Talk Of the Town

Nigel Borell’s mic-drop curatorship of Toi Tū Toi Ora and resignation from Auckland Art Gallery was the hottest topic in the art world. Artist and activist Cat Ruka with Borell on power sharing, cultural autonomy and relationships.

It’s one of those achingly beautiful, cloudless, sunny afternoons in April when Autumn’s bite sits at the edges of the day. I’m winding my car through my fave Southside suburb – the barefoot bubs riding their bikes and the distant sound of koro on the lawnmower makes for a gentle paradise. A car goes by bumping really good reggae, a māmā gets supplies from the dairy. My whole being relaxes with the solace and simplicity of being back out South.

It makes total sense that this dreamy domain is the stomping ground of gracious arts legend Nigel Borell, who I’m off to visit. If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ll know that Nigel recently turned the art world upside down with two incredible and sequential acts. The first being his mic-drop curatorship of the largest and most consolidated contemporary Māori art exhibition in our history, Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art,at the Auckland Art Gallery. The second being his public sharing of the challenges he faced at the gallery whilst curating that exhibition, boldly citing difficulties around power sharing and retaining cultural autonomy throughout the process, which ultimately led to his resignation from the role of Curator Māori after a five-year tenure.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Nigel’s experience has been the absolute talk of the town

It’s no exaggeration to say that Nigel’s experience has been the absolute talk of the town. And for good reason. Never has anything hit so profoundly on what a lot of us experience but often fear to proclaim – that our sector’s cornerstone institutions, through their continued reinforcement of colonial ideals and predisposition to a Western style of leadership and operations, might still,in fact, be problematic. That, actually, if we peel back the diversity-policy curtains that shroud the hierarchies, perhaps not enough has changed.

For me, personally, Nigel’s refusal to acquiesce to leadership decisions that he wasn’t comfortable with on a cultural level was a mana-filled act that spoke to his unflappable commitment to community. It was also the grieving and healing process I didn’t know I needed. Perhaps unbeknownst to him, Nigel’s choice to speak up within a public domain was an act of granting permission, a moment for us Indigenous folk to reflect on our own mamae and the plethora of cultural transgressions we have experienced in the mainstream art world. What is most important for people to know, perhaps, is that Nigel is not alone; his experience is one of many, and for that reason, change is more urgent than ever before.

Nigel is the quintessential urban Māori boy

Visiting Nigel on this occasion, my intention is to go beyond sensationalism and open up space for him to speak intimately to his story and the values cultivated throughout his creative journey. I rock up to Nigel’s, and he welcomes me into his home, his mother’s whare, of which he and his twin sister are now the kaitiaki. Like most Māori homes, it feels comforting and deeply personal – the walls tell stories through the framed tīpuna that adorn them. The objects speak to a generational layering of whānau occupancy. Hot drinks are already brewing, and we sit down where kōrero flourishes the most – in the kitchen. I ask Nigel to begin at the beginning, and we quickly get chatting about the old days.

With whakapapa back to Tauranga Moana but born and bred in Manurewa, Nigel is the quintessential urban Māori boy. Unlike his twin, who had a talent and bent for the traditional academic subjects, Nigel identified early on that he was artistic, which, unsurprisingly, wasn’t given much room to bloom in the education system. After receiving the support of his mother to explore other avenues beyond school, Nigel left at the end of fifth form and enrolled himself in a series of arts-based bridging courses. It was here that he found his people, and his passion solidified itself. Speaking fondly of that time, Nigel says, “Going into the city every day for course, I was always excited by the vibrant cultural feel of it. I got to have all these really fascinating and engaging conversations with artistic people that were much older than me. This set up a way of working, working with tuākana, that I carried on into the future.”

Nigel’s practice was harvested through strong tuakana–teina relationships with those senior to him

Nigel then fell into his first professional project, at the young age of 19, when George Pomana approached him to co-ordinate the kōwhaiwhai and tukutuku panelling for a new meeting house at James Cook High – Nigel’s old school. Although he was hesitant to take on such a huge responsibility so young, and was aware of the tohunga status connected to such a project, his involvement was a huge success. So much so that it snowballed into working on another meeting house, at Manurewa Marae, with celebrated carver Paki Harrison and kōwhaiwhai and tukutuku specialist Peter Boyd. Nigel says, “I learnt a lot about working with people, getting good at communicating, getting my message across, and being more forthright … It was lots of learning, and lots of listening.”

