Institutionalising Culture

Ron Brownson

VII Pacific Arts Association Conference 2003, Christchurch New Zealand, a presentation by Curator Ron Brownson.


Institutionalising culture is the provocative title of the stream that Amiria, Rangihiroa and I will be trying to navigate this morning.


Last night I wondered how I might search for a sign that might help me know whether I was going to go upstream or to go downstream.


At the Canterbury Public Library, I searched their on-line catalogue for Pacific art.

Up came the phrase: no results found. I try the word Pacific by itself under the subject headings. There are some categories of Pacific, but still no Pacific art.


I suddenly recalled that as child the school librarian told me: never, ever, search under subject, look for the category of what that subject is part of.




What I am looking for, what am I looking for?


Art – Pacific.


Art – Pacific.


There it is: art comma Pacific.


Four titles found.


What person first searches for meaning under rules of structural classification?


Oh No! I don’t want that.


For me that type of reversed thinking actually mirrors what an institutionalising culture denies through its own self-defined institutional presuppositions. As if the classification must always come before the encounter and any potential response.


Brenda exposed this horrific dilemma so well yesterday. She wants to provide her Gallery’s public with extended texts and labels, and then she gets labelled: the Text Queen.


Texts do want to be read – especially when they are written to communicate, when they are researched so that can help to deliver what the object’s maker might have wanted from an audience, when they can deliver the artist – be they named or not named –
be they living or not living, directly to the person who is viewing the object.


No dead person looks at the art of a dead person.


No living person looks at art that is dead.


I do not think that the maker – the artist – and the object are separate.


Institutions may ossify art and that is what I take to be the process of institutionalising culture. To make what is living dead to those that need to experience art as a cultural language. As a Curator, I am intensely aware of how people need and want to look inside art.


The premise of my talk today is an exhibit that I recently prepared for Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki: Sea Knowing Island Looking.


That phrase is a loose translation of the Micronesian concept
– Palau really
– that we need to look at two things


to know how we can get to where we need to go.


For me, the two goals of the exhibit were to reveal the meeting of diverse Pacific cultures
and the manner in which these meetings might be experienced in the reception of this meeting. I am talking about working towards an active public experience,

an encounter that is exciting, and where new meanings may be comprehended.


I am talking about the opposite of boring cynicism, of the avoidance of rhetoric

and not trying to illustrate an applied theory.


The public does not want to meet theory before they meet art.


The public wants active relationships that invite them to make discoveries that they actually possess by themselves.

All of the works of art in Sea Knowing Island Looking came from within the body of the Gallery’s collections.


I was very moved yesterday by Ricky’s remarks at the Nga Hau e Wha Marae when Ricky showed us that we were all gathered within the living body of that great Whare. For me the Auckland Art Gallery is also a body that holds a diverse collection of artists’ works together in order to celebrate the cultural achievement of those very same visual artists. For me, the Gallery breathes with the lives of so many different artists’ realisations.


I could never tell you what is simply not true about its institutional culture:
– that the Auckland Art Gallery is an Olympic athlete in terms of its art historical health
– that it is a true and self-less promoter of all that is exceptionally expressed within the visual arts
– that it is fair, generous and honest to all demographics of its audience
– that it is an emblem of contemporary museological practice that yearns to communicate, to research, to interpret, to collect, to exhibit, to publish, to inform and to educate its public in an utterly exemplary manner.


Who would I be –to make such claims?


I would be wrong not to want some and all of the above.


I meant this body metaphor holistically.


If the Gallery does not cherish the artists whose own vocations are the reasons why the Gallery exists, then it is not living in the body it needs to have.


It would then be Dead Gallery Walking.


Now, I am not going to contribute to the living dead, I’d rather contribute to the living living. In addition, I want also to contribute to celebrating the life within the works of art created by artists who are now dead. They are the ancestors that Ricky reminded us of yesterday who are always living with us.


I was going to speak today solely about the works of art by Pacific artists in the collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki that I showed in one exhibit. This seemed completely restrictive so I am going to speak here about an artist whose creations are not yet within the collection.


