Knowledge positions in Aotearoa and Turtle Island art museums

Interview with First Nations curators Kathleen Ash-Milby, Maia Nuku and Nigel Borell.

Virgil Ortiz, Clay Figure from Tourniquet Series, 2009, white clay slip, red clay slip, and black (wild spinach) paint on Cochiti red clay. Collection: Porland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon, purchased with funds provided by Elizabeth Cole Butler Auction Proceeds © Virgil Ortiz
Virgil Ortiz, Clay Figure from Tourniquet Series, 2009, white clay slip, red clay slip, and black (wild spinach) paint on Cochiti red clay. Collection: Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon, purchased with funds provided by Elizabeth Cole Butler Auction Proceeds © Virgil Ortiz

Léuli Eshrāghi   Could you start by individually situating yourselves in relation to your Ancestral territory, nation and language, and where you now live and work? Who do you count among your curatorial constellation of leaders and mentors?

Kathleen Ash-Milby   I am Tódích’íi’nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for Bilagáana (White) and a member of the Navajo Nation. I am the Curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum, in Portland, Oregon, where I have worked since July 2019. I am new to this territory, the Ancestral homelands of the Willamette Tumwater, Clackamas, Kathlemet, Molalla, Multnomah and Watlala Chinook Peoples and the Tualatin Kalapuya who today are part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, and many other Native communities who made their homes along the Columbia River.

I feel incredibly blessed to be one of a generation of art curators, Native and non-Indigenous, who have been part of a sea change in the representation of Native art, especially contemporary Native art, in museums throughout the United States. These colleagues include heather ahtone, Paul Chaat Smith, Karen Kramer, John Lukavic, Ryan Rice (who practiced in the US for several years), Christina Burke, and more. We are all the beneficiaries of mentorship and encouragement from scholars, senior artists, and previous curators who believed in this work when few people were paying attention in academia or the museum field. For me, these inspiring folks include Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Kay WalkingStick, James Luna, Lillian Pitt, Jolene Rickard, W. Jackson Rushing, Ruth Phillips, Janet Berlo, Margaret Archuleta, and Joanna Bigfeather.

Nigel Borell   My tribal affiliations are Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi, Te Whakatōhea, Te Rarawa and Ngāti Apakura. My parents are from the Bay of Plenty region of the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand, but they moved to suburban Manurewa, south Auckland in the early 1970s where my siblings and I were raised. I still live in Manurewa today, commuting daily to Auckland city and my role as curator of Māori art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

I feel fortunate to include Megan Tamati-Quennell and Ngahiraka Mason among the senior Māori curators that have contributed to my own development offering advice and support and in later years working collaboratively and collegially with them both has been special. I think the greatest influence on my curatorial practice has come from outside the field and found across the wider sector of Māori cultural development. Working under tohunga whakairo (master carver) Paki Harrison and kowhaiwhai artist Peter Boyd in my early career had a huge impact on my understanding of matauranga Māori (Māori knowledge systems) and Māori art which continues to influence my thinking and curating today. 

Maia Nuku   My name is Maia Jessop Nuku and I am of British and Māori descent. Torere is the Ancestral home of our iwi (tribe) Ngāi Tai, in the eastern Bay of Plenty on the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. We are descendants of Tōrerenuiārua and Manaakiao. Our mountain is Kapuārangi and Wainui is our river. Māori is our language. A major early influence for me was my Māori grandmother Hera Kerr (née Mio) who helped raise me in London where I was born. She laid the groundwork for learning to honour distinct aspects of myself and this multi-dimensionality plays out a lot for me now in curatorial life as museum work is, in its very nature, multifarious. One has to be agile, comfortable even, shifting in and across thresholds and balancing different aspects of yourself in the mahi (work).

I count many in my constellation of curatorial leaders and mentors. I connected early on with artists Brett Graham, John Pule and Sofia Tekela-Smith during my 20s in Auckland, taking the opportunity to join them on visits with the senior artist Selwyn Muru to Paris and London, even Spain when they visited Europe. Each in their own way inspired and encouraged my formative ideas in the field.

