“I contend that Māori peoples bear optimism forward, and this is demonstrated each time we share our human stories with museums and the world”
Interview with Ngahiraka Mason by Andrew Stephens, Art Monthly Magazine. Originally published at Art Monthly Australasia, November 2019.
Facing the narrative
A project to hang one of New Zealand’s most famous paintings upside down in a museum has provided many revelations for independent curator and historian Ngahiraka Mason. The project hasn’t eventuated, but Mason says the excitement came in the way it deeply engaged Māori communities.
Speaking at this month’s International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM) conference at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (15-17 November), Mason will tell of how this radical intervention, proposed by an elder from Hauraki on the North Island, lives on in the hearts and minds of Māori people as a “yet to realized opportunity for in-depth conversations about visual history and museum politics”.
The plan was to upturn The Arrival of the Māoris to New Zealand, an 1898 oil painting by Charles F. Goldie and Louis John Steele. Described on the Auckland Art Gallery website as “probably the best-known history painting ever produced in New Zealand”, it caused a sensation when first exhibited in 1899 because it was seen as a romantic fabrication ignoring traditional accounts of Māori immigration voyages.
Honolulu-based Mason, responding to questions via email, says Māori have very strong negative feelings about the painting, not least because the canoe depicted in the painting is not even an ocean-voyaging vessel. “The canoe is sailing backward, and Maori didn’t make the type of sail on the boat”, she says. “The image is used nationally and internationally in art education and history subjects as an authentic picturing of Māori arrival to New Zealand”.
Mason consulted with Māori and with New Zealand university painting professors and communities about whether they would like to see the painting turned upside down: “Unanimously all said yes! My international painting conservator colleague confirmed the painting could not be damaged by turning it upside down.”
But the plan became a “missed opportunity to bring hard conversations about picturing New Zealand history forward in the art museum setting”. Even so, the process was powerful because the elders and communities were offered an opportunity for dialogue “that was provocative, but [if] was not met with the same courage.”
It is fitting Mason will be discussing this at the CIMAM conference as part of a panel discussion called “Challenging the Narrative: Indigenous Perspectives”. After all, underlining the Arrival endeavor and the two other projects she will discuss (both realized) is her wonderful contention that Māori people “bear optimism forward”: “Each time they share their human stories with museums and the world, generosity, determination, and openness sit at every intersection we meet”.
Ngahiraka Mason, Independent Indigenous Curator & Visual Historian, Hira, Honolulu, Hawaii
Titled The 21st Century Art Museum: Is Context Everything? the CIMAM 2019 Annual Conference took place 15-17 November in Sydney hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.
Day 1: Friday 15 November
Challenging the Narrative: Indigenous Perspectives
At Every Intersection We Meet
The two case studies in this presentation are about exhibitions I delivered for Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in Auckland, New Zealand. They represent the first and last projects I made for the art gallery and were complicated and powerful for Māori communities and the museum. The results from these endeavors marked a change in the way that the art museum worked with the realities of Māori communities, demonstrating that collaboration, persistence, and courage can make for positive ends.
The third project I address is an exhibition proposal by an elder from Hauraki on the Coromandel Coast of the North Island. This exhibition did not eventuate but lives on in the hearts and minds of Māori people as a yet to be realized opportunity for in-depth conversations about visual history and museum politics. I contend that Māori peoples bear optimism forward, and this is demonstrated each time we share our human stories with museums and the world, further suggesting that generosity, determination, and openness sits at every intersection we meet.
Ngahiraka Mason is an independent curator and visual historian, with research and curatorial interests in the material culture and histories of Polynesian peoples, descendant and community relationships with museums and collections.
Mason is the former Indigenous Curator, Maori Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tamaki, New Zealand's oldest and largest public art museum. Her exhibitions and publications focus on historical, modern and contemporary art.
Recent projects include Dot I Line I Color (2018), Honolulu, Middle of Now/Here, the inaugural Honolulu Biennial (2017) and the International touring exhibition Gottfried Lindauer's New Zealand (2014-17). Mason lives and works in Honolulu, Hawaii.