To coincide with celebrations of the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage in New Zealand, Te Papa is holding an exhibition Doing It for Themselves: Women Fight for Equality, and released a book Women Now: The Legacy of Female Suffrage.
The book, edited by Te Papa head of New Zealand and Pacific cultures Bronwyn Labrum, features essays by 12 leading New Zealand authors and thinkers - Sue Bradford, Barbara Brookes, Sandra Coney, Golriz Ghahraman, Morgan Godfery, Dame Fiona Kidman, Charlotte MacDonald, Tina Makereti, Ben Schrader, Grace Taylor, Holly Walker and Megan Whelan.
Each essay is based on an object from the exhibition, marking the history of women's suffrage, and exploring the ongoing battles for rights that mark the modern landscape of New Zealand. The following is an extract from the book.
Pao Pao Pao, by Tina Makereti *
An object tells a story, and the story it tells changes person to person, place to place. It's like the proverbial pebble dropped in the pond: ripples move out from it, resonances, arcs of meaning. Depending on where you're standing in the water, the ripples will touch you in a different way.
This object is a poi made from blanket fabric and fine golden embroidery. The image embroidered on the poi is of two hands shackled, open-palmed, one face-on and the other in profile. The hands are finely rendered and detailed; the braided rope of the poi is slightly frayed from use. The hands look strong: articulate, graceful, expressive. The poi reads as a feminine thing, though poi have not always been so. I cannot view this apparently still object without seeing movement and rhythm: the pao-pao-pao of the swinging poi beat, multiple hands and hips and feet moving in unison.
One thing to love about this poi is that it belonged to a young girl who used it in kapa haka. It is art object and artefact, political statement and taonga, but it is first of all a poi and has been used as such. The object is alive with all the ways it has been used in the world, and all the hands that have touched it.
This is the story that the poi tells me. It will tell someone else a different story.
The hands that brought the poi into being were Ngāhina Hohaia's. She made hundreds from secondhand blankets, their loose fibres playing havoc with her sinuses. I remember how compelling those poi were the first time I saw them lined up in formation for Roimata Toroa (2006). When art speaks that clearly, it can be difficult to form sentences that replicate the encounter. Each poi held a different symbol or fragment of a sentence, each was as elegant as the poi that is the subject of this essay, and together they spoke of multitudes, generations, collective identity, peace, war, resilience, spirit. All of this was apparent in an instant - myriad stories held in the nexus of those many objects and their relationship with each other, and their maker:
Hohaia's show features over 500 embroidered woollen poi made from secondhand blankets. The blanket is a metaphor for the land. She says, Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kaakahi stated to the Crown that they were willing to share their blanket but that sovereign independence must remain with Māori. Her poi are based on the Parihaka tradition of poi-manu, the use of poi in ritual recitation of genealogy. The poi is the manu, the messenger, says Hohaia. The images embroidered on the poi are derived from Parihaka oral tradition. - City Gallery Wellington
As a single parent at the time of the exhibition, I remember asking if I could buy a single poi and, even though the cost wasn't substantial, I knew I wouldn't have enough to spare. The second problem: How to choose one when each was so exquisite?
In a way, now I have been given one. I don't know if it is what I would have chosen then. I would probably have gone for a poi with something more obviously positive embroidered on it: Taranaki maunga; the raukura-three-feathers-of-peace. But I look at these hands in shackles now and I fail to see anything negative. I see only empowerment, embodiment, triumph. Whatever was meant by this image, the poi requires me to think about power. I, too, am from Parihaka, though unlike Ngāhina I didn't grow up there. I have been there only once, to an artists' hui, when I was a young student. It wasn't a homecoming because I was a stranger there and I didn't have the cultural wherewithal to make any claims or connections. My family left Taranaki in successive waves of migration beginning in the early nineteenth century, and I'm only tentatively finding my way back. It is a long homecoming.
This then, is a story about power.
In my origin stories, a Pākehā man and a Māori woman get married due to a pregnancy. The signs are not good from the beginning, but there is a tumultuous kind of love there, anyone can see that. At some point the violence between the pair escalates to the point where something must happen. The thing that happens is that the Pākehā man takes the children to a place where the Māori woman cannot find them. The youngest child is two. He keeps the children hidden by moving from one place to another. The mother does not see the children again until they are fully grown.