Reading the work of Maualaivao Albert Wendt, Epeli Hauʻofa and Teresia Teaiwa was hugely influential when I was starting out and I embraced the energy with which they pushed the creative boundaries of scholarship in exciting and dynamic directions. Their contributions helped me to understand curatorial practice as a dynamic and creative output in its own right. Since arriving at the Met, Arapata Hakiwai (Kaihautū, Te Papa Tongarewa) has been enormously supportive of my endeavours here. Early on, we explored ways in which we might animate the legacy of Te Maori between our two institutions.

Te Maori was a landmark exhibition that the Met hosted in New York in 1984 which set important new precedents in terms of consultation and shared decision-making between museums and Indigenous communities. In many ways, the work I am currently doing at the Met looks to reinvigorate the portal that was opened by those kaumatua (Elders) who travelled with our taonga (Ancestral art) to New York 35 years ago. The collaborative model established by Te Maori allows me to explore ways in which an expansive curatorial practice can extend the very notion of kaitiakitanga (custodianship) in museums—one that sees taonga moving around the world establishing relationships and nurturing alliances, in many respects just as they were originally designed to do.

LE   Which practices do you most align with and feel responsible to represent and frame in your museological work? How far does this take you, in writing, curating and supporting artists from your own Ancestral territory, nation or language?

KAM   In my previous positions as the co-director of the American Indian Community House Gallery and as an associate curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, both in New York City, I have focused on the study and exhibition of Native art. I definitely have a passion for contemporary Native art, especially artists who push boundaries and work in modes and methods that might initially be perceived as “non-traditional.” Working directly with artists, writing about their work, spending time with them in the studio getting to know their process and thinking is exciting and fascinating. I love being able to serve as a bridge for these artists, getting their work into exhibitions and collections, and acting as an advocate and interlocutor of sorts through my writing.

In my new position at the Portland Art Museum, I now have much broader and diverse responsibilities. These include the care, study, and exhibition of an entire collection of Native American art from the western hemisphere, including work created over hundreds of years. These new challenges are simultaneously exciting, stimulating and humbling. I have much to learn, but I am honoured to be entrusted with stewarding the legacy of this diverse collection, and I feel strongly about the importance of advocacy and representation of contemporary Native people in the care of this collection.

My background is in Native American art history, which had a broad focus on the arts of North America. Although there will always be a special place in my heart for Navajo art and artists, I work with a much wider range of artists. I do think the sensitivity and knowledge of my own culture and practices do enhance my work. This field and this work have too much depth and diversity, I will always need to be learning which is both daunting and wonderful.

NB   I think most Indigenous art curators feel the weight of trying to represent them all! Collection-wise, there is some urgency to tell better and more fully the developments in contemporary Māori art of the past twenty years (including moving image and digital media developments, which are often not well represented). Of course, these directions can be very institution-specific.

I am also interested in collecting works that question the conventional boundaries of institutional collection practices. We have recently acquired some stunning Māori body adornment and jewellery pieces and the artist has requested that these pieces must be worn on the body; to be kept “warm,” so not just static objects that are placed on the gallery wall. This has been a fascinating exercise for collection practices and represents some interesting paradigm shifts.

There are many artists’ contributions that need to be urgently shared within our institutions and within the national narrative. I also value that my area of expertise and interest is in Māori art (both customary and contemporary), which is also the focus of my curatorial work. For me it’s not about trying to speak about/or on behalf of other peoples’ histories and cultures without their input or cultural authority, so this sometimes dictates the pace of wider cross-Indigenous curatorial collaboration.

Nigel Borell and members of Haerawa, the Māori art advisory group to Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki at the opening of The Māori Portraits: Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand, Young Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco, 2017. Photo: Sarah Hillary
Nigel Borell and members of Haerawa, the Māori art advisory group to Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki at the opening of The Māori Portraits: Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand, Young Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco, 2017. Photo: Sarah Hillary

MN   I now live in New York where I am the Associate Curator for Oceanic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I look after a collection of some two thousand works of art from Pacific islands and archipelagos that stretch across a vast expanse of ocean spanning almost a third of the globe. The outstanding mobility of Pacific peoples over the course of centuries was the catalyst for the flourishing of this kaleidoscopic range of cultures and art traditions—some 20,000 islands and close to 1,800 different cultures and language groups—all of whom share common ancestry.

