Lana Lopesi goes to a symposium of the Pacific, but not necessarily for it.

Belongingness is the human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group. No one wants to feel left out.

The 12th International Symposium of the Pacific Arts Association recently wrapped up in Auckland. The event was hosted by Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira with day sessions at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Auckland University of Technology and Mangere Arts Centre Ngā Tohu o Uenuku. Founded in 1974, the Pacific Arts Association (PAA) is nearing its 50th birthday and as their website states are “devoted to the study of all the arts of Oceania”. Currently the PAA, has both European and Pacific chapters.

I’m only 24, and so can’t say that I’ve had much first hand experience with the PAA. Indeed, before now I’ve had nothing to do with it except pledging on New Zealand based curator Ema Tavola and artist Leilani Kake’s #2girls1conference Pledge Me campaign. Tavola and Kake’s fundraising campaign, which included a limited tee-shirt run and art auction, was what helped get them to Vancouver to deliver two papers for the 11th International Symposium of the Pacific Arts Association in 2013. So I’ve only ever known what people who got that far told me, which is “that PAA was a bunch of academics sitting around talking about us and not to us”.

The triennial symposium moves around the globe and has been held on this side of the world a number of times; previously in Wellington, Christchurch, Adelaide as well as New Caledonia, Hawai’i and the Cook Islands. Yet very few contemporary art practitioners of Pacific and Māori decent have been a part of the organization – notable exceptions include Rosanna Raymond and Karen Stevenson (among others). With Auckland having the largest Pacific diaspora population globally and such a present and vivacious Pacific and Māori community of makers and academics it seems strange that during the 42 years the PAA has only visited Auckland’s neighbours rather than the city itself.

But bringing the PAA to Auckland meant that it was suddenly much more accessible to Pacific people both as audience members and as speakers – no more touch-and-go crowdfunding required to get a couple of people over at a time.

Day one was strange. Not uncomfortable, just strange. Delegates were walking a tightrope, trying to find allies. The pack mentality in a symposia is strong. There seemed to be an uncomfortable but unspoken power relationship between a growing ‘brown voice’ and what you’d perhaps call the ‘old guard’, which was more than just an obvious difference between age and colour. Delegates kept referring to this as a “change of seas”, which was partly enabled by the submissions attracted by organisers Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai (Associate Curator – Pacific), Chanel Clarke (Curator – Māori), Fuli Pereira (Curator – Pacific) and Nigel Borell (Curator Māori Art, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki) from their own communities on this side of the world.

The ‘old guard’ were attached to international museums and institutions and had travelled for the occasion. And generally speaking, they are the PAA, the established members who make decisions and govern the organisation. The brown voice, however, was fairly local to the Pacific and to New Zealand specifically, with a few of them new to the PAA in any form.

Unsurprisingly, Pacific arts discourse is not dominated by Pacific voices, but by many of those who the PAA was set up for and by. The space has been occupied, but it hasn’t been filled. The PAA is the perfect opportunity to connect some of these missing links. Pacific voices joined the existing discourse and those from the other side of the moana had the chance to listen. Multiple types of experts and multiple type of knowledges shared a single plane. Epistemology sat alongside academia, albeit with slight tension.

At the end of the last session of the first day, called “The Duality of Artefacts” and convened by Dr Stevenson, a question was asked from the audience. It pertained to the way that art from Ancient Greece has been grouped and attributed to specific artists based on likeness – having been so helpful for classical European studies, should this be a method used in Pacific arts too? The question echoed across the auditorium, and seemed slightly irrelevant. Toi o Tāmaki’s Ngahiraka Mason retaliated with “For whose benefit?”.

This “us and them” relationship was addressed on day two by keynote speaker Dr Manulani Aluli Meyer, from Hawaii. With vigour, she reminded us that the PAA is structured around a false polemic. Brown voices wanting to be heard was not us being polemic, and that the more established voices should stop making us seem so.

Manulani was followed with a presentation by Tongan Professor Hufanga ‘Okusitino Mahina about Ta Va; a theory of time and space which is adapting and becoming common place in New Zealand art discourse. ‘Okusitino’s theory states that “art is defined as a form of intensification of ta – time, and reconstitution of va – space, and involves transformation from a condition of chaos to a state of order through sustained rhythmic production of symmetry, harmony and, more importantly, beauty.”

