Ārai: breaking beyond – Catalogue essay

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I don’t remember the first day I entered into an institution, but I do know that it was before I was born. I was held captive in my mother’s womb, herself held captive, a prisoner of ‘norms’ about the difference between good mothers and Māori mothers. I have been institutionalised ever since, as a way to educate me about what I need to do to be a good Māori.

One day I’ll learn…

Of course, the institution doesn’t really know because it has become far too insular. The institution with all its knowing is forgetful like dementia. The institution has forgotten that it’s held up by Māori whenua, the blood and bones of my tūpuna. Apparently I’m supposed to care about a language they speak in England, some German guy’s ideas, or some Dutchman’s art that he made whilst visiting my cousins around the Moana, the whole time appropriating their forms and calling it some new art movement. Theinstitution forgets. It forgets its manners all the time too, and tells me that the theory in my timeless body of whakapapa is just some story. Well institution, research is story too, but when the institution story-tells research and theory, its intent is to control. The institution forgets that we’ve always known what it’s been up to. It’s time for you, institution, to learn
some better stories.

I want to learn about me, and I should be allowed to in Aotearoa institutions.In the 1980s Baudrillard wrote about simulacra¹, describing everything as a re-hash of an originality long since
dead. Baudrillard said that our bleak world of pastiche realities isn’t even real anymore, but instead it’s a simulacrum of a truth so distant that everything’s a lie.

Well the truth is, the institution’s a lie.

And that’s what I enjoy about the work of Aimee Ratana, Margaret Aull and Zena Elliott, all three artists are
assertive about remembering beyond the lies. Aimee Ratana remembers the resistance asserted by her tūpuna.
Through her making, Aimee disrupts the lie that wahine Māori have been passive recipients of patronising domestic knowledge. Aimee asserts ways that an intimate connection with materials helps our bodies to remember truths about our inner workings. Aimee re-images reality, but instead of Baudrillard’s empty simulacrum, she recreates pathways to our eternal selves – our most empowered and activist Hinenuitepo self who protects, nurtures and guides the continuance of whakapapa Māori. Margaret Aull remembers too, she remembers beyond the lie that before colonisation Māori could never journey the distance of oceans traversed by her tūpuna, the meetings of their memories her embodiment. In her assemblages and paintings, Margaret practices the mapping of terrains, opening portals between the profound and lost, helping Māori towards rangatiratanga. Margaret is a navigator, her artworks guiding us back to our Hinetitama wonderment, where between the sacred and mundane we remember how enlivening it is to experience the freshness of the world, free of rebar and rust. Trust in being is the remembrance offered by Zena Elliott, her paintings remind us that we have the power to find ourselves in the seemingly confused world we occupy as Māori today. Zena’s paintings signal the convergence of past and future within our bodies and our dynamic ability to form, shape and beautify any space we choose for life. Zena’s artworks ask us to remember that within our urban landscapes we can escape the gridlock constraints — our beating Hineahuone hearts alive in colour, twinkling light and rhythmic movement.

Ārai speaks of obstructions, hinderances, barricades, blockages, barriers and insulating influences. The artists exhibiting work in this show argue that this is the context for mainstream arts education in Aotearoa. Through their works they describe the sense of frustration loss and fragmentation they have experienced as Māori art students, where they often fought faculty to express Māori forms and knowledge. The denial of a person’s identity within creative studies must surely have a detrimental impact, but for all three artists the assertion of Māoritanga uplifted them during their haerenga as tauira at Wintec.

The wero for mainstream education in Aotearoa today is to adopt new foundations. The outcome of such an education can only be generations of people living in our country, with strong and grounded identities. Aull, Elliott and Ratana argue for an arts education in Aotearoa that grows first from Māori knowing, where Māori forms, practices and knowledge are valued, respected and assist in evolving practices of Aotearoa life realness. Without the solidity of truly knowing and relating to place, a violating colonial intent continues for all arts students in Aotearoa.

Taina Pohatu² speaks of mātauranga, knowledge continuum from a Māori perspective, where rather than the emptiness of simulacra expressed by Baudrillard, a boundless future is supported by an expansive network of understandings. Mātauranga takes for granted the repeated generational patterns embodied in each person, allowing for firmly rooted individual and diverse expression. Rather than an Aotearoa arts education that inhibits, controls and regulates, the artwork in this show encourages us to cultivate a world of creative fullness and depth.

Dr. Tāwhanga Mary-Legs Nopera

1. Baudrillard, J. (1968). The system of objects. In M. Poster (Ed.).(1988). Jean Baudrillard: Selected writings, (pp.10-28). Redwood City: Stanford University Press.

