Think back to the last exhibition you attended – how did it make you feel? Did it elicit an emotional reaction? Did it provoke conversation amongst you and your peers? It is expected that we are inspired in some way or another by the exhibitions that we attend. As a curator, I desire a reaction from visitors, I hope they are prompted to think further about what they see, one reason being that there is so much more to the exhibition than what is on the floor. An exhibition is the climax of the cumulative years of research undertaken by staff, the foundation of which is the relationship between institutions and source communities. That the work in an exhibition continues through reviews and reflections, is a testament to the work undertaken. For good or for worse.
Recent conversations have led to some reflection about both the necessity to write about exhibitions and how we do so. What has emerged as the most dominant commentary related to critical writing is that it is an essential component of museum and gallery ecology for, as I mention in a review I wrote, “…it writes an exhibition into existence and holds that moment in perpetuity.” Reviews, reflections, critiques, whatever form they take, give us a reference point to come back to as curators, artists, students and researchers. They allow the work to have a longer life and enable the concepts discussed within to be built upon by others in the future.
An influential force in this area is Rosabel Tan, one of the founders of The Pantograph Punch. In an interview from Radio New Zealand, Rosabel talked about the role of critics and the approaches they take. From her perspective, the critic is there to assess and respond to works, to share their experience through writing in ways that surprise readers and open their eyes to new avenues of thinking. Despite the negative ways in which critics can be perceived, Rosabel maintains that they approach their role from a place of aroha: “I think it’s one of the most loving things you can do because you’re taking the time to really think and engage with this play or this work.”
In a similar vein is this line from Australian writer and curator, Chris McAuliffe: “The art critic, in simple terms, acts as a mediator between the artist or art work and the public.” From the same book, Practices of Criticism in Australia, comes a further suggestion of what a critic can do, as Graham Coulter-Smith states: “Ideology is, in the end, inescapable and the best form of criticism would be one which exposes, examines and reflects upon its own ideological framework.” Thus critiques need to provide insightful analysis of the work, with the critic also being reflexive about the foundation from which their analysis comes, and how the exhibition relates to it. What I like about this second point is that by providing the ideological framework, we can see work from varying perspectives, and as a Māori writer who yearns for more writing from a te ao Māori perspective, this is appealing. Additionally, publishing Māori writers writing from their own ideological frameworks would open the avenues Rosabel refers to.
Which brings me to another avenue to consider in relation to writing about exhibitions, that is, the viewpoint from which I access them. To take it back a bit, I grew up in Tauranga and throughout my entire childhood we had no public art gallery or museum (Historic Village notwithstanding). The first time I set foot in a gallery was when I moved to Wellington to start university, exploring Te Papa and City Gallery with friends who had studied art. I remember distinctly the feeling of not belonging, not knowing the behaviours to display when in a gallery, not knowing the art movements they were referring to, and having to learn to replicate mannerisms. Eventually I came to the realisation that, despite not having learned to read art in the way they had, I still had feelings and opinions about what I saw. With that came my great unlearning, a recalibration of interpretation, it is an approach that has been strengthened by privileging my own cultural framework. This I mention because I know there are Māori like me who feel uncomfortable in gallery situations, and it is important for them to know that their interpretation and perspective is valid.
Lately, I’ve been sucked into te kore, the nothingness and everythingness of Ralph Hotere’s work. When I read around his work, there were a couple of interpretations that resonated closely with me. Firstly, there was Ngahiraka Mason and her description of Hotere’s work as visual interpretations of mōteatea. There was also Hone Tuwhare’s poetic responses of loving quizzicality. Their approaches reflect the methodologies suggested by the critics I mention earlier: they are reflexive about their backgrounds and how this informs their interpretation of Hotere’s work. The reason why Mason and Tuwhare’s writing on Hotere appeal to me is because of the way in which their writing is qualified, that is, from a distinctly mātauranga Māori frame of reference. As I mention above, it is the perspective I can access the best, but it is also the perspective I see the least in critical writing in Aotearoa.
This sentiment is echoed by John Carey in What good are the arts? Carey writes about the democratic nature of art and the falsehoods in ascribing more status to one worldview than another: “There is no transcendental category, occupied by ‘true’ works of art. Consequently, debates about whether this or that object belongs to such a category are meaningless.” What is important is that we acknowledge that all writing about art has the space and right to exist, and if we acknowledge that then we’ll get to a place where there is a cacophony of voices in the sector representing multiple frames of reference.
Of course we could spend time unpacking what these frames of reference are, and what it means to write from a mātauranga Māori perspective, but that is trying to resolve the unresolvable. I guarantee that if you try and put a barrier around what qualifies as mātauranga Māori perspective then that definition will be built over, around and on top of. When it comes to defining the undefinable, I’d prefer to take the words of the late Cliff Whiting: “Wherever we are on the river, we are part of the river ... If we are Māori we believe in the past, the present and the future, we are all part of this, the flow of it all, if we believe in the continuum we are part of that continuum, there are no differences.” Similarly, my thesis supervisor said to me that everything is knowledge but the physical manifestations differ. By thinking of mātauranga Māori in this way, the continuum within te ao Māori art forms and knowledge is visible, and the foundations upon which the divisions of discipline sits is exposed.
There is a huge BUT to this though and that is in relation to where this writing will go. The aforementioned Pantograph Punch is one of the few online platforms for this kind of writing and if writing isn't online then the associated costs to publish exponentially increase. Not being online also means that the writing is less accessible for future researchers / artists / curators. I add this in as, diversifying the worldview of writing is but one part of a wider issue when it comes to securing writing about exhibitions in the GLAM (don't even get me started on the void that is writing about social history exhibitions).
Delving into the literature around critiquing, and retrospectively looking at the responses to a Māori artist, has been a learning curve for me about the culture of critique in Aotearoa, the lack thereof, and about what people assume a critique is for. If the role of a critic is to help others to understand those stories, by bringing different and underrepresented experiences into their critiques, readers would receive a richness of worlds to view from. If, by writing from my own cultural paradigm, makes it known that te ao Māori is a viewpoint we need more of, I will keep writing. If, by doing so brings other voices into the cacophony, nothing else matters. As I mention earlier these moments, these works, need to exist in perpetuity, we need to write ourselves into the canon.
For further kōrero on this matter, we will be hosting a panel at LitCrawl this November with artist/curator Bridget Reweti, and Director of the Dowse and Chair of The Pantograph Punch, Courtney Johnston.
 'Māori Art: History, Architecture, Landscape, Theory' by Rangihiroa Panoho.