Andy Leleisiu’ao – or in 1997 Anderson Lelei – is the first artist that I wish to mention as he is an important artist in my life. I first met Andy Lelelsi’uao in 1997 when he was living in a garage studio at the back of his parents home in Mangere, a suburb of Manukau City that has a significant number of Polynesian, especially Samoan, residents. Andy was self-taught. He has since gained a Master Of Visual Arts with First Class Honours from the Auckland University of Technology.


Now, in our contemporary art world, being self-taught is often regarded as a terrific problem. Being self-taught is frequently regarded as being definitely not up-to-the-minute, as naive, an amateur and a hobbyist. As not, somehow, being professional.

Being self-taught is not something that is taken very seriously by an art museum. I can only think of a few acquisitions at Auckland Art Gallery – over the last quarter century – of a work of art produced by a self-taught artist. This is a bias, yet the artists that we did acquire who were ‘self-taught’, were Pacific artists.


So to be self- taught has meant, and still means, that a visual artist may not get a look in, that they may not be considered as being a ‘serious’ artist. Such a viewpoint can easily distort the reality that some Pacific artists inhabit. In New Zealand this attitude is, again, the result of institutionalised culture. Pacific artists here have frequently not worked within the weird and heirachic structure that set out a professional career path for artists. As if a career is more significant than a vocation – their calling.


So, when I called Andy Leleisiu’ao to ask if I could meet him, he was surprised. He wondered why a curator wanted to meet his and see his art. I do not think Andy really understood that his art could communicate its vision well beyond hid Mangere home.

Now, while I have been talking you have had an opportunity to see these two reproductions of Andy’s 1997 paintings. The square one is Brownside of the Rainbow and the horizontal one is We are Present.


These two paintings are what I first saw when I entered Andy’s garage, his studio home. There were many more paintings there – all of equally vigorous and frenetic imagery. I was overwhelmed and it takes quite a lot to physically and emotionally overwhelm someone that has looked at visual art for 12 hours of everyday over the last three decades.

Andy was telling the stories that inhabited his life with images, as if words had coalesced into yawping two-dimensional pictures. I use the word yawping advisedly – because they were screams of cultural rebellion and affirmation.


More so, here was Andy’s Mangere reality manifested as a dreamed-of nightmare. The effects of being a Samoan man who had lived within a specific Pacific community. He was showing me what it meant to live outside of a larger colonially constructed society. This relationship was disjunctive, disaffected and angry. It was visually registered as an historical drama lived as a consciousness of New Zealand in the present.


The infamous dawn raids forced upon many Samoan households in the early 1970s, sanctioned as an unofficial official policy was a terrifically racist testimony to a New Zealand government that was unable to cope with an immigrant society which they had been directly responsible for bringing to New Zealand.


What you are looking at are some of the most prescient instances of contemporary history painting in this nation. Social injustice, for Andy Leleisiu’ao has become the fuel of his visual narrative.


The notion of victim is here radically reinterpreted, instead of being a vanquished and colonised people; the Samoan men and women in Andy’s paintings are tortured and murdered. Who is doing this killing? The Prime Minister of New Zealand Sir Robert Muldoon appears as a horned devil on the reredos hung on the wall.


In We are Present, the artist bobs about in a sea of gluish flesh, his many self-portrait heads seek release but are unable to achieve this because they are imprisoned in an oceanic mire. The sky brings down hands – not of mediating angels – but of an electrical power point. The artist is about to be electrocuted, murdered and suicided, in Auckland’s nightmarish urban environment.


In Holding hands with selfishness, guilt is the fuel of oppression. This vision of cultural oppression is being perfected in the face of self-oppression, people submit to the will of a more powerful culture. Never forget New Zealand’s treatment of Samoa after World War I.

Andy Leleisiu’ao’s art of 1997, is intensely politicised – it is narrative -it is autobiographical, it deals with historical facts – it is filled with emotion that yawps off the surface into one’s heart and guts. This art that screams for the recognition and honour of social justice.


Seeing Andy’s art changed my life. It changed my role as a curator.