Customary knowledge, rich oral traditions, the genealogical landscape—these overarching conceptual ideas are key aspects of Pacific culture that were, and continue to be, channelled via the vehicle of art. Ultimately, I’m interested in finding ways to creatively deploy these local ontologies—that is, distinctly Pacific ways of knowing and being in the world—so we can share these strategies for life and create new avenues of understanding.

I am currently working on designs with architects for new Oceania galleries to display our permanent collection. It’s a huge and exciting project that will allow us to reframe the collection for the first time in forty years. My ambition is to inspire on a conceptual as well as a visual level. Much of the work I do is grounded in this approach: presenting Pacific art from the inside out—so that Māori and Pacific worldviews are acknowledged and celebrated by audiences who may have little or no knowledge about the Pacific at all. This is strategic in the sense that it guides visitors not only to a clearer appreciation of the Pacific itself, it’s also an opportunity to present people with an Indigenous template for better navigating their own 21st-century lives in New York and beyond.

LE   What are some of the continuing ceremonial and kinship‑based practices in your communities that enable you to work beyond a settler/colonised dichotomy? 

KAM   One of the most essential things I have learned over the years from my own community-based experiences, both with my family and others, is that some knowledge is not meant to be shared with everyone. This is a contrast to Western philosophy that positions knowledge as something that cannot be owned and should not be restricted. I think this is something that I initially resisted but have learned to value and respect over time through the experience of ceremony and learning from the Elders of various communities.

NB   I find many institutions today in Aotearoa are practised at observing ceremonial protocol as they pertain to the work of the art institution and Indigenous cultures. I find the real challenge for institutions is in how they move beyond the “power of symbolism”—which is often noted/serviced by engaging ceremony—to see more tangible gains in how institutions understand and share power in determining the work and relationships with Māori and Māori communities.

MN   Broadly speaking, all Pacific art is a vehicle to access story as a means to channel knowledge and animate Ancestral connections. As soon as I arrived at the museum, I hoped to find ways to animate the galleries, to populate the space with Pacific voices. Yet one of the challenges of looking after a collection is the static nature of display. How do we convey to visitors the dynamic, sensual repertoire of words, gesture and dance that were originally conceived as an integral part but are now absent? All of the collaborative projects I do with artists aim to activate this aspect of our practice as Pacific peoples.

Last year, we commissioned a work from the fiercely talented dancer and choreographer Jahra Wasasala Rager (Viti/Aotearoa). God-House (bure kalou) (2019) was inspired by one of my first exhibitions at the museum ATEA: Nature & Divinity in Polynesia that featured extraordinary 18th- and 19th-century Polynesian atua (deities). Jahra used the opportunity to open up a dynamic and critical space for her own voice in the galleries where she could respond, in a visceral and deeply profound way, to the Polynesian atua on display. Exposure to this kind of distinctive practice is precisely the kind of extension of boundaries that I am dedicated to promoting at the Met.

Jahra Wasasala Rager performs God House (bure kalou) for the Polynesian community at the closing of ATEA: Nature and Divinity in Polynesia exhibition, 27 October 2019, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Sophie Chalk
Jahra Wasasala Rager performs God House (bure kalou) for the Polynesian community at the closing of ATEA: Nature and Divinity in Polynesia, 27 October 2019, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Sophie Chalk

LE   What is something that you first thought about curating that you no longer think about? In all the various experiences/feats you have accomplished, have your priorities shifted? And, if so, what are these?

KAM   When I first started working with contemporary Native art, the mainstream institutions seemed impenetrable and intimidating. Over time, as I became more experienced and came into contact with different professional circles, I realised that institutions are made up of ordinary people who make decisions.

