Auckland Art Gallery's curator of Māori art, Nigel Borell, talks to Joanna Wane about his landmark exhibition Toi Tū Toi Ora – and the irreconcilable differences that led to his shock resignation.
Not everyone has loved the elephants. Of more than 300 artworks, including "carvings" painted on to cardboard boxes and an 11 metre-high goddess vagina made of insect mesh, it's Michael Parekōwhai's giant fibreglass sculptures that have triggered the most debate.
"I did want the elephants in the show," says curator Nigel Borell, who interprets the oversized bookends as a philosophical musing on the notion of time and how we frame our view of the world. "That's this show in a nutshell. And contrasting classical masters next to contemporary Māori artists is the exact discussion it's attempting to provoke."
An extraordinary survey of contemporary Māori art, Toi Tū Toi Ora spans four generations of artists – the earliest work was created in 1948 – and fills every single exhibition space at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Ambitious, provocative, political, playful and weighted with expectation, the show has been received with universal acclaim.
Borell (Pirirākau, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui, Te Whakatōhea) pitched the concept to the gallery five years ago at his job interview for the role of curator, Māori art, and has shaped the exhibition thematically, instead of a more traditional walk through the decades.
"Ka huri te Ao ki te Pō" (the turning of day into night) is one of eight rooms on the ground floor alone, a chapter in his retelling of the Māori creation story, a time of transition where the world of light folds back into the darkness of the afterlife. One of Parekōwhai's shiny white pachyderms stands at the threshold – which is curiously apt because (and Parekōwhai would appreciate the pun) it's not the only elephant in the room.
On December 4, some 800 people turned up for Toi Tū Toi Ora's grand opening, which featured a live performance by Ria Hall and a "celebratory menu" by Kasey and Kārena Bird. By then, Borell had already resigned from the art gallery. By Christmas, he'd left the building.
"The opening night was incredible; it was like being at a rock concert," says an art insider who attended. "Everyone was on a complete high. To hear literally within days that Nigel was leaving was a real sadness. He has so much to offer and this should be his moment. It's a great loss."
Word of his departure sent shockwaves through the arts community, and rumours flew that some artists had threatened to pull their work. Yet despite widespread media coverage of the exhibition, Borell's exit has gone unreported – in some cases, at least, to avoid undermining his achievement by diverting attention from such a landmark show. No official announcement has been made by the gallery.
When Canvas raised the issue with Borell, he spoke frankly about tensions that had developed with director Kirsten Lacy over the gallery's future direction and what he describes as "different ways of viewing aspirations for Māori".
"I see myself and Haerewa [the gallery's Māori advisory group] playing an essential role in that," he says. "There have been times of late where that has not been the case and I've had to make some decisions about where I put my energy and... what's the word... my principles and ethics around how I want to be as a curator and as a Māori contributor to Māori development, which is the bigger picture of what I see we're doing here."
Borell stresses he has had nothing but support from across the gallery as curator of Toi Tū Toi Ora, which was brought forward and expanded its footprint significantly when several international shows were pulled due to Covid-19. The largest exhibition in the gallery's 132-year history, it runs until May 9 and features nine new site-specific commissions.
For Borell, a recognised artist in his own right, it's been an opportunity to present a Māori world view as the "first conversation" rather than as a response – to the trauma of colonisation, for example, or Western ideals of what constitutes fine art. And there's clearly an appetite for it. Nearly 6000 people viewed the exhibition on its opening weekend, one of the busiest on record. Preliminary data shows the Māori audience doubled from 7 per cent in October to 14 per cent by the end of last month.
There are only two professional Māori art curator positions in the country (the other is at Te Papa), and Borell hasn't been lured away to take up another role elsewhere. So his rift with the gallery as it basks in the glow of such a milestone exhibition has raised a few eyebrows.
"It's quite ironic," he says. "That wasn't lost on me when we were having our difficulties. But at the same time, I know from my mother and the way we've been brought up that you have to stand by what you think.
"Looking at the [gallery] programme ahead and who would be leading the voice in that, it has to be Māori. I'm sorry, but that has to be us. This is our heritage and our cultural knowledge and if we can't lead it, who can? If we can't shape that future in this moment of Black Lives Matter and everything else that's gone on in the past year, if that can't be made visible now, when can it?