In the 1997 Redemption assemblage, a crucifix is constructed from husks of the niu – coconut shells are skewered and given a plastic facemask. The cross bleeds and protests at the very same time. This sculpture leads into the dark terror of Cultural strangulation where Andy’s self-portrait tortures himself, while at the same time being tortured by applied manacles.

I want to show you the very first work of art by a Pacific artist purchased by Auckland Art Gallery over a decade ago. It resulted from an invitation to John Pule to prepare a display in the street-front window that we used for a while to display commissioned projects.

John’s title for this painting is fantastic: Polynesia Migration Aotearoa.
Niue – which was john’s home of birth – is shown at the centre of the painting, and the island is transformed into the form of a compass. Nga hau e wha.


John noted this:

I am like many others who are not Pakeha, Maori, Pacific Islander, artist, writer, poet, but a little bit of them all… I exist within a series of differences. Because traditional categories cannot organise my identity, I am nearly everybody’s ‘other’.


The Niuean practice of decorating hiapo or barkcloth with freehand drawing is honoured in the lower panel. John’s art invites oral traditions to shift into an innovative and fresh visual language. We know how strongly his writings evoke pictorial images and how his paintings tell stories about cultural identity and the nature of human relationships. Contemporary events combine with those of history, faith, sexuality, nature, symbolism, are all collided together in an instantly recognisable Pacific vision.


The next important sequence that I was able to bring into Auckland’s public art collections were Greg Semu’s 11 large photographs of 1995 that we exhibited in the same year with the permission of the late tufuga tatau, Paulo Sulu’ape Paulo le lua.


Greg wanted to honour the astonishing achievement of Paulo and he did this so quellingly with the pe’a that Paulo designed and drew upon Greg’s body. I recall the responsibility that Greg felt for being the bearer of such an astonishing tatau. Paulo made the arm tattoos especially for Greg’s body. For three months after that tatau was applied Greg would bathe the designs several times a day to ensure in order that they be ‘fixed’ clearly, so that they would not smudge after the two sequences of scabbing were endured.


Some years later I curated the first group exhibit at Auckland Art Gallery that brought together Pacific, Pakeha and Asian artists. I gave the show an invocative title that attested to the hugely different skyscapes that we encounter all over Oceania.

I think that I am correct in saying that none of the artists in Open Skies Divided Horizons had ever been included in a public art museum exhibit before.


I was criticised by a loud critic as being a Maverick curator. Yet I do believe Open Skies Divided Horizons helped to force change at Auckland Art Gallery. The institutionalised culture recognised that many people were asking why haven’t we seen these artists’ work at this Gallery before.


Should I express this question more tactfully by saying that it encouraged my colleagues to acknowledge that we were not being sufficiently responsive to the massive demography of Pacific visual artist’s achievements.


Evotia Tamua’s photographs were a wonderful and incisive revealing of how a camera artist may employ the direct strategies of documentary photography to show an artist’s personal commitment. The relationships of people are a major concern of Evotia’s. She sees people as individuals while also being members of an extended family at the very same time.


The invocative art of Rosanna Raymond is magical because it uses performance to create still images. This image results from Rosanna and Greg Semu, with two of their friends, visiting a sacred pool on Savai’i. There, they re-enacted one moment from within the lives of Sina and Tuna. Greg took a portrait of Rosanna performing an incarnation of Sina, while being blessed as a harbinger to the present of that famous narrative.


At home in Auckland, Rosanna was preparing a huge tableau that addressed contemporary Pacific street culture. Where the street was affirmed as a place where contemporary fashion was being made. Taking time out from searching for images within her remarkable archive, Rosanna began to tattoo this large exhibition print.

The languages of drawing – and all of its meanings for diverse media – are an expressive tool in the sculpture of John Ioane – just as they are in Greg Semu’s recording of the art of Suluape Paulo II’s tatau and in the way an ethnographic tale of cultural encounter and revivification is retold and revealed in John Pule’s famous sequence of 18 Visio-narrative drawings – The Death of a God .


