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Megan Tamati Quennell – Curating Ngā Toi Māori

Ngā Toi Māori, Te Toi Ataata, Visual Arts
image Megan Tamati Quennell

First things first, how did you become a curator? Was it always something you wanted to do?

I got into curating by accident. My background is actually in journalism. I always loved the concept of direct communication – of a thought, an idea – and for me it wasn’t necessarily through drawing, it was in writing.

I trained and worked as a journalist and ended up in newspaper journalism, but I actually found it very difficult, because at that time it was just full of old men and it was all about doom, gloom and politics.

I ended up working at the Evening Post and I got to do a column called ‘In Town Tonight’ which was like a preview of all the arts activity around town and I got to preview lots of shows. And one of things I got to preview was Te Māori.

I was probably the most junior reporter but I was the only Māori member of staff so I got to preview the exhibition because they didn’t know it was important at that point. Of course, the story got taken off me when it came to the opening.

So you didn’t actually get to go to the opening?

I was actually quite pleased because when the show came to Wellington, all the journalists were already inside the exhibition, before they had started the karakia  – so I was glad I wasn’t inside.

It kind of made a mockery of it, not that they necessarily understood that at the time.

So what impact did the Te Māori show have on you?

It had such an impact. It really moved me.

Was that because it was the first time you’d seen taonga exhibited in one place and in that context?

I think it was the way it was displayed. You know, as kids we used to jump in and out of the waka that was in the Ōtepoti museum because we thought it was ours. We’d been in and around that stuff, but we didn’t see it in that way.

What I think Te Māori did was decontextualize it, because it isolated objects and made you really look at them as individual works of art.

And that was really the first time that had happened?

Yes and it was also the first time that Māori people had a say over their taonga; how it was displayed, how it travelled, those sort of things.

The taonga that were on display were so extraordinary and to be on display like that, to have individual pieces as a focal point in that way – it just had a real impact on me.

You obviously had something in you that really wanted to tell stories. Did that connection you felt with Te Māori pull something out of you in terms of telling the story or Nga Toi Māori?

After that exhibition, Māori people would go to the museum and feel more comfortable about being in those spaces and there was a paradigm shift – taonga was treated in a different way – but in Wellington for example, the national art gallery was above the museum and hardly anybody would go up there, and almost no Māori people would go up there.

There were also very few Māori artists displayed on the walls and I was very interested in where was the work that was talking about what was happening now? I wanted to tell the stories that reflected where we were at that point in time.

And this was in the late 80s, early 90s right?

Yes and this was the era of AIDS – so it was also like: who was talking about those things that were affecting our communities?

So you applied for, and got, an internship at the Dominion Museum?

It was a change of direction. I think I got it because I had a mix of skills. I had journalism, I’d been working in film, I was a Māori weaver and I also felt like it was important work to do at that time.

So it was a case of, I could either stay outside and throw stones at the building or I could go inside and catch the stones. So that’s what I decided to do.

You have to be inside to change it.

I thought it was really important to be part of that change. For me though, it was very much about looking after the contemporary, I wanted to talk about who we were now and what our aspirations were for the future.

What was that like at that point? How many Māori contemporary artists were being exhibited at that time? And were you one of the few Māori curators at that time?

Well, I still am.  There were people before me who worked in that context but there were very few.

So I was one of the few who came through and I really found my calling. I loved working with art, I loved working with artists and I trained on the job.

What were some of your first projects?

I ended up working on a big project with Tim Walker who was the head curator then and it was in the sesquicentennial year – 1990 – and this project handed over all the resources in the national art gallery to Māori organisations – and I ended up working closely with the largest Māori art show in the country, there were something like 164 artists that were in that show. The curatorial autonomy was handed to two artists  –  Sandy Adsett and Paratene Matchitt. I worked quite closely with Para on that. There were early Shane Cottons coming through, early Peter Robinsons and it was exciting. The vibrancy of what was coming through. Part of the aim of that was to give Māori a curatorial voice and I feel like that project really gave me a calling.

A calling that still calls!

It does. I have two jobs at the moment, at Te Papa and the Govett Brewster art gallery and I have long relationships with artists.

I’ve had a 33 year career in this field and I’m still not finished.

Do you find you are called on a lot more than your Pākehā colleagues with your time?