"I can appreciate the director has a different view to that. That's her call at the end of the day. But it's also mine about whether or not I have confidence in that view."
They're fighting words from the softly-spoken Borell, a natural storyteller who's able to communicate complex ideas with none of the navel-gazing wankery that can be so alienating for those beyond the inner sanctum of the art world.
As a curator, he lets the art stand, says artist and film-maker Nova Paul, who has a multi-media work in Toi Tū Toi Ora. "His integrity around the show has been incredible. He doesn't let his ego get in the way," says Paul, a senior lecturer at AUT.
"The show is not about what we want to be – this is us being us, and being true to the Māori way of being. I haven't heard of one person who's gone into that exhibition and not been truly moved. It's another line in the sand, for sure."
She was shocked to hear Borell had resigned, but not surprised. "I haven't dealt with [the gallery's senior management] directly, but there are systemic problems these institutions need to grapple with in terms of how they deal with Māori values, and around fully understanding there is a Māori way of approaching the world that might look different to what they're used to.
"That's the message I've got from Nigel's departure. It's a huge loss for Tāmaki, and the tragedy is he will walk away with a lot of institutional cultural knowledge."
Growing up, Borell was the kind of introverted kid who people would describe as painfully shy. At James Cook High in Manurewa, it was his sporty twin sister Belinda (born two minutes before him) who shone academically, eventually becoming a Māori health researcher and completing a PhD.
The youngest of four, Borell left after the fifth form with School Certificate in art and English to study fabric design at Auckland Technical Institute, where his tutors included Jean Clarkson and the late Murray Grimsdale. Clarkson, an early mentor, was at the opening of Toi Tū Toi Ora.
It was almost a religious awakening. "Being an artist, I clung to it, because it was the one thing that was making sense at a time where I didn't feel like I was connecting with anything," he says. "Art was something I thought spoke to me, and I spoke to it."
Borell's father, Reginald, was a factory worker, a hard-working man who never missed a day of work in 32 years. But the dominant force in the family was his mother, Marlene – a kindergarten teacher who later retrained as a social worker and set up clinics for teenage mums. Borell and Belinda cared for her at home in Manurewa until her death last year. Her tangi was held between lockdowns.
"Mum was always supportive, and encouraged a house of discussion and conversation," he says. "We talked about all manner of things. That set us up to be inquisitive and ask questions, and not be daunted by the hierarchy. The ability to speak your mind and back yourself is something our mum instilled in all of us."
Instead of following the conventional path to art school, Borell spent several years working as a kōwhaiwhai painter and mural artist on three meeting houses alongside Ngāti Porou master carver Pakāriki Harrison. In his mid-20s, he completed a degree in Māori Visual Art at Massey University under sculptor Bob Jahnke, before finally washing up at Elam for his Master of Fine Arts.
"One of the first shocks [at Elam] was learning, naively, that there was not a universal understanding of indigenous knowledge or a baseline pulse to it being a theoretical practice. At Massey, that was a given," says Borell, who's now 47. "So I spent a lot of time arguing and articulating that – and went from a D-minus for theory in my first year to an A-minus the following year. That set me up for the next phase of my life."
Before developing his career as a curator, Borell was one of the "young gun" Māori artists who emerged at the turn of the millennium, alongside big names such as Reuben Paterson, Ngatai Taepa and Saffronn Te Ratana – all of whom feature in Toi Tū Toi Ora. His own work does not. Wasn't he tempted to slip something in? "I know where I sit, and it's not in this story."
Borell was associate curator Māori at Auckland War Memorial Museum before being headhunted to replace Ngahiraka Mason, Auckland Art Gallery's first Māori curator, who held the role for more than 20 years.
His departure coincides with a changing of the guard at Haerewa, the gallery's Māori advisory group. Artist Elizabeth Ellis, who's chaired Haerewa since its foundation in 1994, stepped down in November. A succession plan will be discussed at the group's next meeting later this month.
