Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Turning insidious process on its head

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The World Turns by Michael Parekowhai, at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art.
The World Turns by Michael Parekowhai, at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art.

In 1992, at the Headlands exhibition opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, the Maori delegation were found to be missing. They would not walk on to museum land until invited to by the traditional Aboriginal land owners.

This prioritising of indigenous protocol over official programming sent several strong, polite messages. People and systems with cultural power must remember the people of the land. Otherwise, even well-intentioned institutions insidiously continue colonisation's disempowerment and silencing.

Twenty years later, Headlands artist Michael Parekowhai created a significant public art work for the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. The sculpture depicts a Goliath elephant turned on its head by a small kuril, a native Australian marsupial. Given the artist is celebrated for clever responses to colonisation, one might read The World Turns as an homage to indigenous resistance, and an optimistic prophecy: one day, the colonisers downunder will be made to turn their ideas upside down.


Many of us are, like Parekowhai is in this case, the beneficiaries of colonisation, unwilling or otherwise. Do we remember the people of the land?

But, in fact, as outlined in Adam Gifford's recent Weekend article, the sculpture is criticised, by a small handful of Aboriginal artists and activists, for being a cultural coloniser itself. Artist Fiona Foley sees Parekowhai's work not as an act of solidarity but as helping to keep Brisbane's "cultural precinct" looking generic, international and non-indigenous. The kuril does not mitigate this, but is "a brazen piece of cultural poaching," says Foley, as it is sacred and has a Dreamtime Story.

The responses to Foley's accusations at a recent Maori-led symposium at the Auckland Art Gallery were mostly supportive of her. Generally, people felt that Parekowhai had a case to answer. But he was not invited to speak at the symposium. Afterwards, I contacted the artist but although his Auckland dealer Michael Lett answered questions, Parekowhai did not respond directly himself.

He seems to want his sculpture to speak for itself. But an art work is not just a product but a process, of which the object is only a material result. Who gets to decide if the process was corrupt? Foley says Parekowhai should have consulted with the landowners. Parekowhai did, in fact, meet twice with Jagera elder Uncle Desmond Sandy, who told him about the kuril. Foley: "To speak with one elder is not seen as consultation in Aboriginal eyes but is seen as a form of railroading." Such an idea is, of course, familiar in Maori history also. (Confusing things further, the artwork's site is contested, and in 2013 the Turrbal people were ruled to be its traditional owners.)

As someone given cultural power, did Parekowhai remember the people of the land? Who gets to say?

Many of us are the beneficiaries of colonisation, unwilling or otherwise. Do we remember the people of the land? Attendees at the Headlands opening didn't have to be Maori to follow indigenous protocol.

At festivals and exhibitions, "ask your hosts: who are the [indigenous] writers or speakers or artists here today?" urges Foley. If any of us - indigenous or not - are denied the chance to hear different voices, what are we going to do about it?

- NZ Herald

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