Nigel Borell has been much more than just one of Aotearoa’s significant Māori artists. He’s also been bringing the work of scores of Māori and Pacific artists to the attention of thousands of otherwise unaware New Zealanders — as he did by investing years at the Auckland Art Gallery preparing the Toi Tū Toi Ora exhibition which closed only a month or so ago. There’s never been such a display. Or such enthusiasm. Or such crowds.
But that work goes on, as it does now, for instance, at the Tautai Gallery on Auckland’s Karangahape Road.
And, along the way, he hasn’t flinched from forthright advocacy when he sees the art world, like so much else throughout the country, where there’s too much say from Pākehā. Here he is talking with Dale about some of his experiences and concerns.
Kia ora, Nigel. Let’s start with your whakapapa.
We have French ancestry through a man named Emile Borell who came to New Zealand via Australia as an immigrant looking for work. He had a range of skills, from carpentry to preserving food. An all-rounder.
He met and married a woman from the Waikato, Roha Pareamio Tangike, of Ngāti Apakura. While they were being married, the massacre at Rangiaowhia was taking place, and she escaped death because they were not there at the time. They relocated to Tauranga, and that’s where the Borell whānau are today, in Te Puna.
And your other names?
Yeah, how did I get those names?! You’ll have to blame my father (Reginald) for that. Apparently, he was the one with the gift of naming his twins. I’m the younger twin and became Nigel John Floyd Borell, but I have no idea why I was given the name Floyd.
My twin sister’s names are just as colourful. She is Belinda Alexia Elizabeth. It’s funny what your parents decide to call you. It can be deep and meaningful but sometimes it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I think we got the mixed bag.
Did you and your sister grow up close? Or are you distinctly different in personality?
In some ways we’re much different but we’re actually very close. We were born two minutes apart, and we have two older siblings, a sister and a brother (Sonia and Jason) so I get to claim being the youngest in the family by two minutes.
Does your mum have the Māori ancestry, or dad? Or both?
Both of them. Our mother, Marlene, was born in Ōpōtiki, with Whakatōhea whakapapa, but was raised in Tauranga. And Dad is from Te Puna, Tauranga.
On both sides of our family there are some quite fair complexions. We look at the diversity of our aunties and uncles, and there’s a range of skin colour going on there. But I think we get our lighter skin colour from our mum’s side.
I understand that you have South Auckland connections, too. Especially Manurewa.
That’s where we grew up and still love today. After my twin and I were born, our parents moved the family up to the big smoke. We lived in Ōtāhuhu first, until we were about three, and then Manurewa. In the mid-‘70s, it was a thriving suburban neighbourhood. A real community of Māori supporting one another.
In fact, it’s the most Māori community in terms of population. But I guess the Manurewa of today differs from the town where you grew up. It was a lot of paddocks in those days.
Yeah. That was true of much of Manukau. A lot more paddocks, and, for the kids, a lot more free roaming in its open spaces. But one thing that doesn’t change is our loyalty to an area. That’s harder to shift. A lot of my ground work has been in Manurewa, and in the Manukau community, so I feel strongly connected to those places.
You were drawn to art, and I’m assuming this surfaced through your schooling days. Was there an exhibition or some artwork you saw, or a teacher who inspired you and put you on your art career trajectory?
Art and creativity were always the outlet that got me praise or attention when I was growing up. I looked to art for the kind of affirmation that my twin sister got from excelling at more academic subjects. It was something that came easily to me, and then it became something that I really enjoyed.
High school (James Cook High School) cemented for me that I had an ability in art, and that started to distinguish me from other people — at least in my own mind. And through art, I found a way of understanding the world around me.
Who were your inspirations?
Growing up, I was really taken with the Peter Gossage series of Māui illustrated books. When I think back, that was one of the few things that really captured my imagination — and I felt those explicit Māori-themed narratives were speaking to me.
They also introduced me to all these amazing stories about our cultural heritage. So I started replicating things that I was seeing in those types of books.
In high school, I remember doing these artworks based on Māori imagery and feeling quite liberated because there was no right or wrong to being creative with the different patterns and figurative forms.
I wasn’t indoctrinated into anything that was “correct” Māori art. It was purely the inspiration of seeing the designs and patterns and immersing yourself in a different creative world.
As a youngster, I was into Dungeons and Dragons. I drew lots of dragons, and it just so happened that they ended up leading into Māori figurative imagery. Again, it was the Peter Gossage books that made an impression on me.
I was captivated with the boldness and the striking nature of those imageries of the sun, of Māui, of Te-Ika-a-Māui. They were larger than life and they were the starting point of me understanding, or being introduced to, Māori design.
And you went on to an academic career at Massey. And then Elam, which has sometimes been criticised for not having a handle on Māori art and perhaps not being able to extend some students in that direction. So what’s your take now when you look back on your academic studies?
When I went to Elam in the early 2000s, I was doing my master’s study. I’d already done my undergraduate Bachelor of Māori Visual Arts degree at Massey University in Palmerston North.