I was the youngest child. I carried with me no memories of the mother, but I was given a handful of stories about her, some factual and some fictional. By the time I was 16, I once again had some contact with my mother, and found that her stories did not match those of my father and that she was not who he said she was. Many of the stories I had carried all my life were evidently false. I began to understand that I had been given a mythology that explained my existence as a motherless Pākehā child with some trace of a redundant culture in my blood, one part of me cleanly sliced away by a narrative that made sense of our anchorless lives. My fair skin was only further evidence of the veracity of my father's stories. I now understand that, had I stayed with my mother, I would have been given a different mythology, but I do not know that it would have been more whole, given that the story is inherently fractured. They were just kids, really, and the world wasn't fit for their union.
In my first year of university I took papers in Māori studies and immediately began to see my origin story as a perfect metaphor for the process of colonisation. Perhaps we can all of us, the colonised, make this metaphor out of our origins, but mine was so clear and immediate it seemed like a gift of understanding. This new interpretation of the stories helped with the anger. My ardent belief in the power of mythology is informed by real life events that have never ceased to seem mythical.
For all that the above tale seems like one of subjugation, on the occasions my mother has said that she was solely the victim in this story, I found it hard to believe her. It is not that I don't believe that unjust things were done to her. They certainly were. It is that I find it difficult to believe that my mother could be a victim of anything. I want to see her as indomitable. Even though I have been in abusive situations, I don't believe I'm a victim of anything either. This may be an unrealistic and obdurate position, but the only reason I write is because I am those things. Naive, also. I refuse our victimhood: nobody can make us; nobody has ever made us.
It is the stories we believe about ourselves that matter. The stories we give light to. But also the stories we refuse. The stories I choose to believe are the ones that make us strong. Especially when it is clear that no single story contains the whole truth.
This story could have shackled my own hands, but I would not have my origins any other way, for the mess of them has given me more creatively than an easy beginning might have. And just as there aren't single victims in this story, I don't want to suggest there is a single perpetrator. If anything, we are sometimes victims of our own actions. Everyone has paid a price.
Let me try to explain it another way. Us mixed-bloods often talk about walking between worlds, existing in the in-between spaces as if Māori culture is on one side and Pākehā culture is on the other, but I don't think it actually works that way. There is no such even-handedness. I am planted, primarily, on Māori earth. I grow out of those goddesses you've heard about: Papatūānuku, Hinenuitepō; goddesses who were grandmothers to my grandmothers. When everything is whakapapa, those women become more than archetypes. I can look at my own flesh and see their DNA, listen to the laughter of my daughters and hear their voices. The real world exists at this level. Any understanding of women's power, for me, is derived from this deep soil. Women run families and nations and always have. Men work alongside them in these tasks because they always have. At the centre, the children. To disregard the unique abilities of any one group in this community would jeopardise survival. Everyone according to their strengths.
Superimposed over this is something that came later. Visualise it like I do, if you like, as transparent: layered over the top of everything, drawing lines over the real like borders on a map between countries that are separate only because some white man drew a line there. In this superimposed world, there are a lot of ownership rules. There are a lot of entrenched ideas about how much things are worth, and how they must be used. Things include people, apparently, especially women and children. Men occupy some higher rung in this strange hierarchy, but even they must subjugate themselves to the requirements of their system. In this world, it helps to have evidence of status: legal documents, ownership papers, money. It pays to play by the rules of these superimposed systems, but they still seem as if they don't quite have the density of the real. It is in this world that it is important to have rights to citizenship, to vote, to make noise about equality, to participate in the many buzzing systems superimposed over everything, for there really are many.
But I understand it thus: we who find our feet planted on Indigenous soil walk upright. We are always grounded in the real Aotearoa underneath the superimposed world, but we must move through those superimposed worlds layered above it. We must operate on all levels at all times. For example, the vote is important to me on one level, very important. All those superimposed worlds have become very important to me. But that is not where my power is derived from. 'Man' given rights mean little when you know you are descended from the goddesses of life and death.
This is not simply rhetoric. On good days, I remember who I am, and I remember that all the superimposed worlds aren't real. On those days, it seems a waste of energy to get agitated about the political and economic systems that screw us over, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, women and, yes, men too, for what woman has ever looked at her son and thought: yay, he belongs to the patriarchy so none of this will touch him? On these days it is not so much that I live in denial, though that is certainly part of it; it's that I find peace of mind, my centre. Simply, peace. Something eternal. Something beyond what anyone can reach. We all do this. If you've ever spent an entire day at the beach with your babies making sandcastles and swimming; if you've ever gone bush for a day or six. You know this place.