It always startles me when my exhibition team meets with an artist who appears nervous or intimidated, because we are just people who want to help them present their work in the best possible way to the world. So now, when someone complains or criticises an institution, I know that it is important to look more carefully at who is controlling the decisions within that institution. Is the problem coming from the board or from the staff? Is there an old guard that is holding onto old ways? Who could our allies be within that institution? Museums are dynamic. Leadership changes and people can evolve in their thinking.

NB   I suppose there are two realities that hit home for me. Curating is very much like having a conversation. It is about sharing ideas that you hope others will find interesting and will engage with. I no longer doubt that exhibition-making is a live conversation about ideas with all sectors of the community (even when we don’t think they are listening). As curators we challenge thinking and can be challenged about that thinking, so I see these all as conversations about ideas and propositions that invite discussion.

The other learning is that being Māori in an art institution is a political act and every exhibition you offer carries that no matter what the subject or material. Being Māori in this environment is political regardless of whether you realise it or not and regardless of whether you accept it or not.

MN   I think museum curators often look to the collections they look after as a repository from which to draw artworks periodically for presentation in an exhibition. I see the collection as inherently dynamic and have definitely moved towards an understanding of the gallery itself as a place of encounter. Shifting my perception of it as simply a place where we present art from a particular region, I prefer to approach it as a place to host in the manner that Pacific people are accustomed to do. In this way it becomes a very active, dynamic space: a place to encounter each other, a place to dialogue, a place to confront difficult complex histories.

Relationships are of course key, and hosting Pacific guests, artists and practitioners in the gallery is an opportunity to revive these connections. I see curating as an opportunity to revive and animate these relationships. In an important sense, taonga were actually designed to leverage these kinds of relationships so this aspect of curating speaks very much to the original role and agency of the artworks themselves. This active practice also impacts the institution itself: it can push at the boundaries of the institution, forcing it to reassess itself and become more self-reflective, which is crucial.

Tongan artist Benjamin Work and members of the Polynesian community closing ATEA: Nature and Divinity in Polynesia, 2019, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Sophie Chalk
Tongan artist Benjamin Work and members of the Polynesian community closing ATEA: Nature and Divinity in Polynesia, 2019, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Sophie Chalk

LE   What would be your ideal framework for Indigenous art practices and art histories?  Do you believe that we are moving towards a critical mass of representation, and where do you look to for support and resourcing in continuing your work as Indigenous curators in Euro‑American and Pākehā art institutions?

KAM   In an ideal world, Native art and history would be interwoven into curriculum from primary school through university. American history would be inseparable from Native history, because it was always part of this country, just ignored. Likewise, Native art should always be included in the teaching of world art, both contemporary and historical. If these foundations were in place in our educational system, the absence or ghettoisation of Native art in museums and other institutions would not be tolerated because they would be obvious exclusions.

When I first began learning about and working with Native art, there was an emphasis on the idea that Native artists were left out of the mainstream discourse, and that inclusion in mainstream museum exhibitions, collections or publications was an end in itself. It is true that thirty years ago most Native artists struggled to get attention from the broader art community, but this idea in itself diminishes the importance of the work that we do in community-based galleries and museums with a cultural focus.

My attitude gradually shifted from framing Native artists (and the curators who worked with them) as being victims of an exclusionary system, to a strong belief that the mainstream was missing out on extraordinary work and scholarship that we were building through alternative venues and methods. Today, Native artists have been recognised and included in many of the major art biennials internationally, are appearing in mainstream art publications like ArtNews and Art in America and are actively being collected by major institutions.

This does not mean that this is on the scale that we might want, or that it will continue in the long term, but I do think that we should be proud of this progress and the many advocates, writers, academics, and artists that have put in the hard work to get us here. I’m optimistic, despite some setbacks. There is a groundswell of young Indigenous scholars and curators coming up behind us! I feel confident that we will continue to make inroads while doing the work we feel is important.