In the discussions afterwards, the audience member posed a question about the idea that chaos and order don’t necessarily co-exist as Hufanga’s theory claims. To make his point, he chose the PAA as his example of an “ordered organisation” with no chaos or conflict. A calm riposte by Massey University’s Belinda Borrell followed, as she spoke pointedly about what your position in society allows you to see, and what it doesn’t.

The ‘position’ for many Pacific practitioners is a longing to be a part of the PAA (even with all its flaws). It’s seen an avenue to not necessarily even dominate, but just to join the current Pacific arts discourse. And so while the organisation itself might be ordered, there is chaos on the outskirts. It’s proof of a power relationship that many of its exchanges, including the back and forth on European privilege that erupted in a discussion about Ta Va, seems to play into.

Whatever it evolves into, the PAA is a product of a particular Western academic hierarchy, one with a delineation between the practitioner and the observer. Factors such as culture, gender and class do determine the various levels of ease to access to different forms and types of knowledge. I imagine, for example, that regardless of the all the research and learning a cis man could do on being a woman, until that gender switch was embodied it would be difficult to ‘know’ the nuances of operating as a woman. The same is true with cultural knowledge.

I wonder how easy it is in this type of forum to convey the mana of objects such as tapa and tivaevae, when they are already dislocated from their wider contexts. The PAA – by foundation – is set up through an anthropologically-focussed lens. Without a doubt there is enthusiasm and expertise behind this lens, and a level of external analysis that only non-Pacific people could provide. However, it is very different to how Pacific people would speak about their own objects. A lot of it also comes down how we interact with said objects. For non-Pacific people this interaction is often through museum spaces. They are in glass cases, pinned to a wall and untouchable. In contrast Pacific cultures enact practices involving – and interact with – these objects daily, something only observable to others. To reiterate Meyer, there is nothing polemic about the difference between the observer and the practitioner. They are both needed, but they are not the same.

One of my favourite comments from the first session was when Papua New Guinean Julia Mage’au Gray, dancer and tattooist responded to questions about what her tattoos mean. In a powerful assertion of cultural knowledge keeping she replied “It means everything to me and nothing to the onlooker”. As Mage’au Gray alluded, the documentation exists with or without the keen external observer – nothing is lost from the practices themselves.

There’s a continued tendency in settings like this to look toward theory as if there was nothing before. There is a move in Kiwi academia toward theory that replicates epistemology, taking its queue from indigenous practitioners – who also operate within academia, of course – in looking toward knowledge which is understood without a need of being stated. Decolonial, anyone? The buzzword of 2015. Decolonial theory/practice/methodology/anything was a term widely used in contemporary arts discourse last year (and actually, I’m a fan). It was even used as the premise of the 2015 Curatorial Symposium at ST PAUL St Gallery. Theory, however, is obsessed with ‘knowledge-how’: a need to understand why or how something has come to be, how an object is used. Where as epistemology is ‘knowledge-that’, an intrinsic position of knowing truth. It’s not the same thing.

So when theory replicates epistemology, the theory ends up with holes because there is an inability to accept things that are ‘that’. Decolonial saw a spike in art galleries insisting on using the Māori noun manakitanga. Manakitanga is more than “hospitality, kindness, generosity, support – the process of showing respect, generosity and care for others”. It’s a way of life, and one that resists translation into English. You can replicate manakitanga, sure, but more often than not you’ll find the need to state it, to vocalise your generosity with a word that seems ‘close enough’. When actually, manakitanga is more than a cup of tea and a snack; it’s an embodied sense of duty.

Again, there is nothing polemic in highlighting these different types of knowledge. As Manulani reminded us, all knowledge systems are needed now – embodied and observed. But it’s a question of access, and unapologetically indigenous knowledge in an embodied and genuine way is not available for everyone. That’s a good thing.

In the New Zealand context, some of this renaissance of embodied knowledge is a reaction to those factors which diluted it to multiple migrant movements and the need to assimilate in new urban environments. Pacific diaspora peoples, urban Māori, and before that those across the Pacific who endured the impacts of missionaries, landbuyers and soldiers had a need to adopt aspects of a European culture to function in a colonial land. As a result our own practices – like language and tattooing – suffered or were abandoned.

