Curator Matariki Williams: “It is artists, and specifically Māori and other Indigenous artists, who have prompted me to always consider how I am as a visitor on other whenua . . .” (Photo: Sarah Hudson)

Curator Matariki Williams was in Venice for the opening of this year’s Venice Biennale (which runs until November 24) where the theme this year was “foreigners everywhere”. Here she reflects on “treading lightly on another’s whenua”, and the success of Māori artists at Venice.

 

Walking the streets of Venice, marvelling at the city which floats on layers of shells and mud, it’s hard not to feel that you’re part of the problem at the heart of the Venice Biennale’s curated exhibition entitledForeigners Everywhere: Stranieri Ovunque. Curated by Brazilian Adriano Pedrosa, the exhibition has three central themes: the queer artist, the outsider artist and the Indigenous artist, with Pedrosa asserting that each of these artist types have the experience of existing outside of the norm and its associated privilege.

On the cobbled streets of Venice and among the waves of people everywhere, the observation is true: There are foreigners everywhere, and I am one of them. The exhibition title comes from a series of works by Claire Fontaine, an Anglo-Italian collective who in turn takes the series name from a Turin-based collective, Stranieri Ovunque, active in the 2000s, who produced work that critiqued xenophobia in Italy.

In this context, I learned that the resident population of Venetians had dipped below 50,000 for the first time the previous year, and that the number of beds available for tourists had recently outstripped the number of residents. I had also learned of the decline in the Venetian dialect, distinct from general Italian, and that I might experience resistance when trying to converse in Italian. Another mind-blowing statistic is that Venice welcomes 20 million visitors a year, around 400 visitors per resident. Which is all to say that, yes, indeed, there are foreigners everywhere in Venice.

Treading lightly on another’s whenua is something I’ve learned from a good friend of mine, artist Bridget Reweti. In 2016, Bridget undertook the Indigenous Visual and Digital Arts Residency in Banff, alongside other Indigenous artists from across the world. While there, she produced a series of works that interrogated tourism by situating herself and her belongings in the broader landscape. With the majestic Turtle Island whenua as her backdrop, she held everyday items in the foreground to critique the trope of tourism imagery that effectively neutralises land in its privileging of the human experience.

Kākahu by Bridget Reweti completed as part of the Banff Indigenous Visual and Digital Arts Residency in 2016.

(2016) by Bridget Reweti. (Photo supplied)

It is artists, and specifically Māori and other Indigenous artists, who have prompted me to always consider how I am as a visitor on other whenua, and how I must understand the impact of visitors and foreigners in the same way that I would for people to our whenua, proceeding with respect and graciousness.

Bridget is also a member of Mataaho Collective, alongside Sarah Hudson, Erena Arapere-Baker and Terri Te Tau, whose work Takapau (2022) was curated into Foreigners Everywhere. This presence of artists in the curated exhibition is the largest contingent from Aotearoa to have been selected, all of whom are Māori, and also includes Brett Graham, his father Fred Graham, Sandy Adsett and Selwyn Wilson. This is an incredible achievement in and of itself, but Mataaho Collective also went on to win the Golden Lion for the Best Participant in the International Exhibition as judged by a jury of international curators. I’m told the decision was unanimous.

Takapau was first commissioned in 2022 by Nina Tonga, who was then the curator of contemporary art at Te Papa Tongarewa. It was inspired by research into woven mats and further informed by a visit to the museum’s taonga Māori collection. Mataaho’s practice has always existed on a foundation of robust research, drawing from inherited practice and merging it with the contemporary mediums in which the collective members have learned and explored.

During their decade-long collective practice, they’ve built a relationship with, and enjoyed the mentorship of, senior artist Dr Maureen Lander, an esteemed sculptor and weaver. Another aspect of their practice is the material with which they work, having favoured utilitarian, and highly recognisable fabrics that include mink blankets, tarpaulins, hi-vis clothing, marine rope, and, as with Takapau, strops. This aspect of their work nods to a familiarity that they want Māori visitors to their work to have, and an acknowledgment of their own working-class backgrounds.

Takapau, which is the first work of scale that visitors encounter when entering Foreigners Everywhere, has a room to itself. Walking in, you’re underneath the mat-like structure rather than atop it, and passing under, you experience a blanketed, comforting feel. The term “takapau” is associated with broader kōrero including reference to the rolled-up mat of a traveller, or a mat that marks the union of two people who consummate their union on the mat. In their Golden Lion acceptance speech, the collective mentioned that it was the practice of using birthing mats that first piqued their research interest, and acknowledged the absence of their fourth member, Bridget, who was at home preparing to give birth. This is the kind of wink that taonga love to give us, and in this confluence of events, remind us how alive and important they are.