It is from this place that I create. It is from this place that I respond to the creative work that others produce. It is from this place that I can look at history, and the stories of our young people, my stories or stories of people like me, people with stories that are harder and more painful than mine, and not be crushed. At times like that I need to be able to look unafraid at our thin superimposed worlds and flip them the bird, look down on them and consider them redundant. In the great scheme of things they are.
But all it takes is a slow blink. And then we are down on the beach tripping over plastic. Avoiding home rivers that are clogged with sludge. Watching people lose their basic human rights in Australia. Finding change for a person with no home at the train station in Wellington. The superimposed worlds soon flip the bird back, harsher and more brutal than I ever could. Yeah, they say, you think we ain't real? Look at what we can do to the world. Sure, I reply, but this is what I got. I don't believe in you; I believe in this.
In Paopao ki Tua ō Rangi (2008) Ngāhina Hohaia's poi transform into a bird's-eye view of Taranaki maunga, circles of poi spread outward from a central circle within which images of tīpuna, whānau and the land are projected. Images appear and recede, light plays on the poi cloaked in sound, some ancient, some contemporary, the pao-pao-pao a spiral dance of time and whakapapa and whenua. My first encounter with this piece held me in thrall, taking me in and down, or maybe up, to a place beyond the abstract, superimposed world I've described above. I felt an intense state of wellbeing, of connection, of transformation. Somehow, I was part of that experience, as close to the mountain and my ancestors as I had ever been, not separated. Not alienated. In a gallery talk about the work, Ngāhina described her sense that there was no linear time, that all things that existed in the past still exist. This is the same world view that informs my writing.
I am alienated from the place Parihaka. I have whanaunga there but our particular family have not kept the ahi kā - home fires burning. Those shackled hands represent a long history of being pushed out by successive impositions: muskets, invasions, confiscations, farming, racism, family dysfunction, sadness, shame. Pōuri. Whakamā. It is not that such things are unmendable, but what took lifetimes to tear apart may take lifetimes to bring back together.
Last year the Crown apologised to the people of Parihaka for the atrocities perpetuated there in 1881, when 1400 armed troops invaded a peaceful village and destroyed everything. It was the first time the Crown had ever acknowledged and accepted responsibility for the rape of women in an historical grievance. The people of Parihaka celebrated a new feeling of hope and reconciliation. It would be wonderful if an apt quote from Te Whiti or Tohu appeared here, or from the women who responded with such grace and courage to the apology, so forgive me that the words that arrive as I'm writing this are from Malcolm X (1964):
If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress. If you pull it all the way out that's not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven't even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won't even admit the knife is there.
The Crown has recognised its knife and pulled it out. The healing can begin.
It's important to end, I think, where we began. A taonga in a museum. Contemporary, twenty-first century. Poi. Gentle, articulate hands, shackled. The wide-open palms: alarm? A cry for justice? An embrace? I have told you the story the poi told me, of power and grace - the wielding of it, the claiming of it, how it works in this particular life. A rather abstract foray into the nature of existence. The way art can connect and transform and bring you back in touch with that which you think you have lost.
The image on this poi doesn't read as negative to me because the act of art-making has imbued it with power. If someone shackles your hands and does their best to eliminate your people, and you are able to turn around and make that beautiful, make it soft and musical, golden and feminine, imbue it with strength, then the violence has been transformed. We take the things that have been done to us and we look at them from different angles until we find a way to enter them and turn them into something else. We put ourselves back into the things that have been done to us so that the power returns to us. The story of a Pākehā man and a Māori woman and their children is the story of colonial imposition on a peaceful people is the story of women's loss and pain is the story of our nation is the story of our liberty. Take the things that have been done to you and listen for the pao-pao-pao of the single poi alongside her sisters. Listen to the story she tells you. It is the story of what came before and what is possible now.
* Dr Tina Makereti is of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Ati Awa, Ngāti Rangatahi, and Moriori. She has a PhD and Masters in Creative Writing from Victoria University and a BA and PG Dip Māori Studies from Massey University. Her fiction, essays, and short stories have been recognised nationally and internationally, including the 2016 Pacific Regional Commonwealth Short Story Prize, two Ngā Kupu Ora Awards, and a RSNZ Creative Science Writing Nonfiction Award.