Sitting in a field surrounded by slow-moving farm animals and breathing air thick with insects and airplane exhaust, Qiane Matata-Sipu (artist, activist) introduces the contested land on which we rest. Here the tupuna (ancestor) Hape alighted when he arrived in Aotearoa, travelling by stingray from the ancient homeland of Hawaiki, thereby ending the great journey that saw Polynesian people become Māori. The cultural significance of Ihumātao is recognised in the designation of a small, protected zone called the Otuataua Stonefields Historic Reserve. The field we rest on is a fragile territory that edges that zone and forms a bridge to the settlement where Qiane and her extended family have lived for generations. This land was confiscated and farmed from 1863 and is now slated for a fast-tracked housing initiative to combat Auckland’s chronic housing shortage.
Walking Ihumātao with Qiane provides a glimpse into the complexity of relationships to land in present day New Zealand. Here environmental politics are at the heart of Indigenous practices. We pass sacred volcanoes that have been quarried and “renewed” with landfill and a river that once provided for her ancestors but ran purple after a nearby chemical spill. Qiane is one of a group of women with traditional custodial authority for Ihumātao and is a co-founder of the Save Our Unique Landscape Campaign (SOUL) dedicated to stopping the housing initiative.
The strong relationship Māori people have to land is leading changing attitudes and laws in New Zealand. In March this year after a 170-year legal battle the Whanganui River was granted legal status as a person. This decision signals the potential for momentous change. The river now enjoys the rights of any citizen, it cannot be owned and can be defended in court where the Whanganui tribe and the government will work together and speak on its behalf. This act loosens the grip of human-centricity: re thinking the assumption that minerals and water are powerless partners in human-led developments and forcing people to address environmental forces as equal others.
Visiting New Zealand amidst these interesting developments, I looked for artists committed to change as an integral part of artmaking. More specifically, I followed practices that become public from within female-led communities formed around fragile lands. To foreground the names of leading artists without unpicking the networks within which they are situated seems antithetical to their methods of distributed authorship. Working in ways that are structurally feminist, the artists I found initiate practices that embrace the insecurity inherent in the possibilities of collaboration.
Collecting my thoughts from my home in Adelaide (Kaurna Country) I am indebted to a paper given by Melbourne artist Bianca Hester at the conference Curating Feminism (2014). Her words return to me as a touchstone for thinking about the radical and difficult commitment artists might make to dialogue and relationships. She identifies a link between an ethics of care and feminist legacies, where careful acts of making “overflow the patriarchal tendency to individualisation, competition and performance.” The image of unstoppable, overflowing care washing away patriarchal practice is irresistible.
Psychologist and ethicist Carol Gilligan is an early voice in identifying the potential of care as a method for undermining patriarchy. In her hands, the term “ethics of care” became synonymous with careful and responsive methods where relationships are foregrounded and inductive and experiential knowledge welcomed. Gillian takes the seemingly weak power of care into radical territory; she sees it as a counter methodology and through it claims “feminism [as] one of the great liberation movements in human history, [as] the movement to free democracy from patriarchy.”
Care has also been construed as radical in its potential to compel non‑capitalist actions. Curator and critic Jan Verwoert recounts the story of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova at the moment she recognised her impetus to became a writer: “Standing outside a Leningrad prison in 1930 where her son was a political prisoner, another woman whose son was also imprisoned, asked her: Can you write about this? She found that she had to respond that yes, indeed she could and in this moment found herself both empowered and indebted.”
In New Zealand environmental politics is at the centre of postcolonial discourse. I found artists working relationally to make change from within social networks, encountering complex situations by embodying an ethics of care. Negotiation between many voices was a recurrent strength. Working out of Wellington, artist Olivia Webb facilitates happenstance community choirs in response to shaking lands. Her Voices Project has had two iterations since 2014 and began following the Christchurch earthquakes. Starting after disaster and located amongst demolition and re‑building, she reveals “intricate relations between people, places and belonging.” Each choir formed around a damaged church and learnt to sing the same piece of early music with rehearsals conducted and sound recorded by Webb.
Webb brings community dynamics and compromise to the fore by drawing on processes of learning and negotiation to create the work. Compositions begin with rehearsals, voices warming up, samples from the four weeks of workshops and conclude with well‑practised renditions. The project was presented with support from The Physics Room as a site-specific one-day event played back amongst ruins on the land that triggered it, forming fleeting sonic monuments for changing places and disrupted communities.
The memory of trembling earth is held in wavering voices: Webb’s emotionally affecting work takes a discrete environmental event and mobilises temporary groups around a single song. A more sustained commitment to the grassroots nexus of community voice and practice can be found in the field where we began at Ihumātao, here collaborative works strengthen activism and make public connections. SOUL is a community-driven campaign group inclusive of diverse tauiwi (non-Māori) and led by wahine (women) from the mana whenua Te Wai-o-Hua whānau (the local Māori tribe and traditional custodial authority). Central to the creative output of the project is expat-Australian artist Rebecca Ann Hobbs, whose long-term commitment to the campaign is motivated by the potential of conversations between women in advocating for land.
In SOUL’s work there is no hierarchy between protest actions, conversations, workshops and exhibition of performative and gallery-situated artworks. Multiple strands of dialogue and ways of knowing pose questions for institutional ways of operating. In 2016 Te Ihu o Mataoho exhibited in the St Paul Street Gallery, Auckland University of Technology, comprised a series of collaborative actions employed to raise the profile of the volcanic features from the Ihumātao area.
