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Moving from South Auckland to central Wellington, the decrease of Pacific culture/language/people I saw daily was a culture shock. Living in the CBD, I didn’t know where to go to find Pacific culture near me. I found solace at the Tangata o le Moana exhibition at Te Papa Tongarewa. In a city that felt so overwhelmingly white (after living in Manurewa for ten years), here were images I recognised and music and voices that sounded like home. However, not everything here was familiar and not all that was familiar stayed that way.
Near the entrance of the exhibition stood the life sized bull made of corned beef tin cans — Pisupo lua afe by Michel Tuffery (which is currently being tended to by kaitiaki so not on display). It was weird to see pisupo cans as ~art~. Pisupo, for me, was always quintessentially Samoan, but not as political and cultural commentary, or even something pretty to look at. It’s for eating. It’s fried with onions and accompanied by rice or taro. Whole boxes of it are gifted ceremoniously, announced by tulāfale, which cemented its Samoanness. It wasn’t high brow culture. It was just… pisupo. And yet, here it was, with text on the wall next to the sculpture informing me that the first common canned foods brought to the Pacific were pea soup, which is where the name corned beef — pisupo — is derived from. For me, this was groundbreaking. I’d never imagined a Samoa without pisupo. I never thought of pisupo as an introduced colonial object. What does it mean when foreign commodity becomes local, even “traditional”, culture?
Throughout the exhibition, there are artifacts and narratives that seem typical of a museum: indigenous tools and artifacts, stories of migration, and traditional tatau (tattoo). But then there were also things I didn’t think belonged in a museum: customised t-shirts with famous logos given a satirical “island twist” to them, a big music player, and a white ie faitaga and suit jacket that Samoan pastors wear. These aren’t part of history, I thought, this is just what we’re wearing and listening to now. Just go to Manurewa, Otara, or Porirua, and you can see and hear these things. Why are they in a museum?
Sean Mallon, curator of Tangata o le Moana, responded to these sentiments by addressing that museums had a bad habit of treating Pacific cultures as exotic and dying out. “Tangata o le Moana is a critique and an intervention of how history is constructed in this country. Pacific people have played a huge role in shaping New Zealand as we know it today, in ways people don’t know or understand. We want to tell those stories.” There were stories from and about parts of the Pacific I’d never heard about. At the time, my knowledge of the Pacific was limited to Polynesia and Fiji.* There’s a video about New Zealand’s exploitative phosphate mining in the Kiribati island of Banaba. This phosphate was used as fertiliser for NZ agriculture. Katerina Teaiwa narrates over the video footage that New Zealanders often don’t know, or forget, what it took to feed the sheep that NZ’s national economy and identity depended on. To make room for the mining, Banaban people were relocated to Rabi Island, Fiji. Post-mining, much of the land is uninhabitable. When people’s understanding of the world and their being is tied to their land, relocation is more than a change of scenery. Generations later, there is much work done and being done to reclaim not only what is left of their land — only a skeleton of what once was — but also social structures and cultural heritage.
In the other side of the room stand panels with different videos of the generation before us, talking about their experience of living in New Zealand in the ’60s and ’70s. It was moving to see the faces and hear the voices of the older generation who fought to make changes that have benefitted New Zealand as a whole, and consequently my life. Will ‘Ilolahia of the Polynesian Panthers speaks about how they fought on behalf of Pacific people who didn’t know their basic tenancy rights, especially throughout the dawn raids. This was before the Tenancy Tribunal existed, which Will said was actually birthed out of their group. There is a difference between learning history through reading a textbook or a journal article and hearing it directly from the sources themselves. It felt like I had direct access to these people, except I didn’t. I could look into their eyes and see the experience, fatigue, and persistent strength in it, but they couldn’t look into mine. It was a strange feeling of simultaneous immediacy and distance.
There is a little section where you’re almost boxed in between three adjacent walls. The walls are covered with photos of brown bodies in military uniforms from the two World Wars. The audio on repeat are the names of those soldiers who were able to be identified. As people from British territories, these islanders died for the Allies. We were on the same side. A few floors down, there’s an exhibition with larger-than-life sculptures of soldiers and a nurse who were affected by the Gallipoli campaign, New Zealand’s major involvement in the first World War. The scale of the Pacific’s involvement in this exhibition is one line: “Without a shot being fired, we took Samoa — a German territory on our doorstep.” But up here, in this small booth-like section on Level Four, you can hear the names of Pacific blood that died for New Zealand. I began to wonder whether these men were heroes or just pawns in someone else’s game, but then I just broke down in tears. Because these names were someone’s son, grandson, maybe even husband, or father. It’s hard to think critically when crying.
I asked Sean if he thought museums could be critical of society or if they were just there to provide information, and he answered, “there is definitely room for museums to become political spaces — to provoke thought, critique society, be reflective, and shift people’s thinking.” Agnes Mary Eti Iuala, in one of the video installations in the exhibition, states that “as soon as you walk the street — you’re a political entity.” Sean reiterated this when he said that “museums aren’t neutral places — they’re places where sex, gender, culture, and class all intersect, making them complicated places. There’s a range of views, people, and politics that bring out what you see in the museum. We’re not the only ones doing it. There’s work around LGBT lives, the history of contraception, refugees, protests, the rights of children (which isn’t talked about that much). We’re working on collecting works on climate change in the Pacific. Museums can be great resources for social and political issues.”
For Sean, there’s sometimes this misconception that curators know everything about their field of expertise, “But the truth is we’re always learning from the communities we work with. We have to become good facilitators, because we don’t know everything. We have to keep learning, maintain curiousness, keep digging. We can’t rest comfortably on what we already know.”
What is chosen to be collected, preserved, and displayed speaks to what is considered to be valuable. Walking through this exhibition I questioned why there’s a t-shirt from the Royal Family dance group displayed next to old forms of weaponry and a kava bowl. I felt like I gained more questions than answers, but the knowledge I did gain both weighed heavy on my heart, and inspired me to live in a way that contributes positively to the lives of Pacific people as well as New Zealand as a whole (nothing much).
I liked the noise dispersed through the exhibition. The audio visual displays, people drumming on the pātē, and kids not using their inside voices, all made Tangata o le Moana feel alive. Unlike the awkward silence of empty white rooms, walking through this exhibition (and the rest of the museum) didn’t feel like walking on eggshells. There are school children, families, and loners (like me) walking around. But was what I was experiencing “art”? Or was I just walking through an interactive history book? Should I treat what I see differently to if I was standing in a silent white room with people standing in the corner (who I never know if we’re allowed to speak to)? Is art something for institutions or qualified professionals and academics to define? Or is art in the eye of the beholder? Se ka’ilo ia.
*Is Fiji part of Polynesia or Melanesia? What use are these labels? Are they still relevant?