NB   Ultimately, I think the ideal framework is the one where the Indigenous curator dictates what is important. Māori often talk about the principle of tino rangatiratanga: Māori self-determination and the freedom to realise one’s potential and/or the potential of the collective. I believe this Sovereign Act is the framework and allows the Indigenous curator to realise a range of ideas, concepts and agendas that they decide are important to the institution and important to the communities that they represent. Ironically, it’s also the institution’s gain but it should always be the Indigenous curator’s gaze.

Critical mass is an interesting “idea” but perhaps that’s all it is at this stage. For me it is important to see my curatorial contribution outside of the “four walls” of the gallery because it’s outside of the institution that our communities, support systems, our mentors and our greatest critics reside. The challenges of institutional curating can be overwhelming, so I have come to rely on the many voices and expert opinions that I value from the wider Māori arts community.

MN   I see myself very much as a broker in these contested spaces looking to expand the more conventionally accepted canon of art to include art from Oceania. Creating access is vital as a way to open up the collections to new voices. The art of the Pacific is far less known in the United States and on a practical level, there are extremely limited opportunities to study Pacific and Indigenous art at all which means less overall patronage and support which has a direct impact on the resources available to us.

This has a knock-on effect in terms of what projects we can undertake, who we can host, what we can actively acquire going forward. An ideal framework for Indigenous art practice and art history would include more gallery and exhibition space for Indigenous art in US institutions—both to celebrate it on its own terms and to allow a more connected conversation with the global contemporary art dialogue. The parameters have certainly shifted in cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami to accommodate more global dialogue, but it would be great to create space for shows that embrace the distinctly Indigenous narratives and frameworks for understanding which Indigenous curators are advocating.

While we have not reached anywhere near a critical mass of representation, there is certainly a very real sense of change and momentum gathering in the right direction. I think that museums want to evolve and change—why wouldn’t they? This is exciting terrain! But institutions have perhaps not always understood how to change. At the Met there is certainly an appetite to incorporate diverse perspectives. The change is slow and steady, but I find with each new project, the institution tilts centrally on its axis, we build trust and all move forward.

Our new director, Max Hollein, has been enthusiastic in this regard and worked recently with curators in our Department of Modern and Contemporary Art to establish two major new spaces in the museum for large‑scale interventions by contemporary artists that allow a critical interface with the Met’s holdings. The first of these was the stellar work The NewOnes, will free Us (2019–20) by Kenyan‑American artist Wangechi Mutu in the new Façade Commission, and Cree artist Kent Monkman’s mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People) in the Great Hall Commission (2019–20).

LE   What is the relationship between your art institution and local/regional art schools? Do you maintain relationships outside of these official links in order to ensure pathways of knowledge and cultural exchange between Indigenous artists, curators and arts workers? 

KAM   The Portland Art Museum as an institution has prioritised art education for decades, during one period even including an art school and studio on the museum campus. The museum has a longstanding relationship with the public school system, but has also worked to build relationships with community partners to better understand and serve as many people as possible. The Native American community is part of this constituency, and I was very encouraged when I was introduced to the Native American Advisory Board as part of my job interview. It was evident to me that the museum took its relationship with Native people seriously, and this group has served as an important link for me to new communities and relationships in my position.

I also have my own connections and relationships, created over the course of my career, that I will continue to build upon to make sure that I am serving the interests and needs of Native people, artists and community members, in maintaining access to their material in the museum. It is going to be a continuing learning process for me and the staff, but they have been willing partners in this work.

NB   I think that a measure of an art institution’s success is how well they do or do not engage with their stakeholders and various sectors. We have healthy and consistent working relationships with most of the regional art schools, but we could always do better and reach further.

MN   My department has a strong relationship with institutions in the Pacific and I host an annual spring internship for a Māori/Pacific scholar or practitioner and 1–2 visiting Research Fellows per year who come to support me in my work. I maintain relationships outside this official link amongst my own network which includes Indigenous artists, performers, poets, writers, scholars, curators and colleagues in museums and art galleries in the Pacific, USA and Europe.

As a global hub, people are often passing through New York so it’s a great way to continue to make connections and extend our Pacific network that way. We extend our manaakitanga (hospitality) and build kotahitanga (togetherness) here in the city for our own Pacific whānau who are long-term residents here in New York, so there is a constant dynamic of cultural exchange with those who are visiting.