Mataaho Collective’s Takapau in Foreigners Everywhere at the 2024 Venice Biennale. (Photo: Ben Stewart)

While I acknowledge how important Mataaho’s research-based practice is, and their favouring of working-class materials, there is another point here which is just as salient: the accessibility of these materials. By virtue of being associated with labour and the working class, they are readily available in major chain stores. By contrast, customary Māori materials such as harakeke, muka, and other traditionally grown and harvested materials, are not so readily available. They aren’t able to be purchased in stores across the country in a range of colours and sizes, and their production requires knowledge, time, space and patience. Growing, tending and harvesting harakeke, for example, isn’t exactly common knowledge, especially compared with buying something from Mitre 10.

In giving our mātauranga a global stage, Mataaho has further highlighted what has been lost regarding those traditional practices. Within museum collections, it’s also apparent how our tīpuna adapted to the arrival of new materials, with kākahu featuring wool from early moments of contact, as well as the use of steel tools in whakairo, precipitating innovation in form. In this way, Mataaho is continuing the tradition of innovation inherent in the practice of ngā toi Māori.

Collecting institutions and the archive are also present in the work of Archie Moore (Kamilaroi, Bigambul), the artist presenting in the Australian pavilion. National presentations are mostly situated in the Giardini. Countries with permanent buildings in the Giardini are responsible for the design and build of their pavilions and the ongoing maintenance costs. Aotearoa doesn’t have a permanent pavilion building.

As a delegate in a programme run by Creative Australia (the funding body equivalent of Creative New Zealand), we spent a lot of time in Archie’s work, kith and kin, which won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation.

kith and kin by Archie Moore (Kamilaroi, Bigambul) Venice Biennale, 2024.

The work features 65,000 years of Archie’s whakapapa, handwritten in chalk on the walls and ceiling of the pavilion. Made up of 2,400 generations, the weight of the history is immediately felt when entering the room, as your eyes adjust and the names of tīpuna reveal themselves. As the whakapapa stretches upward, known names of family members are replaced by racist names that Archie found in the archive, names that don’t bear repeating here, but draw on blood quantum and dehumanising traits bestowed on the first nations of Australia by the settler-colonial state.

In the middle of kith and kin stands a table hovering over dark, reflective water. The table holds stacks of documentation that is just out of a visitor’s eyeline, but we know that they are coronial inquests into Aboriginal deaths in custody. There are 500 of these inquests on display, and they don’t capture every death of an Aboriginal person at the hands of the Australian justice system.

In a gesture of respect and manaakitanga, the names of the dead are redacted. The dead are known to their whānau, they were loved, and in the ultimate recognition of this immutable connection, the hand-drawn whakapapa which graces the walls of the room stops on the ceiling above the table, for it is the names on the table that complete the whakapapa.

Moana Jackson referred to whakapapa as a series of neverending beginnings, a typically beautiful turn of phrase from one of te ao Māori’s greatest minds. But kith and kin reminds us that there is another side to this: there are ends to whakapapa, too, and for some, the end is brutal.

In his acceptance speech for the Golden Lion, Archie acknowledged the presence of water, and its connective nature for the floating city: “As the water flows through the canals of Venice to the lagoon, then to the Adriatic Sea, it then travels to the oceans and to the rest of the world, enveloping the continent of Australia, connecting us all here on Earth. Aboriginal kinship systems include all living things from the environment in a larger network of relatedness. The land itself can be a mentor or a parent to a child. We are all one and share a responsibility of care to all living things now and into the future.”

Venice was a spectacle in the most generous sense of the word. It offered a parallel experience of what the world would look like if art was considered as crucial to a society as roads and streetlights. It valued intellectual discourse in the form of visual arts as well as literature, scholarship, performance and music, all of which rang out from the canals and palazzo.

Within this discourse was space for critique, for asking why we were there and who is impacted by our presence. As prompted by Takapau and kith and kin, I thought about the loss of mātauranga, the violence of the settler-colonial state, and my own complicity in perpetuating the displacement of the haukāinga.

This is not what I expected Venice to teach me, but it is what it reiterated. As Archie did in his acceptance speech, I thank the people of the Venice lagoon for hosting us, and, to borrow from Bridget, I heed the call to tread lightly. Nei rā anō te mihi whakahirahira.

 

Matariki Williams (Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Hauiti, Taranaki, Ngāti Whakaue, Te Atihaunui-a-Pāpārangi) is a freelance curator, writer and editor in the arts and cultural sector. Previous roles include Senior Historian, Mātauranga Māori, at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and Curator Mātauranga Māori, at Te Papa Tongarewa. She co-authored Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance with Puawai Cairns and Stephanie Gibson, and co-founded ATE Journal of Māori Art with Bridget Reweti. 

Matariki was one of two Māori curators selected to attend the Venice Biennale 2024 as part of a Creative Australia programme to build international connections. The international art exhibition opened on April 20 and closes on November 24.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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