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September 10, 2018 | by  | in Arts Features Te Ao Mārama |
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INDIGENOUS EYES

It often seems that an indigenous perspective embodies a ‘greater purpose’ or meaning towards its view of the world and the way things are experienced and interpreted. In many instances this is true because in numerous ways indigenous people express a value for all things beyond what is purely obvious or ordinary, but instead from a multifaceted point of view.

Being raised in Aotearoa New Zealand as an indigenous Māori offers a lot of experiences and knowledge for a person’s growth as an individual, but furthermore as an artist as well. This is because you become influenced by so many things throughout your upbringing that are in some cases uplifting but then in other instances feel deeply diminishing. Māori have always had the qualities of strong and fluent performers because the ability to express oneself is cemented within a Māori lifestyle. Storytelling through an oral manner is simply a natural way of life that continues to play a role in the way Māori deliver on performing arts stages today.

There tends to be two ways in which someone discovers a deep relationship with performing arts and that is either because they have been impacted by a performance of some sort, or they themselves want to impact performing arts in some way. Both these reasons come to create a passion for developing art that will inspire and have the potential to change audiences’ opinions around certain issues. This I believe, corresponds with an indigenous perspective of performing and furthermore for Māori as well. This being because we vividly see when observing the projects created by indigenous cultures that they constantly breathe a need and an urgency to be heard, to have a vital say. It is as if every moment of the showcase is an opportunity to influence and connect with others on a level that is rarely attained in reality.

For Indigenous cultures, performing is a valuable tool which is grasped firmly because for many reasons, performing arts is not interpreted simply as acting or pretend, but is a form of treasured communication which speaks their ideas and beliefs in a way that has provided a source of identity for the people of these cultures like Māori. There is a whakatauki that comes to mind which is “Ki te kore te reo, ka kore hoki te Māoritanga~ If the language dies, so will my Māoritanga”. This proverb enlightens one’s knowledge of how essential language as communication is to Māori and their survival as a people, because within language, you find identity but also a sentimental source of belonging.

It is through a play’s storyline and dialogue that Māori are given a medium to intricately weave knowledge surrounding their cultural identity. But also exert a voice promoting resilience and self-representation, on a platform that seeks to share the main ideas in a way that intrigues but also educates those who are watching.

It was a man named Erving Goffman who expressed the idea that- ‘Life is a never-ending play’ in the way that we all act both as audiences and performers towards each other every day. From this we can strongly realise that there is an array of content that Māori would have the inclination to depict on a stage setting based on the lives they’ve lived. Māori have held a similar role to numerous other indigenous cultures for much of their existence which involves an intense impact from adversity and loss. A performance stage is a vital environment where indigenous cultures can express some of the most confronting and unsettling themes and discussions in a space which seems to have the ability to suppress conflict. It is this which offers a power of sorts to indigenous performers- A chance, which allows these discussions to be encountered openly and freely. And it is from this that we come to observe that perhaps despite the nature of the history that has been endured by indigenous people, Māori like many other indigenous cultures reveal that a challenging history may just create an incentive, or ‘a spark’ within to create art that speaks beyond what is seen onstage but rather symbolizes aspects that have been left hidden for a long time.

There is a phrase “putting our faces in our places” which has been expressed within a Māori mapping class that I’ve been a part of this year and analyses how places can be decolonised. This phrase fluently reflects the important role indigenous performing arts has towards manifesting a cultural mark within a space that in the past may have felt less embracing for indigenous people. When there is an abundance of places that expose a limited reflection of diversity it can lead those who experience resistance within these spaces to question where they belong and whether there is a space for them to thrive in at all. The spaces within performing arts at times mirror these situations, as the theatre craft can often project an overwhelmingly westernised image or depiction of how performances and plays are exhibited and should be understood.

I see these types of encounters as experiences that surround Māori from the moment they embark on their educative journey within a variety of environments  because as mentioned before- our lives themselves are a play There are many instances where a dilemma is exposed within westernised spaces which leads to indigenous people having to make the decision of whether to act unfazed and go with the grain’ or be willing to go against and express themselves in a way which embraces who they are. Whether it’s by simply speaking within their native language, being the single indigenous face within a room or in this case, a part of an ensemble in a performance, it is this which catalyses a change of lens and influences others to see through a different pair of eyes.

