Talking with friends after the Four Waves of Feminism conference, we attempted to articulate our feelings about the day. Nina best summed it up for me with: “It wasn’t what I was expecting, but I don’t know what I was expecting.” When Courtney used the metaphor of the four waves of feminism not being consecutive but instead being waves that came in, crashed, receded and left traces of themselves; it was the closest interpretation to what I expected the day to be like. I had assumed the dialogues would be more challenging to the audience, and reactive to one another. It was evident in the breaks that people were thinking and questioning what was being presented, and I wondered why this didn’t happen in question time: what was being held back? There were a few themes that recurred throughout the day which I extrapolated in my attempt to reconcile my impression of the day as feeling like we were constantly on the precipice of something major but for whatever reason, kept backing away.
The most important talks of the day for me were in the afternoon from the young, brown women. Ane Tonga, Ahilapalapa Rands and Bridget Reweti presented talks that articulated what I think about feminism as a young, brown woman, and then pushed me to expand what I thought I understood. These presentations came after talks that included a lot of historical context and not enough current or forward-looking for my liking. It was into this somewhat staid atmosphere that Ane talked about her Grills exhibition, opening with a mihi to the mana whenua. Her work is so important in what it communicates about Tongan culture, and I was able to draw many parallels between it and my own whānau which to me, is the power of art. Ane and Ahi positioned the indigenous experience at the centre of feminism, and thus presented a face of feminism that I can wholly identify with and actually support. Ahi’s work with Linda T and her expansive archive was described as “not ethnography but auto-ethnography”, adeptly subverting colonial dominance and again put the brown experience at the centre. Both women issued challenges to a feminism that needs be re-evaluated, or as Ahi said, “It will be decolonial or it will be nothing.” It was shocking to note that Ahi’s line that feminism needs to be “led by indigenous women and women of colour” garnered no reply from the floor. How are we meant to know what this movement thinks of our involvement if the majority cultures that are present don’t engage with our narrative? I take silence as complicity for the norm, and that silence was deafening. When Bridget spoke, she placed Mana Wahine at the centre. It is an important distinction to make and if you don’t understand that Mana Wahine and Māori feminism are not the same thing, I’d suggest reading up on the kaupapa and talking to people.
An overwhelming thread of the day was the way in which the women presenting were humbled by the content they were talking about. Chloe Cull spoke about the Tovey legacy and how problematic it is when interrogating his approach to his female students. When someone asked for more information about where these women are now, she apologised for not knowing. A later plea came from the floor to not apologise for what you know, and what you are yet to learn. Do not be afraid to acknowledge that you have gaps, but don’t apologise for it: you are still knowledgeable and you still have expertise. Own it.
To be completely honest, I used to struggle with the field of art history. Yes, the whole field. I struggled with how it made me feel when I was in a gallery and didn’t know the major movements within art and felt my perspective invalidated by ignorance. In fact, I googled ‘primitivism’ during Chloe’s talk as this means something damagingly didactic in the fields within which I have studied. I’ve since come to realise that this is bullshit, that art is subjective and that my opinion is valid. It was interesting to hear Chloe also say that it is damaging to privilege a certain kind of modern art narrative when interpreting Māori art modernism but to then also admit that she hadn’t approached it from outside the school of art. I tweeted during her talk that: “As a non art historian, I tautoko the idea of approaching art from non art historical perspectives, more ways to interpret”. I stand by that because I am not a consumer that comes from that school of thought, and not all gallery goers will be. I mentioned to Chloe after the conference the thesis written by Dr Rawinia Higgins on moko kauae which was completed at the Otago University’s Māori Studies. At the suggestion of one of her supervisors, Rawinia took an art history paper, a field that was new to her, during her PhD as it would help to understand gaze, interpretation and representation. I love this cross-disciplinary example and think there is an opportunity for more. As Dr Bronwyn Labrum commented during question time: “This is the problem with disciplines, they discipline us.”
Is it possible to create a robust critical environment in such a small sector, in such a small country? The name ‘Lita Barrie’ popped up so often throughout the day to the point of abstraction. Admittedly I have never heard of her and haven’t had the chance to read up on her since, but I couldn’t help but query what that means when there was a concurrent call for more female reviewers, essays, interrogations. Will writers be able to feel safe enough to write/critique and not be vilified? Learning to be comfortable with being opinionated takes time because of how vulnerable it makes you. There are a few things that have lightened the anxiety for me: Rosabel Tan, founder of The Pantograph Punch, has spoken about how critiquing things is misunderstood as being a pejorative undertaking. She wants people to know that it’s not, that reviewing shows how much you love it because you only want to help make it better. I have also found that being opinionated and agitating has only been a positive experience for me. It has helped me become more confident as a person, Māori woman, mother etc. because I have learned, been taught and had to interrogate my own position. I have also learnt that it is okay to not agree with others and for them to not agree with me. So long as dialogue doesn’t turn into a personal attack, we should critique, talk and disagree/agree with each other, and continue to write about things because we love them.
In a deliberate move, the conference was bookended by panels of women from different generations. I was sceptical about this decision beforehand because, surely we should be talking to one another? Roma Pōtiki mentioned in the question time that there are oral histories to be recorded and records to be digitised and implored the younger women present to get out and record. In question time for that panel, another panellist (either Priscilla or Tina Barton) suggested the great democratising internet as a medium where women could carve out space for writing or reviewing in which we are so underrepresented. However, there was no allusion made to the amount of time and money that these activities take. Tusk takes up a lot of my time outside of work and family, the pay off (meeting people, creating dialogue) is absolutely worth it, but this is not an option that everyone is willing or able to take. When I mentioned my concerns about the lack of dialogue between generations and my perceptions of inter-generational attitudes to someone they proffered that the landscape has changed for women these days and that a lot of the discrimination and marginalisation faced by women isn’t visible. With invisibility comes a difficulty to quantify it. The inter-generational tension was raised in the final panel and swiftly debunked by Bridget positing that Māori have always had inter-generational kōrero so that divide has less presence within Mana Wahine.
With the distance of two days, hindsight has shown that this conference stimulated me more than I felt it did on Friday. It has left me thinking of it as a building block: there were so many topics that were not fully explored but I would hope (probably naively because of life) that attendees have followed up on the things they heard. I hope that it was the start of more events, of being able to read about how people digested what they heard. I hope that we are now in a pregnant pause before starting up again with more gusto, and that when we do so, people are unafraid, or even happy, to disagree with one another. Because, to again steal a line from Bronwyn, “interesting things happen in the gaps in-between.”