LE   Which project that you have realised do you feel most proud of? Please share some of this achievement with us, and how it may or may not anchor you in your ongoing work?

KAM   I hate to choose favourites because I have worked on so many projects with so many incredible artists, but there are a few that I think of being especially meaningful. The first exhibition I organised at the American Indian Community House Gallery was a small group exhibition titled Mother Love: Native Women and the Land in 2000. It was my first original exhibition and I was excited but nervous. Luckily, I had chosen a group of artists across various stages of their career who were supportive and even nurturing to me as a nascent curator. It gave me so much confidence that I was capable of doing this work.

The first exhibition I curated at the National Museum of the American Indian, Off the Map: Landscape in the Native Imagination in 2007, will also always have a special place in my heart. I’m still close to many of the artists and it was very foundational to my scholarship, affirming my approach to exhibiting Native art in a way that was creative, challenging and unexpected. On another level, the publication for the exhibition was also my first edited catalogue. One of the invited authors, Kate Morris, a scholar and colleague from graduate school, was an informal advisor and sounding board throughout the editorial process. It really made me appreciate how none of these things we produce are created alone.

I’ve enjoyed collaborating more formally on various projects, including with Brenda L. Croft, Megan Tamati-Quennell, and David Garneau, on Mind (the) Gap: International Indigenous Art in Motion, at the Samstag Museum of Art, Adelaide, in 2011, and more recently with David Garneau as co-curator for my last exhibition at NMAI, Transformer: Native Art in Light and Sound, in 2017.

Raven Chacon, Still Life, #3, 2015, sound and light installation with text. Voice and translation by Melvatha Chee. Collection of the artist. Photo: John Kuczala
Raven Chacon, Still Life, #3, 2015, sound and light installation with text. Voice and translation by Melvatha Chee. Collection of the artist. Photo: John Kuczala

Another unforgettable and important project was the retrospective, Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist, at NMAI in 2015, which I co-curated with David Penney. It was such a privilege to be able to work closely with an artist over several years to develop the exhibition and publication. It deepened my understanding and appreciation of her work, but it was also incredibly satisfying to know that the work we were doing was filling a gap in the scholarship on an iconic artist and helping to advance her recognition more widely. All of these experiences have continued to reaffirm the importance of our work in changing the arts landscape.

NB   This may sound cheesy but I’m proud of all of them, proud and relieved to get to the finish line of every project I work on! But most satisfied when I see Māori from across all sectors of community—and not just the Māori arts community—engaged in the exhibition or project we present. To me that’s what success looks like: when a greater representation of Māori can see themselves in the exhibition project you present, then that’s a measure of success. It reminds me that exhibition-making can be transformative.

MN   ATEA: Nature & Divinity in Polynesia (2018–19) was a project that centred Indigenous perspectives to explore the genealogical relationship between Polynesian chiefs and their gods. The exhibition was grounded in a powerful moment in Polynesian cosmology—when space and light (ātea) flooded the dark ancestral night (te pō), initiating a dynamic new era in which strings of islands were vigorously birthed and the first generation of gods was born.

All the exhibitions I have conceived are part of a broader curatorial project to frame Pacific art as far as possible in its own terms. The current project to reimagine and redesign our permanent galleries is another exciting opportunity to present the unique conceptual landscape of the Pacific to overseas audiences. Oceanic works of art are materially and conceptually equipped to act as a useful lens to talk about agency and efficacy and I think these kinds of expansive narratives give us a unique opportunity to give a far broader account of the active role of art—what things can do. Encouraging these ideas to take root and flourish in galleries far from home, in a place like New York where they can inspire new audiences, is exciting.

Our Pacific ancestors had the imagination to visualise, and make tangible, deep (virtual) networks of Ancestral relations. They remembered and recalled these networks of relationships whenever they came together on formal occasions; the act of reciting these connections draws the genealogical connections from our past into the present. They inscribed these lineages into the skin, plaited and painted them into masks, and planted them into wood as notches in carving. Meshing their values, ideas and philosophies into the surfaces and intricate folds of things, artists ensured these would be revealed well into the future.

