the curriculum, including all of it’s subjects and the standards within that. The NZ curriculum is being infused with mātauranga Māori. As a Māori teacher it was a ‘great realisation’, that once known, I knew I had to get back to business, and believe it when I see it. Since then I bet that a whole lot of Principals are investigating implementing Cambridge and Baccalaureate. And despite my cynicism, the question then, is when it goes ahead, could this be the start of the world that should have been? And what is the world that could happen?

That’s enough. My partner says it's all quite cynical. Well then, someone else can write something else.

Toi Tū, Toi Ora.

- Rangituhia Hollis

Rangituhia Hollis is an artist based in Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland. See Rangituhia's page on CIRCUIT here

(i) Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 5 Dec 2020—9 May 2021. Curated by Nigel Borrell. Featuring over 300 artworks by 110 Māori artists ‘from the 1950s to the present day’… Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art "...considers new ways of approaching and engaging with Māori art of the last 70 years. The Māori creation narrative provides the exhibition’s framework, highlighting its enduring resonance and the multiplicity of interpretation that artists have bought to bear on the narrative in making their art". Source: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki website 2021.
(ii) Pūrangiaho: Seeing Clearly, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 15 Sep-25 Nov 2001. Curated by Ngahiraka Mason.
(iii) Ward Churchill is an author and political activist of Native American descent. His 2005 book Since Predator Came: Notes from the Struggle for American Indian Liberation is free to read online here
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(iv) Black Like Me, first published in 1961, is a nonfiction book by white journalist John Howard Griffin recounting his journey in the Deep South of the United States, at a time when African-Americans lived under racial segregation. Source: Wikipedia 2021