Indigenous depictions of performance all embody something more than a presentation of a story but essentially a sense of ‘Wairua’ that comes from the respect and integrity that has been given to the project and resonates simultaneously with both the performers and the audience. This for me is what makes performing arts so special and unique as there are only certain moments where a performance creates an ambience that connects with people emotionally regardless of what ethnicity they may derive from. Performing for indigenous people encompasses an awareness for all facets both physically and spiritually which consequently offers valued meaning to the final piece of work. This can be reflected within Kapa Haka. Waiata or seeing a Māori piece of theatre, as each if these examples exert not only the visible elements of emotion but the intangible features which leave a lingering effect long after the final line has been read.

An essential way that this can be defined is through the performance of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ directed by Rachel House which took place at the Globe theatre in London and within Aotearoa as well in 2012 . When studying this version for a Māori theatre paper based on ‘theatre of Aotearoa/New Zealand’ I vividly remember seeing the members of the cast forming a huddled embrace with each other, arms looped over one another’s shoulders, shedding tears of appreciation. This moment was not an aspect of the actual performance, but it was a type of performance which was overpowering in terms of the lasting effect it initiated. This presentation of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ was the first Shakespearean play to be entirely translated, devised and performed in Te Reo Māori by Māori actors and it is this occurrence which undoubtedly would have given an immense sense of fulfilment to those who viewed the play and for the creators especially. To have such a prominently English playwright like Shakespeare being interpreted and shared by an indigenous ensemble working alongside the Globe theatre signifies such a powerful reflection of potential for indigenous artists within a westernised craft like theatre. It was this piece of work which indicated how successfully Māori could adapt and form an admirable bridge between indigenous and non-indigenous perspectives.

I had the opportunity to interview Te Puawai Winterburn who for me was a valued figure of support to build on the discussion about indigenous experiences within theatre while additionally involving the aspect of standing as Wahine Māori. Through listening to Te Puawai’s words it was moving to find a sense of direction and inspiration within her responses. What was especially interesting was her work on the play “He kura e huna ana” written by Hohepa Waitoa and directed by Nancy Brunning which came to Wellington this year in June. This play is a true landmark within indigenous theatre as it is the first play of its kind to be toured around Aotearoa completely in Te Reo Māori, thus the ability to express theatre within a language so deeply personal proved to be a poignant moment for Te Puawai and the ensemble who developed the production. Te Puawai’s complete honesty and transparency when discussing the questions, I had, thoroughly shed a humble light on her presence as a Māori woman within the industry but more importantly as a mother to a young daughter. I understood in that moment that this is what being present within a westernised craft is about, it’s about representation. There is a sincere value and need for Women to represent each other not only within the world but on the stage as well because it is not just ourselves we stand for, it’s for those still yet to be seen. So, by collaborating with other Māori performers such as Te Puawai, it becomes really clear that an indigenous stance with performing arts is nourished by unity because all indigenous performers bear the same vital responsibility and that is to be pillars for one another.

I recently watched a screening of Merata Mita’s documentary ‘How mum decolonised the screen’, directed by her son Hepi Mita and there was a moment from her film ‘Mauri’ where a young boy stands on top of a hill waving a blanket through the wind like a flag which was deeply touching because at that point I became aware that I was seeing more than just a single boy on top of a hill with a piece of fabric, I was seeing an indigenous figure. There was a Māori being exhibited before my eyes but more importantly there was a performance showing what it means to be indigenous within performing arts and within the world. There are many circumstances when indigenous people may feel isolated and out of place within environments that seem to hinder indigenous expression and perspectives. But what we need to maintain is this- at least we are there and at least we continue to exist, because the single figure standing upon the hill is all of us and represents something more fulfilling, ‘a greater purpose’ so to say. We all contribute and symbolise something important because we convey how indigenous cultures can share perspectives through their eyes by adapting spaces into places where we can thrive and belong.

“We try hard to maintain a level of integrity, that is part of being Maori and telling Maori stories”

– Merata Mita-

-Many thanks and gratitude to the Editor and team of Te Ao Mārama for their generous guidance, Te Puawai Winterburn for her inspirational words and Awatea Mita and Heperi Mita for the valuable assistance.

Nā Te Aorewa Areta

Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui

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