Kai shared at an Otago Peninsula crib, and cherished artworks, are facets of an intriguing partnership involving New Zealand’s oldest public art gallery.
The participants seem humble and keen to listen rather than shout, and to focus on art and the stories behind it rather than themselves.
Ngāi Tahu, or Kāi Tahu, is the principal South Island Māori tribal group and Paemanu is a group of contemporary visual artists from this iwi.
Paemanu tells how in 2019, the artists met with Dunedin Public Art Gallery staff and toured the building, from the clay basement floor to the former DIC Department Store pixie grotto, then to the exhibitions above.
“In the galleries we greeted collection material by Machiavelli, Veneziano, Monet and Turner, amongst many others, and wondered how could we feel at home here with you all?
We felt the absence of the home people, art forms from Te Waipounamu, Aotearoa and Moana Pasifika.”
The artists’ collective also visited the Otago Museum and Hocken Collections, again exploring treasures displayed in environmentally-controlled archives.
“Overwhelmed and yearning for the outdoors, our rōpū bolted to a crib on Ōtākou Peninsula with BBQ supplies.”
They walked along Papanui Inlet, knowing that later they’d host dinner for those from the local Ōtākou Pa.
“We splashed in Ōtākou Harbour, wriggling toes into sand to locate cockles for tea.”
While eating kai eased emotions, Paemanu says the challenge remained to find the right relationship to the colonial art institution, one which could include a variety of ancestors.
Elders from the Pa helped by sharing a photograph taken by one of the gallery’s founders, William Hodgkins, and a print of a painting by his daughter, the renowned artist Frances Hodgkins.
Those present understood that these artworks were cherished because they were portraits of tūpuna, or ancestors. Stories flowed.
Another realisation dawned about where these indigenous people, or mana whenua, stood in the gallery collection.
“Mana whenua were at the establishment of the collection, they were facing the photographer and the painter.”
Unveiling the Stars
Three or four years of conversations between Paemanu and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery (DPAG) have resulted in the Hurahia ana kā Whetū: Unveiling the Stars exhibition, which runs at the gallery until October 2022.
In this powerful show, Paemanu and the curators give their perspectives on the collection’s history. Other contributors have written responses to the paintings, sculptures and photographs.A gallery curator, Lucy Hammonds, says as the staff and collective got to know each other and the tales behind the artworks, Paemanu found their own stories within the collection – or the absence of stories.
Together, they thought about how to tell these stories and the exhibition emerged.
Lucy says the show is distinctive because of a much stronger and more direct intent to elevate Māori art history within the context of the collection.
“It’s powerful because if you allow multiple voices to make exhibitions, then you allow yourself to see the spaces and a way to fill them.”
Paemanu wanted to see its people reflected in historical galleries. Lucy says the gallery will be more welcoming for everyone if they can see themselves.
For me it reinforces the care that we need to take when we’re looking at our collections and check in on what we’re seeing and not seeing.”
Public feedback has been positive and she thinks DPAG regulars are noticing that something different is happening.
“I think our institutions have to be a reflection of what it means to live here – our role is to be a community space.”
The gallery’s Curatorial Intern, Piupiu Maya Turei, says historical collections aren’t often revisited in this way.
She has whakapapa, or genealogy, links to Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, Rangitāne and Ātihaunui-a-Pāpārangi iwi and arrived towards the end of this project.
She’s excited about what she describes as a close working relationship between Paemanu and the gallery. She thinks this will be ongoing.
Asked what she’s learned, Piupiu notes that she lives life bi-culturally.
“For me, it’s cool watching two institutions, Paemanu and DPAG, come together, and watching something that’s true to both and is creating a space for people to connect.”
As an artist and new curator, she believes that such conversations don’t need to be only bi-cultural and can include many points of view.
“I like hearing what other people think.”
Footnote: Paemanu’s story is from the exhibition’s Stories Entwined panel, with their permission. Crib is the southern word for a bach, Te Waipounamu is the South Island and Moana Pasifika is the Pacific Ocean.
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About the exhibition