Racism did not end with the abolition of slavery or apartheid, an apology to a Stolen Generation or the establishment of Treaty settlements. All those actions did was make racism more insidious. While overt and obvious hate crimes still exist in the 21st century, equally damaging is the systemic racism that remains ingrained in our judicial, employment, housing and education structures. From cradle to grave, the landscape of the lives of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) around the world remains shaped by colonialism, oppression and othering. In 2020, racism is rife, including in New Zealand.
Every so often, there is a moment of overt racism that causes the world to pause and consider the microaggressions that lead up to it; Rodney King, Trayvon Martin and most recently, George Floyd. In the wake of their deaths, screeds of articles were written, protests were marched and in the age of the internet, hashtags, profile picture frames and status updates go viral. But as quickly as the hot flash of anger flares, it fades.
Actions louder than hashtags
This in itself is a problem - we are not giving ourselves the time or space as individuals and as a collective to truly listen to and understand the impact racism has on BIPOC and examine the role society and ourselves play in upholding it. That takes time, introspection and self-education. One of the rallying cries of the George Floyd protests has been ‘Not being racist is not enough. We have to actively be anti-racist. Black Lives Matter.’ It is not enough to simply feel that we are not racist. We must act.
Part of these actions includes having difficult conversations with ourselves and each other. If we are struggling to find the words, art can offer a space to express, explore and discuss complex ideas using a language that is both universal and local.
Robin Ranga - Us.
Art gives voiceless a voice
In Aotearoa, this is coming in the shape of Kotahitanga through Creativity - an online arts campaign that is the brainchild of Creative Waikato. Running online from 13 July and in Hamilton’s Nancy Caiger Gallery from 14 July, the exhibition features 16 artists from throughout the Waikato who are “speaking up against racism through the universal language of art.”
Creative Waikato CEO Jeremy Mayall says “racism is an ongoing issue in various forms, but this [project is] more directly in response to growing reports of racism in response to COVID and how we don't want that as a reflection of the Waikato. Kotahitanga through Creativity is a way to start a positive discussion about inclusivity, about supporting each other in our communities and about speaking out as an ally.”
A collective collection
When selecting the 16 artists, Mayall was keen to find those “that responded to the call in a meaningful and thoughtful way - we wanted a collection of works that spoke to the quality of artists we have in the Waikato.
“A range of works in different styles and mediums [was also important] so it could connect with as many people as possible - everyone has their own preferences when it comes to art, so we wanted to have a collection that showed the different approaches and different ways of resonating this kaupapa…[the Waikato] is a diverse place - both in terms of people and geography. We wanted the works to reach out into the community and find ways to connect and spark thoughts and conversations.”
It was this desire for accessibility that was the initial rationale for an online exhibition, explains Mayall. “Access to the works and the discussion could be everywhere and people could feel safe to explore the works wherever they are. But we also needed to make people aware of it, so there will also be printed material that will be going out into the Waikato community. Now we are exploring the possibilities of the physical exhibition (or perhaps exhibitions) because it is also great to be able to see these physical artworks in person.”
‘Kotahitanga: unity in the community’ was the broad brief given to artists keen to explore these topics.
Simon Te Wheoro, a contemporary Māori visual artist based in Whaingaroa, Raglan was attracted to the project “because I feel that there is no place for discrimination in our society. It only leads to hatred. In recent times we have seen it conclude in death and in some form we are all victims of discrimination and collectively I believe we can create change.”
Simon Te Wheoro. Photos: supplied.
Te Wheoro works in paint, Tā Moko (Māori tattooing) and sculpture in wood and marble - skills he utilised to create his piece for Kotahitanga through Creativity. Describing his artistic style as “pure form and abstract” Te Wheoro was inspired to use parliamentary stone when reading the proposal criteria.
“In recent times, I’ve been finding myself trying to create powerful bodies of work; whether they are based around creating awareness, conceptually political and express the notion of paying homage to my Māori heritage.
“Having experienced discrimination definitely helped fuel my inspiration. Being of Māori, English, Irish and German descent, seeing the vibrations of colonisation and (being) raised in a system of systemic racism inspires me to highlight the definition of equality through this sculpture,” reflects Te Wheoro.