I have a cumulative knowledge having worked in this area for so long, so I suppose I do get called on a lot because there are so few senior curators. There are some young ones coming through, but not enough.

“I could either stay outside and throw stones at the building or I could go inside and catch the stones. So that’s what I decided to do.”

What do you think are the most important skills in your job?

It helps to be a good writer. But there’s a lot to it. You need to understand art and work and how it operates and peoples’ practice.

So you’re often working with artists, making sure they’re represented in the collection. I buy work for the national collection and build up the historical knowledge.

How much has it changed from when you first started?

I think there’s more space for contemporary Māori and indigenous art, but it’s still slow.

For me, even the collection development work that I do is about building a knowledge base – who was doing what and when and going back at looking at what was happening in the 50s and 60s and back further even to the 30s.

That history has rarely been recorded in terms of contemporary modern Māori artists. People were working at that time. Look at people like Ramai Hayward who was working as a photographer at that time.

I believe she went to New Brighton school in Ōtautahi…

She had her own photographic studio but she also did illustrative work in the 1930s. She worked under a European name maybe because at that time because she thought people wouldn’t come to her as a Māori woman photographer.

She became the first Māori filmmaker with her husband, Rudall Hayward. We’re talking about the 1930s remember, and at that time the first woman to graduate from the Elam school of art was a Māori woman, Pauline Yearbury. I’m actually working on a project at the moment that looks at the women of  Māori Modernism who have never really been pulled together and had a show.

We recently lost Marilyn Webb who was key in all of that, so there’s still a lot of work to do.

I was recently looking at a woman in Ōtautahi, Fanny Buss, who worked with Whetu Tirakatene Sullivan in the late 60s, using Maori motifs in designing Whetu’s clothes.

That’s right. There were people who were working in these areas from as early as 1930 all the way through and they really haven’t had their moment. People don’t even know their names. There was a woman called Mere Lodge who made bronze sculptures that could rival Barbara Hepworth.

What differences do you see in Māori modernism?

There were some really interesting works.  I’ve been recovering that history for the men in terms of Māori modernism – and  Māori modernism is really an ultimate modernism – so it’s not quite the same.

Modernism was everywhere but their voice is different. They just wanted to be the best they could be but often they didn’t get any shows or support. The only person who was really picked up by the art mainstream at that time was Ralph Hotere in the early 60s. Those guys didn’t really get a fair go.

And that was the case until perhaps the 90s?

In the nineties there were artists coming through. Lisa Reihana, Michael Parekowhai, Peter Robinson, Shane Cotton – who all helped lift  Māori art and take it somewhere. They’re still killing it. But I would like to recover those early histories.

Recovering that history is important though isn’t it? Because it tells a continuation of a story. It provides a missing part?

Those early artists had very similar aspirations to the artists of the 1990s. They understood biculturalism and they rose to the top, they came out of art school and were able to go international as well.

These artists draw on everything including referencing earlier Māori work so that history is really important to understand.

Those artists in the 40’s and 50s really wanted to do the same but because of the prevailing attitudes in the 50s and 60s they didn’t get the same opportunities.

Was that particularly the case for Māori women artists?

There were a whole lot of difficulties facing Māori women artists at that time.

They got married or they had children or had to take other jobs. I think it’s difficult for women, you can’t be as singular of purpose as men can be. You might have children or a husband and you get subsumed into those roles. We’re talking about the 1950s here.

Marilyn Webb is a good example. She never married and she actually became a printmaker – a very good printmaker and she became a printmaker because she said she wasn’t interested in what she called the ‘arrogance of the large painting ‘that all the men were doing.

Then you have women in the 70s and 80’s the mana wahine  Māori, so you have people like Shona Rapira Davies and Robyn Kahukura who come through and are really political and use their work as a tool of the protest movement.

They were a different kind of feminist, it wasn’t just about the subjugation of women by men, it was also about Tino Rangatiratanga and it was about trying to get equity for Māori people. There are some fascinating characters in our history.

“You could say that New Zealand art is Māori art. It’s the thing that distinguishes us from any other country. It’s our unique voice from Aotearoa and it’s not what you can see in other gallery in the world – that is the point of difference.”

Do you think that Māori artists are more appreciated overseas than here?

I don’t know. I think the thing with Māori contemporary art, it’s culturally located but it also has criticality to it.

