MAGO MUNDI Kiwi Consciousness: Contemporary Artists from NZ
IMAGO MUNDI Kiwi Consciousness: Contemporary Artists from New Zealand
One of the very first artists I invited to be part of this collection greeted me with his "pepeha" - a Māori saying that identifies who you are. In a few choice words, he expressed his personal and spiritual connections to a specific mountain (maunga), lake (moana), river (awa), meeting house (wharenui), dining hall (wharekai), canoe (waka), and clan (hapu). In each relationship he acknowledged his ties to the land and the people from which he emerged. Effectively, he was asserting his unique and interdependent identity, right from the outset. Later I learned that this was considered more important than his own name, which was the last piece of information in his introduction. And it struck me that often in an equivalent European context an individual's given name is considered paramount and only promises further elaboration on heritage and other personal details if the conversation happens to go in that direction. One scenario implies attachment, coalition and loyalty, while the other advocates for differentiation, individual freedom and independence. Māori often call themselves "tāngata whenua" (people of the land), placing particular value on a lifestyle absolutely connected to earth and sea, community and sharing, and the conservation and protection of shared resources.
Located in the South Pacific, about three hours flight from Melbourne, ten from Hong Kong, and twenty plus from Europe, New Zealand is certainly 'far from the madding crowd' and all its complicated realities. On first impressions, visitors are pleasantly surprised by a general friendliness, which allows them to relax enough to appreciate its breathtaking scenery and often energizes them to push their personal boundaries. In the 1980s, Kiwi entrepreneurs AJ Hackett and Henry van Asch started the world's first commercial bungee jumping operation, which has almost become a rite of passage for tourists here. And there seems to be the time and mental space to talk, often at length, about what is important in life and politics. With only 4.5 million plus people, this compact country offers a variety of landscapes from ocean beaches to vast fields, subtropical forests and volcanoes, to glaciers and fjords hemmed in by fantastic cliffs towering out from the Tasman Sea. Many locals clearly enjoy an outdoor lifestyle, seemingly ahead of careers or earning capacity. On Friday afternoons in Auckland you are likely to find those who have swapped their business suits for 'rum racing', a crazy, breakneck sailing regatta where the main prize is a bottle of rum!
If I can indulge in a cliché, I also found a distinct Kiwi confidence, self-reliance, and national pride. That celebrated 'Number 8 wire' mindset, popularized by a British gauge fencing wire used for all kinds of practical purposes by local farmers in the 19th century, was no doubt borne out of isolation and the need to improvise and adapt. This 'can-do' and 'make-do' attitude typically embodies a tradition of ingenuity that refuses to be constrained by limited experience or resources. This sense of self-sufficiency is today set against a global backdrop of environmental pressures and the very real demands of economic and environmental interdependence. But their desire to voice their concerns and tell their own stories has long underpinned Kiwi cultural production and innovative forms of thinking. An eco-consciousness is also part of the collective aspirations of this population which is practically embraced by thousands of kilometres of coastline, lakes and rivers. New Zealanders are clearly aware of what their country has to offer and the ones I spoke to have strong and varying opinions about how to manage it. High mountains and huge Kauri forests are all part of the natural wonders that are closely linked to indigenous beliefs and traditional myths that reiterate the sacredness of Mother Nature and the dangers of her desecration and subsequent destabilization. Even with an ignorant eye, you can see where some of their legends have emerged. Flying over Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington Harbour) there are cordons of hills that look like the giant green tendons of a sleeping sea monster.
This Imago Mundi project showcases a collective chorus of 210 artists, and applies the powers of globalization to identify and document individual expression (often from those who have limited reach), beyond the museum, gallery and international art market systems. Together these artworks represent the verve of a nation that is constantly reinventing itself and gives artists a chance to be on their own map in tangible ways instead of through increasingly virtual and detached methods of art consumption. The curatorial experience of meeting these artists and their families in situ, listening to their stories, and setting up a personal dynamic where they can freely collaborate is very satisfying to me as a cultural practitioner. It presupposes a sense of unity and purpose, and I found New Zealand artists to be extraordinarily helpful and full of spontaneous initiative. Perhaps it is their relatively high sense of egalitarianism or the local idea that most people can do most things if they really put their minds to it. Many of these artworks are celebrations or references to local flora and fauna, provoking thought and appreciation of its value for future generations. Others draw on the underlying patterns and myriad manifestations of our greater natural world, confidently encapsulating its perfection and vulnerability in this challengingly small format. We see powerful themes of identity and belonging that appear to incorporate alternative visions, like a kind of disclosure art. Some of these artists seem intent on re-educating our perceptions and viewpoints, as if to make us see again, conjure new meanings, or even re-read history. Several do this by constructing imagery derived from remarkably sensorial and symbolic Maori systems, as if wanting to refine or expand our consciousness. Of course, good art informs as well as stimulates, and challenges as well as satisfies. It is attentive and aspires to a vitality that engages directly with life itself; where the process of creating a work of art "is to make, or rather unmake and remake one's self", as Oscar Wilde's critical theory so aptly described. For him a consummate artist is constantly "playing parts" and "trying on masks", in an attempt to understand and share metabolized experience from a cultural past; from an inner world projected out.
Given the rapid changes occurring around the world, traditional ways of coping with social, economic and technological developments are obviously no longer feasible. All societies are under ever greater pressures to find new ways to thrive in the context of mobile capital, climate change, chronic inequality, regional conflicts, and the greatest global movement of migrants and refugees in history. Co-creation, hybrid designs, creative communities, interactive art forms and place-based research are the new instruments of cultural dialogue, celebration, debate, and reflection. More recently, New Zealand culture has expanded to include further immigration from the Pacific Islands, East Asia and South Asia. Pākehā and Māori remain the two largest ethnicities, but Auckland is now said to be the largest Polynesian city in the world. Since humans did not arrive in New Zealand until about 1000 years ago, it has the longest period of isolation than any other country aside from the North and South Poles.
Metaphorically speaking, these artists have slipped out in an early half-light to explore an uncertain global terrain. What they have brought back to their studios might be amazing or unrecognizable, but it's the authenticity of their process that counts. As artist Sally Smith pointed out, there's a saying in Maori "Aha koa he iti, he pounamu" – Although small, it is a treasure", which captures the approach of all those who participated in this project. And according to traditional Maori protocols, Luciano Benetton as founder and custodian of the Imago Mundi Art Foundation now takes over as the respected Kaitiaki (Guardian) of these artworks.
I trust you will enjoy this long-awaited representation of antipodal thinking and feeling. I am reminded of a quote I found on a recent trip to Soho - truly a world and dimension away from the paradisal island of Waiheke where this collection was born - "Small is beautiful. Never make anything (politically as well) bigger than necessary…” (Donald Judd, New York 1982). This celebrated artist was also interested in protecting creative autonomy and clarity; minimizing consumption and maximizing human experience.
© Rosa Maria Falvo 2016
Rosa Maria Falvo is an independent writer and curator, specialising in contemporary art from the Asia-Pacific region. She is also an international commissions editor in Milan, and has published and presented many contemporary artists across the globe.