“I sculpted my interpretation of a roimata, teardrop out of Takaka marble sourced from a demolished section of the parliament building in Wellington,” he details.
“I thought that [using parliamentary stone] would be significant and as an opportunity to express my thoughts and feelings around kotahitanga. With the importance of unifying people to help eradicate discrimination as well as highlighting the suppression and misjustices around the policies used against Māori in the past.”
Simon Te Wheoro - Roimata (teardrop).
Words make a difference
Poet, novelist, teacher, critic, translator and editor Dr Vaughan Rapatahana has brought together ten poets in a multilingual offering. Poets include Stephanie Christie, Maris O'Rourke, Reihana Robinson, Tracey Slaughter, Mere Taito, Murray Edmond, Terry Locke, Bob Orr, Essa May Ranapiri. “This project attracted me personally as I have always called for kotahitanga incorporating diversity in all of my mahi,” says Rapatahana. “So it segues completely with my wider body of work,' Why my calling?’
“It's existential - being Māori with a multi-ethnic and multilingual whānau soon makes you learn there are different rules for different races in this skinny country - and overseas - historically and contemporaneously. I cannot speak for the other fine poets, but I reckon their work speaks similarly for itself.”
Although there are a variety of voices coming through, Rapatahana believes that “folk will pick up on a range of emotions, from rage through to a wish for reconciliation. Hopefully, many will become more aware and concerned and activated about racism, inequality, historical abnegation.”
Flattening the curve on racism
Lucie Blazevska - Each One Teach One.
Mayall hopes that Kotahitanga through Creativity “sparks a meaningful discussion.”
He states “art is a powerful tool that lets us look at the world as it is and to help us to reimagine the world as it can be. I am hoping that it encourages the Waikato community to be more aware of what is going on and thinking about what is happening in our communities. I want our diverse community of people to feel like they are connected here. That they can find support. That they can be part of the discussion.
“This is about 'flattening the curve on racism', and as Jenny Nand has said in discussions about this kaupapa, we want people to ‘be an upstander, not a bystander’. Speak out when you see racism happening. It is up to all of us to change this issue.”
Mayall asserts “art is a way we can find identity. It is a coping mechanism for humanity. It is a deep thing that resonates with different people in different ways. We see this collection as a starting point for a project that will hopefully continue to grow with new works. More artists, artists with different stories, different approaches. Different ways to communicate this idea.”
Sybille Schlumbom - Circle of Kotahitanga.
Exploring racism via art not only offers an opportunity for viewers to reflect on the world at large; it offers an opportunity for the art world to reflect on their own biases. To critically look at what structures need to be completely dismantled and what structures need to be placed in their stead.
“The arts sector can [be doing better by] acknowledging any systemic racism that might be occurring in how they work,” says Mayall. “[It can have] strategies in place to address these issues, and to have a more diverse collection of people and views at decision-making tables [as well as] finding ways to collaborate more broadly.
“It is not possible for any one group to do everything,” Mayall continues, “but they can work together as a collective to have mutually beneficial outcomes for themselves and their communities. [Finally] the sector can create opportunities to support and celebrate the work of artists from our diverse communities.”
Te Wheoro asserts “having artists express their true thoughts through the most powerful language we know - art - will help combat racism. The more artistic creations to continue to educate the public, whether being in exhibitions or large installations of works, will be beneficial to all races moving forward to a better and brighter future.”
For Rapatahana, arts structures could be going more to support such a pertinent message. “Artists can continue to express the evil of racism and the arts (i.e management, sponsors, governmental purse holders, editors et al) must then be more open to exhibitions, performances, advertisements of such work. It's all about education and the subsequent seismic cultural shift away from current myopia.”
Kotahitanga through Creativity includes offerings from Alice Alva, Dawn Tuffery, Lucie Blazevska, Robin Ranga, Simon Te Wheoro, Stephanie Christie, Sybille Schlumbom, Vaughan Rapatahana. It can be viewed on kotahitangagallery.nz from 13 July.