2. Pohatu, T. (2018). Ka noho au i konei ka whakaaro noa — Tracing potential in Tīpuna experiences. Keynote presented at Kare-ā-roto: Decolonising emotions and thought space wānanga, Waikato-Tainui College for Research
and Development, Hopuhopu.

Haka

I got a letter from the University last week to confirm that I have fully completed all aspects of my PhD… weird, somehow life has just amped up to the nth degree and a new norm has morphed into being without me really acknowledging the change. I had an old friend visit from London a few weeks ago. Her and I used to live in Melbourne together, when I was a complete fucked up on alcohol and drugs lost soul. It was very healing to have her visit and spend time, but on one occasion she mentioned that I kind of brush off the significant kinds of work I do…

PrEP has been fully funded by Pharmac in Aotearoa – I’ve had a few TV interviews about it recently. I did a lot of research and made a submission to Pharmac to ensure that Trans men were included, because in Pharmac’s initial draft proposal, they had left Trans men out. I’ve written two publications in the last few weeks and will finalise another today. I did a guerrilla performance the other week in front of about 20,000 people and then last weekend, I performed with relations as part of our regional kapa haka comps. I definitely looked the part getting my haka on. I got asked to deliver a keynote presentation at a big sexual health conference happening at the end of this year in Auckland. Someone else asked me last week to deliver a workshop on Māori perspectives of gender and sexual diversity, and also the summary presentation at another sexual health conference. The director of a national art institution in Aotearoa has pitched my performance work to be included as part of the International Indigenous Art exhibition to be held at the National Gallery of Canada next year. A friend told me he was at an exhibition in another city and saw that someone had cited my research to describe the context of their artwork.

Doing this kind of stuff and engaging at this level has become my norm…I don’t even question my ability to do it anymore.

I’m studying full-time this year. I’m studying in a total immersion reo Māori program so that I can finally speak my language. Over the past two weeks of course I have sat on my laptop writing research whilst being actively engaged in class. People keep asking me what I’m doing and I just say “work”. It’s cos I’m working full-time as well as studying full time. I feel like I am thriving, and to be honest, I look pretty damn hot for a 42 year old…still no wrinkles and still getting asked for ID when I buy liquor.

It’s funny-peculiar how life changes. It’s like the whole of the last 5 years didn’t happen.

I wonder what life will be like during the next 5 years?

Legs out

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I’ve been getting the ol’ legs out a bit lately. It feels good to have gained some body confidence in the realisation that I turn heads, my bed’s still seeking space for one other but hey it’s a journey.

I’ve been in Canberra this week and am at the airport waiting to fly home. I can’t wait – I always miss my home when I’m not there. This week has been great! I’ve been at an HIV conference run by ASHM – its the annual national Australian HIV conference. It was great to see a lot more diversity amongst attendees and presenters.

It is going to take a collective effort to end HIV. The sector is begininng to adapt toward better engagement and strategising. I presented findings from my PhD yesterday and have been humbled to receive a lot of great feedback. I’m valuing the contributions I am able to make and am recognising my power, my presence, my inner and outer beauty and my warmth of spirit. Now that I have a new prefix attached to my name, it’s hard to deny the good things and positive energy I embody.

I feel like I’m putting the best of myself forward and this is helping me share healing pathways.

I made friends and gained new allies…these epic legs of mine carry the lightness of a person committed to positive social transformation.

Hope in breath, in life, in love, in spirit, inspire and do not spiral ever again. Live and haka all day long, and rest in the garden of stars and sleep. Fight with a smile and an open embrace so that harm hurt and harrowing hells of polyester yester-years fade to crumbling chromachrome dust. I must muster the energy of my ancestors and share – baring witness to whitewash as I wish it away. Hope is here and I have no fear forever. Ethereal me my imagined future present.

New moonscape

Tāwhanga PhD final performance

Image credit – Ngāwai Smith (Marketing and Communications Advisor for the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Waikato)

Ok, i’m sitting at the kitchen table looking out over the lake. It’s sunny but also windy and I’m sending out the good vibes for a summer that seems waaay long overdue. This year’s winter was one of discontent, the content dis-associative in that I was able to make a break from the past that kept me in stasis.

The moon is new and growing fuller as the moments pass, calming these new waters as they escape from beyond their dammed flow. Time to grow, progress and prosper.

I had my second job interview for my dream job. I am praying each day that I get it because instead of planning for the future I can start living the future into existence.

I’m a doctor now lol.

I had my final performance and oral examination last week and the experiences were powerfully transformative. It was good to make performance art in the manner I most love – occupying a cold space and making it into one where I feel safe to live at my best and sometimes too my worst. Performance art, especially guerrilla performance art is amazing in its ability to awaken people to the ideas spaces hide. The ideas hidden in spaces are made manifest through unspoken rules about how to behave –  these become the foundation for our norms. In the art I enacted last week, I simply mapped out a common space that people have to move through on campus at the University of Waikato. I used 3 large adhesive images, shells, condoms and random things from my room like earrings, toothpaste, superglue and necklaces to create patterns on cobblestones. Once I had marked out my space, I then spent time cutting the images up to create an assemblage whilst singing and dancing. Really, I was just performing my ‘happy place’ – the mindset I occupy when I’m in the zone making art. The performance lasted about four hours.