However, the nature of culture is to survive, and recent decades have seen major revival efforts go toward renewing cultural practices. Although it naturally involves drawing on tradition, this revival is almost a sense of revolution within our communities. The cementing of nearly lost practices back into daily life is something to be proud of. And it’s ours to be proud of. It’s personal and familial.

On a positive note, the division between what we usually would separate as contemporary art and heritage art wasn’t present at the PAA. While there were definitely groupings in terms of what was spoken about on each day, fundamentally the concepts discussed remained relevant. Most usefully, the new voices that gained access this time were able to challenge shared assumptions that have been taken to be unambiguously good things by curators and academia.

One provocation that I really enjoyed was that of Samoan curator Ioana Gordon-Smith and the case of the generalist. So much of the PAA – really, the whole event – centred around a prioritisation of cultural spaces. Ioana, however, argued that these cultural spaces can result in simplified readings of practices by contemporary artists of Pacific heritage. She’s right.

In a recent radio interview, I was asked about the “look” of Pacific art in that Pacific art today doesn’t look like it did 30 years ago. My only answer to that is all art doesn’t look like it did 30 years ago. When the Pacific art that the interviewer was referring to was being made it followed the trends of art, and even today art made by Pacific artists follows trends of the time like new media, post internet and performance. Even though the interviewer was slightly antagonising she was picking up a perceived precedence of culture over media. An artist like Janet Lilo isn’t ‘Janet Lilo, post-internet artist’ like her colleague Simon Denny is. I would argue she more likely to be framed as ‘Janet Lilo, Pacific artist, interested in the internet’. Even for Pacific artists whose practices are widely understood within realms of various media it is still culture which takes precedence.

Ioana’s argument related specifically to contemporary art practices rather than contemporary cultural practices. And I agree that cultural practices should be held in isolated canons, not carelessly thrown into one ‘Pacific-looking’ wing of a museum. But it was great to see a depth of complexity within this forum.

I walked in to day one of the PAA and immediately fled to the company of an old colleague of mine. I found my crew and we stayed together the entire symposium. I didn’t network, I didn’t hand out business cards – but I still wanted to be there and listen and criticise.

I enjoyed the PAA for Ioana’s provocations, and others. And for all the arguments I make in this piece, across the four days I found myself defending it. Not for any real reason other than the absurdity that we were all there trying to find our place within it. Because I don’t think the PAA was established for Pacific practitioners – it was established to talk about Pacific practitioners and the objects that they make.

For all its shortcomings, the PAA still seems like a necessary platform with strong roots to European art historians, museum curators and anthropologists. A unique place of connecting international discourses with similar interests. In New Zealand we have a very different relationship to the word ‘Pacific’, as it’s a diaspora community that we often lump into the same thing. However an international forum like this one sees the Pacific as indigenous pre-cursing commonalities, allies in indigeneity before a national identity. The whole experience was weirdly unifying. But it shouldn’t be the only international forum of it’s kind.

To become a meaningful dialogue, and cease to be a monologue, the PAA needs strong Pacific voices, and they’ll need to be influential from the very inception of future events like this one. Even though cultural protocol was present and genuine, at the end of the day PAA was ‘fitting’ Pacific practices into the Euro construct of the symposia. Call me young, naive and idealistic or even ‘emergent’ as is so popularly thrown about – but what if the entire structure changed? Surely we are beyond fitting ourselves into something that’s not ours.

To close, here are my top 5 take-home moments from the 12th International Symposium of the Pacific Arts Association:

  1. Hearing Dr Manulani Aluli Meyer fiercely wake up the PAA as the keynote speaker of day two and knowing that there are people on your team operating elsewhere in the world.
  2. Pragmatism. There were a lot of quiet honest moments lost amongst the louder ones. Highlights included Janet Lilo’s talk which was a film work and a culmination of plane stories, as well as Suileti Fieme’a Burrows saying that her mother didn’t want to teach her how to make ngatu because she would waste the materials.
  3. Seeing cultural protocol take centre stage in an academic environment. As much as we talk about what’s decolonial, nothing is more decolonial than mihi whakatau, Hawaiian chant and languages you don’t understand occurring naturally and not as a restricted premable.
  4. Being apart of the PAA that people called a “fundamental paradigm shift” and perhaps a major turning point.
  5. Being able to walk away and think, .

Images from the PAA’s Facebook page.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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