That was under Robert Jahnke and the Toioho ki Apiti programme. It’s not a huge programme. It can take up to 40 students at any one time, and it’s a four-year degree, so you have only 10 students in your year group at any one time.
It’s quite an intimate course, and it’s kaupapa Māori. So you’re learning kaupapa Māori, the Treaty of Waitangi, and you’re being introduced to painting, carving, sculpture and conceptual art from a Māori perspective.
I suppose you take for granted that worldview that you then come away with, and your way of seeing Māori art and art practice is very much shaped by your training.
So, when I went to Elam after doing that study, it was an eye-opener. A lot of the assumptions I had about Māori art, about Māori knowledge being central to how we see art, were not shared at Elam.
We had a theory component to our masters’ course and, for my first assessment, I got a D-minus. I remember looking at the report and thinking: “What the hell?”
The lecturer had made the comment: “Nigel, you really need to come to terms with theory and the potential role it can play in your practice.”
I remember reading that and going: “Oh my God, this guy didn’t get anything I said.” So, I went through the whole process of contesting the mark. In the theory programme, at that time, we had all types of art-related theories and ways of seeing the world that were couched in western philosophy.
And I said: “Where are the indigenous theorists in this programme?” There weren’t any. Although they were very much out there and published. Linda Tuhiwai Smith and her book Decolonising Methodologies was central to my theoretical stance, and so I made a point of going to meet Linda about my mark and she gave me some valuable advice and support.
So I got re-examined. And the following year, I went from a D-minus to an A-minus. I didn’t change my study or my approach, but what I did do was articulate, in more detail, my position as a Māori artist using Māori theory and Māori knowledge as the framework and foundations for my study.
Getting an A-minus the following year said two things to me. It told me that knowledge is power and that, in these institutions, knowledge is a contestable idea — and as long as you can contest the idea and articulate your position, then your way of seeing the world should be acknowledged and understood.
I learned an important lesson at Elam, and that was to be articulate, to be forthright about your position, and to be prepared to explain it. That lesson has held me in good stead ever since, and it’s something I still have to practise when I’m presenting my ideas as a curator or as a writer.
It’s about conveying why the idea is important and giving people a window into a different knowledge system. And making them do some hard work to figure out how to connect the dots and meet you halfway with that knowledge system — as opposed to always expecting us to bow to a western way or a western framework of seeing the world.
Toi Tū Toi Ora was saying that a Māori worldview and a Māori framework is central to understanding Māori art. We did that successfully with the show, and our visitors, Māori and non-Māori alike, just by entering the gallery and making it the largest visited show in Auckland Art Gallery’s history, said that it’s acceptable to them, too.
Sometimes we need to challenge the status quo and put forward our ideas so that we can shift the ground. And what’s good for Māori is good for everybody in that regard.
You are the youngest in the family, and there’s more than just a little bit of Māui-Tikitiki-a-Taranga in you, a bit of ground breaking. But you’ve paved the way for others and, at times, forced the administrators to reassess their position. Good on you for those challenges.
But let’s turn to curating. What is it? And what makes a good curator?
Generally speaking, curating is about good ideas, and presenting intelligent propositions for people to contemplate in an exhibition. But it’s also a duty of care that you have with your artists, how you interact with people, and how you create the project.
And we know for Māori that the duty of care, or the manaakitanga side of looking after people, is huge. And Māori curators get marked and assessed on that first and foremost, before anything else. Māori are very conscientious about manaakitanga of artists, of ideas, of one another.
When I curate, I find that it’s the people side of the project that is most important, and making sure that everybody’s feeling engaged, included, and on board. That includes the artists, the team of specialists working with you at the gallery, and your stakeholders.
The key to good curating is acknowledging that they’re all part of the project, and your job is to bring out the project and to have confidence to lead it. But it’s about being a good caretaker of people at the same time.
Curating is also about storytelling and being a good storyteller. You’ve got to be able to take people on a bit of a journey with an exhibition. It’s got to tell a story in a way that people can relate to, that’s accessible and intriguing.
You spent several years at Auckland’s War Memorial Museum. What did you learn from that period?
In my undergrad degree at Massey University, we studied a lot of customary Māori art and taonga Māori. We also did a lot of contemporary art-making on that course, but the theory was very much based on customary Māori art practice and examining and analysing those early carvings.
So, for me, it was a real gift when I got the opportunity to work at the museum and be a curator with the taonga. I often say to people that the Auckland Museum has all the greatest hits in its collection because it’s the oldest collecting institution. And over time, it’s been able to collect some amazing examples of our whakairo, our creative artists and their works.
So, when the opportunity came for me to work there, one of the things that we were keen to do was to debunk the idea that taonga Māori are somehow disenfranchised from our contemporary lives today as Māori people.
And one way of doing that was connecting them with contemporary artworks where artists were looking at similar themes or ideas — or there was a correlation that could be made with the taonga. We were showing cultural continuity through including contemporary artworks in displays of taonga Māori.