The feedback was really great and the following day at my oral exam, those present remarked that it spoke directly to the themes of my research. It feels weird to have a PhD. I am still processing it. I think about all the amazing places, the self-discoveries, the lessons learned and the figuring out of political processes that have underpinned (and undermined) my PhD journey. I think about the life of a fucked-up, trashed tranny who spent all those nights in dark dark spaces, waiting for death. I think about the tears that seldom fall from my eyes because I have been too robotic to emote. I think about a lot of pain. It feels weird to have a PhD and to feel alive, vital and empowered at the intersection of academia and art. For me, making sense of those two things has helped me make sense of all the other intersections my body occupies – Māoritanga, New Zealander, same-sex attracted, transgender, living with HIV, drug addict, alcoholic, rape survivor, suicidal tendencies, depressive and impoverished.

It’s pretty powerful that a person with all those markers can write a PhD thesis to grow new space at the unique intersection of many oppressions. Maybe that’s my journey in this life, to give life where before there only felt like death.

It’s hard to look back and feel equally happy and sad, but great art is about contradictory tension.

I’m a mother-fucken doctor betches!!!

writing to re-wire

I’m writing up a storm at the moment. It’s research writing – concrete and structural, sensuality sidelined for the hard-line of text to motivate policy plasticity. I love writing research aimed at structural change. The tools of the oppressor, learn how to use them to break the system.

I used to think words were cement, pulling me down beneath the surface to suffocate. Written text is tortuously permanent and pedantic. That’s why the world is slow to change – words have too much power.

This week I’m writing an article that describes barriers to accessing equitable and quality healthcare for Māori who are transgender. So much about public healthcare problematises transpeople and looks for ways to fix us. The real problem is that society needs fixing.

I’m trying not to watch the news. I have been pretty good at filtering out all the faff lately, but since the election in Aotearoa I have been interested to gauge where things are headed. I shouldn’t waste my time because regardless of who gets into power I am still stuck living with an invader’s government. I can manage my life fine thank you very much. I’d be able to manage it a lot better if it weren’t so dictated by billboards, supermarkets, cars, roads, shops, footpaths, farmland, television and satelites – alien terrains terrorising my territory.

I heard a buzzing in the sky the other night. It was faint and because I am always listening to music through my headphones I almost didn’t hear it. When I looked up I saw the unmistakable front and back end lights of a drone. I stopped. The drone stopped. I walked. The drone moved again. I altered the direction I was walking in. The drone wavered with uncertainty. I threw stones at the fucker…eventually it went its own way. That’s the second time I have seen a drone hovering nearby lately. Next time I  get followed by a drone ima browneye the fucker.

I hate this surveillance reality, but I am not going to change nor hide.

I had a blast at a poetry slam last weekend. Betch got her legs out and turned up the heat a little. I laid down some deep shit, as I do. I was feeling shy and nervous, but people really responded and I felt good to deliver some rivers flowing. I was pretty tired though having spent the morning flying to Christchurch for a meeting to present some research and then flying straight back to Rotorua for the gig. This week I have been working from Hamilton and tonight I will spend the night in Auckland for a board meeting tomorrow. Next week is crazy, I’m home in Rotorua for kapa haka practice and a few days chill, then flying to Auckland for a panel on hidden priviledge, flying home again and then back to Auckland for the following weekend to facilitate an HIV community leadership workshop. I get a day’s rest at home in Rotorua before heading to Hamilton to install my final PhD work and perform my final creative work. The next day is my oral examination. Once I’m examined I’m publishing my entire thesis on this blog, which btw is one of the major works created for the thesis.

Dr. Mary-Legs is on huuuuuuurrrr way. Life is busy but somehow the makeup stays all day and the smiles keep on coming.

Fuck those drones – they ain’t got the battery to last my distance.

Horizon

Awaken afresh a fresh start, art is the awa through which my energy engages it’s flow. I flew a million miles to get here, neither a him nor her, a hermit heretic hell-bent on healing harm…arm myself with aroha.

The New Zealand elections were last night. It looks as though we will have the same government agenda continue and yet amplify it’s dangerous and colonizing intent. The decision-maker is a well known bigot and blamer of Māori, even though he is Māori.

It’s time for Māori to truly commit to the vitality our ancestors have gifted us over aeons and refuse this process to progress. We will see a regression in policies and a return to tactics that seek to wipe us out. We must remember the 70s and 80s when we protested this country the fuck out it’s reverie.