I can’t help but wonder whether or not this may have been a real sticking point at the gallery for Nigel, too

Through this kōrero, it becomes apparent that the budding of Nigel’s practice was steeped in mātauranga Māori and harvested through strong tuakana–teina relationships with those senior to him. This isn’t surprising; in the realm of Māoritanga, the intergenerational connection is the first gateway to knowledge. As artists, we put our relationships at the centre of our practice. As Nigel states, “Māori artistry is very much a people-centred endeavour. It lives or dies on how well the relationships between people can manifest and coalesce. As long as you’re on top of your people-conversations and how you’re shaping those, you can trust that everything else is going to be rich and go in the direction it should.”

This remark makes me think about how difficult it has been in my own trajectory to convince the more mainstream organisations I’ve worked for of the boundless potential that lies within putting relationships at the centre. More often than not, in these mainstream settings, relationships are treated as secondary to the ‘work’ and not integral to it, even when words like ‘whanaungatanga’ and ‘manaakitanga’ have been positioned on the front pages of their strategic plans. Through hearing Nigel’s experiences, I realise that this may be one of the most significant and challenging differences between Indigenous and colonial approaches to business and creative practice. It’s one thing to talk about being relational, and it’s another thing to get in the mess of it and actually be it. I can’t help but wonder whether or not this may have been a real sticking point at the gallery for Nigel, too.

Nigel now found himself having to justify a Māori worldview at every corner

Nigel pours me another cup of tea, and we move on to discussing the next phase of his journey, a return to tertiary education. After moving to Palmerston North to complete a Bachelor of Māori Visual Arts at Massey University, Nigel returned to Auckland. He enrolled at Elam School of Fine Arts to undertake his masters, “an incredibly eye-opening experience.” Having previously taken for granted that a Māori worldview was seen as a rich one, a visible one, and one expected in the work you produced, Nigel now found himself in an entirely new situation in which he had to justify a Māori worldview at every corner. He realised how daunting it is to hold a position that is in contrast to what is being promoted by an institution.

Despite the challenges, Nigel quickly learnt how to defend and communicate his artistic view as Māori, a powerful skill to have in a bicultural reality. “The challenge was about trying to articulate the holding of a position, which in hindsight is what our education should be about – articulating our position.” At Elam, Nigel also learnt the powerful lesson that knowledge is a contestable space and that we, as Māori, should feel okay about contesting the dominant forms of knowledge. “Knowledge means different things to different people. Knowledge is connected to power, and power creates knowledge.”

I wonder why it is that we still have to fight to have autonomy over our expressions

I take a moment to reflect on these early experiences of Nigel’s, how they connect to the man that sits before me, and how they may have informed his more recent choices. Through our kōrero, I can see that due to Nigel’s willingness to remain humble to the wisdom of others, his journey has been full and ripe with teachings, knowledge and insights. It gets me thinking about the essence of Māori leadership, and how driven it is by this idea of always remaining humble to others and to the kaupapa. I ask Nigel what his thoughts are around Māori leadership today, to which he responds by sharing the unglamorous version. “To be honest, leadership in a Māori context is a lot of behind-the-scenes work. It’s a lot of rolling your sleeves up. It’s a time commitment, and commitment to helping develop and nurture the advancement of others. It’s about the generosity you can bring; every project is an opportunity to help empower others to be brave enough to see their next horizon. It’s not even leadership, it’s just the passing on of empowerment. It’s a very generous way.”