I see all of this knowledge as embedded within each individual work. It is this power in Pacific art that is unleashed when we encounter these works. As curators, we have an incredible opportunity to help people gain a sense of these distinct qualities, to energise the eyes and minds of those visitors for whom this art is new. An imaginative, bold and confident display of the artworks can surely challenge people’s perceptions of what it is to be born in and of the Pacific. The sheer exuberance and energy of the works demand that audiences sit up and pay attention to what has, and is, going on in and around Oceania. 

LE   The Canada-based Aboriginal Curatorial Collective/Collectif des commissaires autochtones has a campaign looking at curatorial care and cultural health and safety to support Indigenous curators, artists and arts workers all around the world. What knowledges, protocols, or teachings do you bring into your curatorial practice?

KAM   I believe that respect should be the foundation of our curatorial practice as Indigenous curators. This includes respect for the artists and cultures we work with, respect for our co-workers in every aspect of our work, respect for the art and cultural practices of the people we represent, and respect for ourselves as individuals and to our Ancestors.

NB   Many, a lot of them, are mentioned in the above responses.

MN   My curatorial practice is strongly informed by what I consider the transformative potential of Indigenous knowledge. Creating a space that allows for distinctively Pacific ways of being flows out to guide all the activity and protocol that takes place in the galleries. Interventions in the gallery can specifically help audiences reflect and perhaps even reconfigure an accepted narrative. The projects with artists and practitioners are very effective in working to jolt visitors out of their own reality into someone else’s and help break down an overarching institutional voice to present more complex, multivocal and inclusive histories.

Curatorial practice is a hugely rewarding and creative experience. With the mahi (role) comes huge responsibility of course and brokering these relationships so far away from the Pacific has its own challenges. It can be tough, even lonely at times, but I embrace it. I do feel like I belong to many places and learning to navigate the complex institutional dynamics of the museum to enliven audiences to the wonders of Oceanic art keeps me motivated. For those of us with blood-ties to the Pacific, who live and work overseas, working as kaitiaki (custodians) taking care of Pacific collections outside the region, the taonga act as anchor points which connect us to home. They are a vital link creating a connection to the whenua (land) which bring us into an immediate and on-going relation with each other.

“We sweat and cry salt tears, so that we know the ocean is in us.” I remember being entirely captivated by these words of Teresia Teaiwa during my first years of studying Pacific art some 20 years ago. Encapsulating such vastness in this apparently simple phrase, it reminds me of the larger work at hand and how we might articulate that in our own curatorial projects: the Pacific in its most imaginative, unrestricted and expansive rendering. The Pacific as it inheres in people, places, and time. The Pacific of song and story, as it is spoken and danced. The Pacific in art that keeps moving—that shifts in and out of different worlds as it was indeed designed to do—all the while accruing status, prestige and value (mana). The Pacific as it inheres in the ongoing work of relationships between people, art and museums that are dynamic and evolving, just like the ocean within us. Ko au te moana. Te moana ko au. 

Jahra Wasasala Rager performs God-House (bure kalou) in the Oceania galleries at Met World Cultures Festival, 26 October 2019, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Dan Taulapapa McMullin
Jahra Wasasala Rager performs God-House (bure kalou) in the Oceania galleries at Met World Cultures Festival, 26 October 2019, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Dan Taulapapa McMullin


Léuli Eshrāghi is a Sāmoan artist, curator, NIRIN: 22nd Biennale of Sydney commissioned artist, and Horizon/Indigenous Futures postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University, Montreal.

Kathleen Ash‑Milby is a member of the Navajo Nation and Curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum. She previously organised numerous exhibitions as Associate Curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, New York City and Washington, DC.

Maia Nuku is a curator and researcher of Māori (Ngāi Tai) and British descent, and Evelyn A. J. Hall and John A. Friede Associate Curator for Oceanic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Nigel Borell is a Pirirakau, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi, Te Whakatōhea writer and Curator of Māori Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.