It’s like when you go to Australia the thing that’s most exciting to see is Australian indigenous art, it just is.

Art is art, and of course there are extraordinary artists everywhere, but I think internationally people are interested in what is unique to here.

You could say in fact that New Zealand art is Māori art.

Those artists who intersect with that, but who don’t do it in an appropriative way, who are comfortable in their own skins and work, and can speak about this place is the thing that is interesting internationally.

And it’s the thing that distinguishes us from any other country. It’s our unique voice from Aotearoa and it’s not what you can see in other gallery in the world – that is the point of difference.

Do you think the arts sector has done enough to develop that Māori curatorial voice?

Not really.  We’re still very thin on the ground in terms of curating. It’s all a bit once over lightly.  I still have to educate people over and over again on Nga Toi Māori. It’s a continual thing. It’s more acceptable than it was, but the work still goes on.

I think we need to get better about showing artists as individuals not as a ‘type’.

It’s the nuance that gets lost and I’m always down for the nuance Māori are not a homogenous group, we don’t all think the same.

Going back to the importance of telling stories, is it important for artists to tell their own stories in their work, whatever medium they work in?

As a curator you really have to listen to the work. Artists are individuals. Some artists deal with the same idea over and over again, they repeat it and it manifests in different ways. Art is about thinking. It’s about ideas, it’s a visual language, but it’s not just about the aesthetic.

Good artists take you places that you wouldn’t go yourself. Peter Robinson will take you on a journey, Michael Parekowhai is very Duchampian. It’s really interesting the thought processes behind the work. I curate in a way that honours people, the work they’ve done and how they’ve done it.

Do you think you have a different way of curating because of being Māori?

Maybe I do, I can’t answer that. Maybe it’s in the way I work. If I think about someone like Ralph Hotere, I got to know him really through his work – although I did meet him a number of times.

It’s about being able to read the work. I tell a story and I anchor it somehow  – so there are things that are behind some of things that done that are never spoken of or said, they’re not overt, but there’s always a reason why I place something in a particular way or where I place it.

Curating is about orchestrating things and for me there’s always a reason behind what I do, there’s a reason why things aren’t stated or said, they’re just there. To me that’s a Māori process.

That’s the tikanga?

It’s not stated, I don’t say “I’ve done this for this reason’ – it’s just known. An uncle of mine who is also an artist, said to me that he believed curators hold the mauri for a space.

You hold the mauri for the artists in that space and you create the space that people enter into. I think my shows are good because I really am invested in it.

You inhabit your shows.

It’s a hard thing for any creative to put themselves out there. It’s quite a big thing and you have to have respect for the way people operate. I don’t want to tell an artist what to do. I’m happy to work with them, I’m happy to suggest things, but at the end of the day I’m there to support them.

Obviously I work for the institution too, and the audience, because they’re not excluded from that, but I think first and foremost I work first and foremost for the artist. If it’s someone who is no longer alive, then I want to honour what it is they have done. I feel like you pull all those things together when you curate a show.

Do we need more Māori curators in Aotearoa to continue telling those stories?

We need good ones. There are some young ones coming through who I think will be amazing. If I can, I’d like to provide platforms for them.

What would your advice be to rangatahi who want to become curators?

Work really hard. You have to be brave enough to make a mistake. So you really do have to learn to take a position on things. If you’re wanting to be a star then you’re looking at the wrong profession.

It’s funnily enough, similar to journalism – at least the better journalism – where it’s all about the story and less about the writer.

It is a very similar process I think. Good writers, art writers, are hard to find too. I still think there needs to be a Māori perspective in there, but it can’t be once over lightly. It can’t be a cliché. It really has to be grounded and say something.

It’s about centering people. It’s about centering the artist at the centre of the story – not the person looking at the art.

It’s about humility. It has something to do with being in this age of social media I think. Where’s the humility gone?

When you’re beginning, it’s important to know what you don’t know, you can’t just jump. To get to the place you want to be, you have to do the work. I feel very privileged that I’ve had such great people around me, who have been generous with their knowledge.

I had a lot of people of great mana that I have learnt from. I feel like I’ve have this extraordinary opportunity.

These days unfortunately a lot of people don’t want to do the work, but there’s really no getting away from it. You have to do the work.

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