Maungataketake (2016), a collaboration between Martin Awa Clarke Langdon and Rebecca Hobbs, shows the artists struggling under the weight of a bright green, heavy and segmented replica volcano. To move its many parts they employ pressure and balance. They hold it together against absurdly frequent failure. Theirs is grim commitment to negotiation, no matter how hard or potentially unrewarded. After every fall they pick up the pieces and try again. On the one hand, the work reads as a love note to a volcano—a promise of care and commitment to rebuilding. But the calm green slice of horizon they carry (always moving parallel to the camera) playfully remembers the expectation to see land drawn using linear perspective. Desire for conservation is made to struggle with the recognition of differing worldviews.
In 2002 Miwon Kwon renewed the focus on site-specific discourses, dredging them from earth‑bound understandings of the 1970s towards the more nuanced and socially aware “site situated.” The SOUL project takes Kwon’s idea into deeper Pacific waters by embracing the difficulty of navigating the postcolonial environment. Here actions are negotiated, every work is collaborative and there is continuous commitment to change though dialogue. Their work is carried on women’s voices.
Back on site at Ihumātao, Ōtuataua children’s workshops activate the potential of intergenerational exchange. The workshops involved choreographing a series of “power moves” that remember and re‑invigorate ancestors. Developed by Cat Ruka, Tosh Ah Kit and Rebecca Hobbs, each move had a particular “tupuna of Matahourua encoded within its physicality.” For example, young artists perform and embody the characteristics of boldness and agility of Kupe (the eponymous ancestor of Hawaiki and chief of the Matahourua waka). They are photographed moving with unflinching gaze against a psychedelic, celestial background. In SOUL’s methods, the notion of individual art practice dissolves into acts by a community that facilitates change through engagement with its ideas, processes and ancestors.
The St Paul St Symposium was a recent program endorsed by SOUL, and the conversation it started explored resistant and alternative knowledge systems. Keynote speaker Carl Mika, from the University of Waikato, critiques current educational methods that fix meaning through objectification and separation of the body from the world, where: “For Māori, the agenda of colonisation has been the constant presence of a philosophical colonisation between the self and things in the world, accomplished by educational practices which … ideally suit the freezing of things in the world so that they yield information.”
Frozen things, separated from humans, become objectified and knowable in a way that may invite careless or exploitative acts. Against this way of being, he states that: “Māori believe that the self is part of the environment, and hence the self’s uptake of anything—emotion, feeling, cognition, even physical attribute—is dependent on the interplay of whakapapa with the natural world. The deep links that Māori have with the natural world—seen and unseen—permeate outwards to include those who are deceased and those who are yet to come, as well as past and future impacts on the environment.”
Entering and dispelling the subject/object divide, Mika identifies the philosophical project of cultural theorist Jane Bennett. She attempts to reunite human bodies with things and materiality through methods of attentiveness. Bennett suggests that if humans pay attention to their interconnection with the material forces that flow in, around and with them, fundamental changes to subject/object power relations follow. Careful attention is at the core of recent non-human inclusive collaboration between artist and curator Janine Randerson, dancer, performance artist and poet Tru Paraha, and Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere (formerly known as the Franz Josef Glacier). Single-channel video Waiho, Retreat (2017) follows the Waiho River with Janine behind the camera and Tru Paraha moving with the monumental ice-becoming river.
Paraha and Randerson collaboratively improvised their attentive dance in response to the growth and melt of Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere. Sometimes Paraha’s cold fingers explore blue frozen pockets; at other times she appears as a distant figure taking carefully measured backwards steps along the floe surface. Walking backwards with the glacier amplifies its imperceptible passage and gives it’s slow movements immediacy in human thought. Sound accompanying the video opens a channel to the delicate cracking of the ice. Since 2008 the glacier has retreated one and a half kilometres, following a period of advance in the 1990s. In this work human and ice act together as a sensitive barometer for a warming world.
My visit to New Zealand was a too-short introduction to an exciting strand of ecologically engaged, feminist practices. I left that dramatic environment thinking about melting glaciers, frozen knowledge, voices spilling and patriarchy drowning. The Whanganui River—finally legally powerful—collects rain on the slopes of Mount Tongariro and joins the sea at Whanganui. I wonder how its personhood is kept contained and hope for an overflow of the ideas that led to its recognition.
- ^ Sasha Grbich, “Conversation with Qiane Matata-Sipu.” Listen to the full conversation at https://soundcloud.com/user-392998930/conversation-with-qiane-matata-sipu.
- ^ Kathleen Calderwood, “Why New Zealand is granting a river the same rights as a citizen,” 6 September 2017: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sundayextra/new-zealand-granting-rivers-and-forests-same-rights-as-citizens/7816456.
- ^ Bianca Hester, “Curating Public Space,” Curating Feminism conference, Sydney College of the Arts, 25 October 2014: https://vimeo.com/114097830 accessed 08/2017.
- ^ Interview with Carol Gilligan, 21 June 2011: https://ethicsofcare.org/carol-gilligan/ accessed 08/2017.
- ^ Jan Verwoert, I Can, I Can’t, Who Cares? , “A Precarious Existence”, Open, 2009, no. 17, 40–46.
- ^ The author in conversation with Olivia Webb.
- ^ The author in conversation with Rebecca Hobbs.
- ^ Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2002.
- ^ The author in conversation with Rebecca Hobbs.
- ^ Carl Mika, “Overcoming ‘Being’ in favour of knowledge: The fixing effect of ‘mātauranga’,” Educational Philosophy and Theory, 44 (10), 2012, pp. 1080–92.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
- ^ The author in conversation with Janine Randerson.
Sasha Grbich participated in HEAT: Solar Revolutions at Te Uru, Waitakere Contemporary, alongside Janine Randerson and Tru Paraha, 15 February – 17 April 2017. Sasha teaches installation and video at the Adelaide Central School of Art where she also coordinates the BVA and honours degrees. She was recently awarded a Samstag Scholarship.