Nigel’s kōrero also reveals that his journey through the arts has been unique and nuanced. It has demanded of him a cultural dexterity – an ability to move fluidly and effortlessly between the traditional and the contemporary, and across bicultural lines. I think about the extra labour this requires, and the power that sits within the ability to do so. I realise that this quintessential urban Māori experience of his, in which there is an expectation of being both ancient and futuristic, to be woven right into whenua and globally aware and connected, is essentially the ability to time-travel and shapeshift across dimensions of time and space. I see the boundless power that lies in carrying these abilities. So I wonder why it is that: a) we still have to fight to have autonomy over our expressions; and b) there is still a lack of our being granted access to the top leadership positions in our sector.

It seems appointing Māori to the boards and advisory groups of powerful institutions within our sector have been on turbo-charge

These thoughts lead us to the pinnacle of our sit-down – a conversation around gatekeeping – and we turn the kōrero from Nigel’s past toward an unpacking of this pressing issue. What we want as Māori is simple: we want to be at the centre of our own story, we want an equitable sharing of power in bicultural spaces, and we want autonomy over our knowledge, our customs, and our expressions. I’m reminded of what could quite possibly be the most explosive passage ever written by lauded Māori academic Linda Tuhiwai Smith. She says, “It appalls us that the West can desire, extract and claim ownership of our ways of knowing, our imagery, the things we create and produce, and then simultaneously reject the people who created and developed those ideas, and seek to deny them further opportunities to be creators of their own culture and own nations.”

In recent times, it seems that the acts of appointing Māori to the boards and advisory groups of powerful institutions within our sector have been on turbo-charge, made as an attempt by Pākehā-dominated organisations to do things better. And it could be a really great thing, but is it also a redundant act if these ‘advisors’ are simply there to reinforce the decisions of Pākehā leadership? Will change be possible if permission isn’t granted for these Māori appointees to make calls on the day-to-day business? It is on the ground and in the operations, the day to day alongside the community, where true transformational impact comes into being.

To this end, Nigel brings the conversation back to how we can exercise rangatiratanga inside inequitable moments:

“With gatekeeping, and power not being shared – we need to think about what we do with those difficult experiences when we’re in them, or see them in front of us … My recent experience has been a very clarifying moment. I had a nagging discomfort with something that was proposed to me by leadership. Once I unpacked that, I decided, well actually, I don’t need to accept that. We talk about this idea of ‘refusal’. It’s a form of intervention. We can make conscientious interventions around what we are willing to compromise and what we’re not. Sometimes we have to proactively intercept the domineering way. My choices at the gallery were born from me putting my ideas and my feelings at the centre. Not at the periphery.”

It’s another mic-drop moment from Nigel, and these words around refusal and intervention stir a fire in my activist puku. I switch the recording off, pour a final cuppa and we yarn for a bit longer about lighter stuff. This part of the kōrero is the most important – we’re catching up as colleagues and comrades in kaupapa. Nigel checks in on me, asking how things are going over at my own mahi, to which I reply, “Well, really good, but even better now. Better now for having connected with someone like me. Someone who understands the micro-struggles without needing an explanation. Someone who has a heart for that sort of stuff.”

Nigel goes on to speak about being really happy with where he is at, and that his time at the gallery was rewarding and satisfying. I am struck again by Nigel’s humility and groundedness with it all. “Change is a really beautiful opportunity to seize other opportunities, that’s how I see it, and it’s guided me well throughout my career. And [a role like that] is a hotspot. If you’re wise you’ll occupy it for a moment, do some good work, and then move on and allow someone else to energise it with something different.”

I leave Nigel’s whare feeling buoyant and inspired by the bravery that it took for him to defend a marginalised worldview within a giant institution. And I’m reminded of the reasons why our people have always spoken up so strongly, just as Nigel did. We’ve done it not to cause trouble but to protect two things – the ancestral knowledge that came before us and the spaces of equity that our tamariki deserve to occupy in the future. I also leave the whare feeling reflective. As Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art has now closed, and our taonga and the mauri of that exhibition have been cleared from those spaces, I wonder… What will linger for our people? Will our presence be forgotten without the talisman there to hold space for us? What work will be left for us to do? I know what work it is that I’ll be doing. I will continue to speak up. I will continue to be critical. And I will do so with the kindness and generosity that Nigel has exhibited, handed down to us from our tīpuna.

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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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