Battle strategy tactics on the streets, in boardrooms, in classrooms, in conferences, in courtrooms and in council chambers.

Challenge the process, deny it and utilise the wairua of te ao marama to bring back the light to our hearts in this world of deadened emotions!

I feel fuller than ever before in my life…so this is what it is like to feel good?

I have been flying all over the country lately, every week somewhere different spreading my art research.

I received my thesis examiner’s reports last Monday. They are both epic. I have my oral exam and final exhibition-performance in a few weeks. I am going to rock my art like never before. I have joined a gym and been training my body like the  beautiful androgynous muther-fucker I am, as often as I am able. Three weeks already and I look sleek and dangerous.

Swim fly run rings around the burning sun. Time to get up for kapa haka practice.

Everywhere

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Can’t you hear me calling out your name? The same song over and over catastrophes, super-novae, cataclysmic events, disaster, after effects and post-mortems.

Analysis.

Anal….why is this anything important enough to be an issue?

That’s my rhyming for the day. I’m well plastered. The faster the furious, the more frenzied the curious inquiry.

I have been trying out video and photo apps, so that it’s easier to make art on the go. It’s hard to steer the apps to do what I want them to do, but it’s just a beginning and I’m sure that eventually I’ll be able to find good ways to make art using them.

Regardless, it has felt good to be on a creative buzz again. I’m the type of person who makes art at a prolific rate. I need to make art or I begin to die…writing a PhD can kill that buzz – spoiler alert for anyone wanting to make art-making the focus of a long research project.

I’m still a long way from mastery of these apps, but new technologies change fast – by the time I learn them good they will function the way I need
them to.

I love to fly xxx

Emote

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I’ve been chilling lately – mostly because I have had the flu. It has been sucky to be sick, but at the same time I have been glad to stay in bed and read.

I’m getting over flu-ness though. Really, my body just needed time to get rid of the build up. Last week I started to train again and this week I have been getting into hardcore rehearsals for my final PhD performance. It’s really pretty good and I’m curious to see where it might lead.

It has been good to be feeling the creative feels again…my fingers itch to make art and my mind flips with formations firing fast.

Rather than get to making though, I’m wading – there’s time to kill at the moment and I’m making the most of it – things will change again soon and I’ll be busy as fuck, so I need to enjoy the calm ground.

I’m a media-slut and am in the national paper today. I feel awkward as fuck having been on tv twice over the past month and now having a profile piece in today’s online news. Racism, HIV/Sexuality and Suicide are the dominant themes thus far. Last week I got asked to speak on an upcoming panel for Auckland Musueum’s LATE series, on ‘invisible priviledge’ – I’m looking forward to that and am having a practice by talking with my nephews this eveing about their priviledge. They are good boys, but lately they have been typical teenagers and have forgotten how blessed they are to live in a safe village amongst whānau. They need to be reminded about the responsibilities that come with priviledge? and the costs when priviledge is abused.

Anyway, I’m hiding out today and being the chillest cos tomorrow I’m headed to Melbourne for work till Sunday. It’s work that I enjoy in the HIV sector, where as a facilitator of a peer leadership program, myself and others are updating the program we deliver. I feel like it can be so much better and I’m planning on being at my collaborative best to help toward good outcomes.

Time to fly.

Yayday

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Yayday payday making me queenly in my kingdom. Don the fanfare fashion and bare witness, the whiteness is just a wash and although awash through my thoroughfares, I am thorough enough to apply colour where necessary.

I’m on the other side of submission and it feels pretty fairy. Glittery glissandos of generous abundance…dance, it always makes me feel better.

I still have a few final performance works to prepare before examination but the seriously hard yards are done.

When I think of this PhD journey I want to cry for the extended pain of rebirth, but without it I was withering, wasted and just a watered-down version of reality. Sometimes you gotta feels the feels to fully feel again.

Since submitting I had a few job interviews scheduled, but after the first one realised I already have created the beginnings of my dream-life. I’ve reset from colonised circuitry and am now whole as the Māori person my ancestors intended for. I didn’t go to the second interview but instead committed to the projects I am working on which excite and fill me with hope…suddenly I have been blessed with more work doing what I live for.

I have taken myself out for brunch…the rosé is delicious. One of the men I dated during the first part of my PhD always gave me shit for eating out by myself, but I enjoy my own company…I am a pleasure to be with.

And so as I order a second glass of wine and some fries because the eggs, bacon and mushrooms I ate will not sustain me for the amount of research words I need to progress today – I enjoy the wintery sun, I give thanks to my tūpuna. I give thanks to atua and I give thanks to the many tāngata who have helped me on this journey and am excited for all that is to come.

XXX