Drawing remains one the most inspirational heritages within contemporary Pacific art. I mean drawing in its widest meaning – the weaving together of diverse strands. Consider Felipe Tohi’s life-long journey working through how the ancient traditions of Tongan lashing are infinitely variable and yet always expressive of both intimate and infinite meaning. Or think of Nesian Mystics use of words and rhythm as the syncopated incarnation of sound as performative drawings. Each song has one and is one sound sculpture. An audio drawing made manifest.


You also encounter the power of drawing’s use as symbol in Fatu Feu’u’s huge mural Conserve for Tomorrow. Fatu showed this triptych of painting and sculpture recently in his exhibit O le Tautai Samoa. Remarkably, that show was Fatu’s first solo exhibit at a public art museum in New Zealand. It is know touring New Zealand.


For it to take so long for such a project to occur in New Zealand is a worrying fact that we must all remember. As Brenda was speaking yesterday about all the exhibits that have occurred of indigenous artists in Australia, I was grateful that the occasion of this conference has enabled so many exhibits to be happening at Christchurch. I hope that such exhibits will continue.


A few years before Fatu’s exhibit Auckland Art Gallery presented John Pule’s first solo exhibit at a New Zealand art museum. I had convinced the Chartwell collection, which is New Zealand’s largest private collection – and this collection is held at Auckland Gallery – I asked the Chartwell collection to acquire their first work of art by a Pacific artist – the collection then numbered some 650 works of art.


John’s Pulenoa Triptych was an essential part to his radiant exhibit. I was fortunate to be able to have his 18-part drawing The Death of a God privately gifted to Auckland City on the occasion of the exhibit. As well, the Gallery acquired John’s profound 2001 triptych La: The Sun.


I must reiterate that achieving such a public representation of the achievement of John Pule, or Fatu Feu’u or John Ioane at Auckland Art Gallery has been a strategic curatorial process. It has meant that Auckland Art Gallery change many of its past perspectives and to encompass necessary change.


I don’t think that there is one curator in Australasia that can work solely on contemporary Pacific art. At such an esteemed institutions as the Auckland Museum or the Australian Museum no Curator is yet able to focus completely in the contemporary area.


This is going to have to change at both Museums and Art Galleries here. I argued some years ago that Pacific artists had to be part of the remit of a curator’s work at Auckland Art Gallery. The Gallery had appointed the first Indigenous Curator, Maori. I have not heard of a parallel position existing at any other New Zealand Museum – of a position that is specifically dedicated to Maori visual art.


Yet, again, we experience the effects of an institutionalising culture that seeks to render Pacific art as existing in a blurred area between ethnography, material culture and visual art – slash – visual culture. My friend and colleague Megan Tamati Quennell has done much to work beyond these pre-conceived institutional constraints. As have many others. For instance, Peter Brunt’s incredible scholarship at Victoria University is currently shifting academia’s perspective. Again, as is the research, teaching and publication work of many others.


After all of this you are already aware that the thinking behind Sea Knowing Island Looking is as significant to me as a description of that specific project.
Sea Knowing Island Looking was the first collection display ever presented at the Gallery that took Pacific artists as the starting point for the exhibit. Maori artists were paramount also – I have not been able to include here images of the Para Matchitt and Gina Matchitt sculptures.


I introduced the exhibit with the first oil painting of New Zealand, William Hodges’ 1773 View of Dusky Bay. That painting shows the time when James Cook was taking a two-month rest in Dusky Sound at the lower left-hand corner of the South Island. Hodges and Cook took a boat over to Indian Island and there saw a local Maori man standing with a taiaha. 225 years later Mark Adams spent a month during winter on Indian Island. He wanted to create a panorama of what the Maori warrior was looking at as he stood on the tiny rock promontory of Indian Island.


What our visitors saw at the Gallery was Hodges’ own view of the Maori on Indian Island and below it they could see Mark’s view – a review- of what he was looking at. Now this is strange, James Cook mapped New Zealand but these islands had been known from the sea many, many centuries earlier. The weird fact is that in Dusky Sound that you can still encounter a view of New Zealand as James Cook would have seen it. Cook and his men where the first Europeans to set foot in New Zealand and to live here for a time.