Many of these taonga, while they’re beautiful to view, they cut through even more when you touch them. I find myself touching wood or touching stone. Are there pieces that you’ve touched and you’ve felt something go through your body?
On my first day at the museum, curator Chanel Clarke took me through the carving store to show me the different spaces in which the Māori collection was held. And she said: “I’m going to leave you here while you have a look around. And I’ll see you back in the office.”
What she was really saying was: “I’m going to let you sit in here with the taonga and start to understand the space that you’re going to work in.”
It’s quite full-on working with taonga, and you need to get used to being in the room with them because they’re quite “buzzy”, as we call it. You really do need to find your feet with the taonga, because you’re going to be handling them. You’re going to be their advocate. You’re going to be looking after them.
Whether we want to call that a wairua navigational space or whether we want to call that just getting comfortable with the collection, it’s a profound experience. It’s one you need to ease yourself into, and it took me a couple of visits to the carving store to get comfortable.
We look at carvings in the museum and we may think they’re just carved posts, but you come to see them as carved people. It’s much better that you treat them as carved people as opposed to carved posts, because your duty of care will change with the way in which you think about them.
Your curating work has, among other things, included this most successful of shows, Toi Tū Toi Ora, which has just concluded — and which sent the gallery figures through the roof. But, sadly, you felt marginalised and that Māori were being compromised in the administrative structure there, and you resigned after the exhibition opened.
Still, you surely must have felt pride in pulling together such a popular exhibition that spans the decades and styles.
I’m really proud of the show and satisfied with the job that we’ve all done. We had some high expectations and lofty aims when we set out on this journey three or four years ago. And we aimed high.
We always hoped that it would be a show that everyone embraced, that we would tell the story of contemporary Māori art differently from how it had been told in the past, that it would be a show which all New Zealanders could feel proud of — and that it would reinvigorate conversations about the place of Māori art today.
If I’d achieved just one of those goals, I would’ve been happy. But to achieve all of them — well, I couldn’t be happier.
It’s been baffling for some people that my resignation came in the wake of an exhibition which broke all the attendance records and where 51 percent of the visitors were at the gallery for the first time.
But, to be honest, Māori are always in some type of situation where we’re trying to get traction within our institutions for a better deal for Māori, or better visibility, more voice, or whatever the challenge might be. It’s not confined to any one institution. It’s a story that’s very familiar to Māori working in institutions. I think that’s partly why my resignation resonated with so many people.
But really it’s just like the premise of the show. The show is about a Māori voice leading a Māori story. That’s a form of sovereignty, even within institutions. It’s a form of sovereignty when we can tell our stories in the way in which we see fit.
That’s still the goal. Sovereignty is still the name of the game. And having control over the way in which we frame that, and present that for Māori, should be for Māori to lead and to determine.
Has the weight of that time, that situation, freed you up to create more? I assume you’re back with the brush. My colleagues saw some of your pieces at Tim Melville Gallery and said they were exceptional. Perhaps you feel a sense of freedom now that there’s more of an open road ahead?
I really do. It’s funny, because when you work so intensely on a project, you forget just how much expectation and weight goes with what you do in those roles, and people’s expectations of what you can achieve and do.
And you don’t realise that until you’re out of the job. It’s lovely being in this space right now and being in this phase of gratitude and people’s warm experiences of embracing Toi Tū Toi Ora. Leaving and having this time away has been a beautiful way to reflect, and to digest everyone’s contributions and what we have achieved.
But it’s also been a chance to reconnect with a range of other aspects of myself and my career that I’ve had to put on hold for way too long. And one of those has been as a practising artist. Being a painter. Especially when it’s my first voice; being an artist.
There was an opportunity to have some works in a show at Tim Melville Gallery at the beginning of the year, and I said yes straight away. It was an opportunity to wear the artist hat again — one that I don’t get to wear often. All four works sold, which was a bonus. I didn’t expect that.
So just doing lots of other stuff and visiting people that I haven’t seen for a long time, and connecting with whānau, doing a bit of travelling. I’m enjoying this moment of being a freelancer.
We’re an evolving people on so many fronts. Obviously, that implies we’re not standing still. Far from it. We’re moving ahead in economics. And socially and educationally we’re on the move. Where does art sit in Māori development?
I think Māori art and culture is crucial to our development. The creative sector offers solutions to adversity in all its different manifestations. A degree in the creative arts is a central key to problem solving and navigating the complexities of other sectors.
I’ve seen time and again the resilience of the creative sector to navigate tricky situations in other disciplines, and it’s been encouraging to think that the arts sector can be such an integral part of speaking to our sense of culture and heritage.
The arts have an important role to play in shaping the future, but also being the voice of our culture and our people. It’s one of the most powerful ways in which Māori development can be expressed, digested and understood.
The power of our art is to present ideas across time which connect with people today and tomorrow. Perhaps even more profoundly than they did the year that they were first created. It’s a potent thought.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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