Both she and Borell have been actively involved in what will be the world's first contemporary gallery dedicated to Māori artists, the Wairau Māori Art Gallery, which is scheduled to open at the end of this year as part of the $33 million Hundertwasser Art Centre in Whangārei. Borell is already locked in to curate one of the first three exhibitions.
Ellis, who has two paintings in the Auckland Art Gallery exhibition, says it may be "tempting" to view her resignation from Haerewa as a protest vote, but that's not the case. She does, however, agree with Borell, "categorically", that the role of Māori art curator should not only be held by a Māori but also be part of the management team.
It's been two decades since the gallery's last major survey of contemporary Māori art, "Pūrangiaho: Seeing Clearly" in 2001. With Toi Tū Toi Ora, Ellis says Borell has created a bridge between the marae and the art world. "One of Nigel's advantages – apart from his professionalism, his sense of humour and his sense of what's right – is that he brings people with him.
"We've been waiting a long time for this and now it's happened, we don't want to wait another 20 years. This exhibition has opened doors and opened windows, showing people this is Māori art and this is where it came from. And there'll be a hunger for it now."
Auckland Art Gallery director Kirsten Lacy says Toi Tū Toi Ora is the largest exhibition of Māori art ever staged anywhere in the world, and the scale of it "signals how the gallery is re-orienting itself more broadly to address untold histories within the context of New Zealand art". A number of new designated Māori positions are planned in education, public programmes and audience engagement, and the new curator will have a key role in taking the gallery's Māori collections abroad.
Lacy says Borell rose to the challenge when she proposed expanding the exhibition three-fold, compared to what had been originally planned. "We've had an overwhelmingly positive response from visitors to the exhibition, many of whom are visibly moved by their experience of the show. We are really proud of what we have achieved together, and wish Nigel the very best in his next endeavours as a visual artist in his own right."
After a year that left him teetering on the verge of burnout, Borell is indeed looking forward to picking up his paintbrushes again. Over summer, he has a road trip planned with Belinda to visit friends and family around the North Island. A turning of the page, if you like.
The twins are close – neither has children of their own – and Borell thinks their relationship has influenced his collaborative approach as a curator, and a deliberate shift away from the dominance of male artists in the past.
His decision to leave the gallery has reignited debate about New Zealand's history of international appointments at our leading cultural institutions, and a call for more local talent to be fostered into key roles. "We have our own culture here in New Zealand," says Nova Paul. "Yet we keep on appointing people from overseas to significant cultural organisations that are telling our stories and reflecting our culture. And there's a mismatch."
Hamish Coney, a trustee of Auckland gallery Artspace Aotearoa, is sympathetic to that view. "There are a lot of really great local candidates who have their noses pressed to the window while one of the plum roles again goes offshore," he says.
"The big question is what does that offshore person bring that is more important in many ways than seriously engaging with the local culture when, as we see in a show like this, the local culture is so vibrant, and there are so many fantastic voices that are just crying out to be heard."
Since the first of Auckland Art Gallery's 11 directors was appointed in the 1950s, only two New Zealanders have held the role – and one was an acting "fix-it" director who stayed less than two years. There was nearly a third when Canada-based expat Gregory Burke was hired in 2019, but he withdrew at the last minute after being accused of workplace discrimination by an employee at the gallery where he was chief executive. (The case was finally resolved through mediation late last year.)
Kirsten Lacy, who took Burke's place, is Australian and a former deputy director at the National Art Gallery of Australia, where she was involved in touring a major exhibition of indigenous work by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to Berlin and New Delhi in 2018.
In Borell's opinion, it's time for New Zealand institutions to be "brave enough" to vet international applicants for cultural competency, including an understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi and New Zealand history.
"They're walking into a new culture and a new space, but it's usually all about their international status. We're too enamoured with that," he says. "The world is looking at us; it's not the other way round anymore. The sooner that tier of management understands that, the better we're going to be placed."
Now facing his own transition into the "afterlife", he's come to terms with his departure from the gallery, even though it's happened sooner than he would have planned. "The work is done and will have its own momentum," he says.
"I'm wise enough to know this is just one little moment in time, which may or may not be important to the bigger story of what the show has done for the cultural landscape and the mood that it's initiated. This moment will disappear. The rest will write itself into history."