So, what I opposed to this view was Ani O’Neill’s monumental textile painting – her amazing mural in crocheted wool – entitled There’s No Place Like Home. Taking the notion of a place at the far end of the rainbow and the issues of journeying for forty days and forty nights – Ani created a flag of the future.


Diagonally opposite Ani’s There’s No Place Like Home I placed the nine metre square Tongan Ngatu ta’uli dedicated to Princess O’feina Singatokola. This is one of the most monumental and significant Ngatu created in modern times at Vavau’u – this was about the time of the death of Her Royal Highness Queen Salote. It is inscribed – I translate – this is for O’feina much loved by God. At no time in the past has a barkcloth painting been exhibited for such a length of time at Auckland Art Gallery. Or given such prominence.

The response to this magnificent work of traditional Pacific art was quelling. Delight, awe, wonder. That was it, entirely. I tried another approach than what was used previously. I told the public and the Gallery staff that they should not now firstly regard this painting as a siapo, a tapa, an hiapo. I said that it was essentially pigment on a textile, which is exactly what an oil painting is.


So, I said to staff, tell our visitors that this is a Pacific painting. That skewing, that shifting in terminology was what was required. Stop the prejudice, stop the received preconceptions and open your eyes. What you are looking at is a Pacific painting.

That skewing, that shape shifting, that redefinition of reality was hugely useful. It meant that our visitors were not looking at an ethnographic item but a modern Pacific work of art. It never stopped being tapa.


Adjacent to this huge Ngatu I placed two gatherings – a recent Graham Fletcher painting which re-interpreted a Paul Gauguin painting of a crouching Tahitian woman seen from behind. Over this Graham overlaid Disrupted Protective Material – that is the official discriptor of camouflage. The dusky maiden mythos re-interpreted in the present as a ‘disrupted’ dusky maiden.


I could not let James Cook alone again, so chose to include three examples of the Hawaiian kapa that his men had collected, I think that these were certainly gathered while on Cook’s last voyage. Probably within a few weeks of Cook’s death. Again, these were liased through wall texts, labels and interpretative discussions by Gallery Guides as being amongst the earliest extant Pacific paintings.


I want to conclude by showing you some images from within the creation of John Ioane’s prescient installation Fale Sa. This sculptural environment was the most important contemporary sculpture shown at Auckland Art Gallery in 1999.


John saw the commission of this project as a holistic work of art, and he took as his starting point the performative notion of the arrival of carved cowry shells. As if they had just floated over the Oceanic Pacific to Aotearoa. Using a sound environment, a continually shifting light-scape and a projected video, John engendered a Pacific family within three totemic carvings. Each sculpture has a gender but none are solely one gender. They are all engendered with the reality of complex sexuality. All sexual, beyond the male, beyond the female. The sculpture is an installation and it feels like a family.

On the night that Fale Sa was first seen by the public on Saturday the 12th of March 1999 I promised myself that I would try to secure them for Auckland’s public. It took me four years to achieve this – as the first gift of the work of a Pacific artist by the Friends of Auckland Art Gallery. This has taken 50 years of the Friends’ collecting to occur.


Brenda yesterday noted how, when she was a child, she looked at a photograph employed in Australia which presented a sliding scale of brownness used in order to establish degrees of indigineity. To establish indigineity from outside a person’s own reality but from the perspective of an institutionalised culture which sought to destroy indigineity.

Here in Aotearoa, with the insight and learning’s from such people as we had the privilege to meet at the Nga Hau e Wha National Marae, we can already see a stream to the future. Ricky told us that the ancestors are watching us encompass their living faces.

That future will be the time when Maori and Pacific artists are finally recognised and esteemed for what they are contributing to the culture of Aotearoa New Zealand.


That time of recognition is going to be sooner rather than later.


Our culture is changing.

Maori and Pacific artists are central to the reality of this welcome future.

I would like to take this opportunity to offer a promise. I could have chosen to be a public instrument of the institutionalised culture that we are investigating here. Yet, I must inhabit my nature as a maverick Curator. I want to continue to be a Curator

that can assist Maori and Pacific artists to achieve the aspirations of their vision.


That is my promise to you today.


Ron Brownson
Christchurch, New Zealand
23 June 2003

June 23, 2003