Occupying, not abandoning, the gallery
In a series of papers delivered at conferences of Pacific scholars and museologists in recent years, Mahina-Tuai has argued that mainstream New Zealand art galleries, critics, and curators use a set of false distinctions - between art and crafts, between tradition and contemporaneity, and between individual and collective labour - to delegitimise the work of many Pacific Island artists. Because they are deemed to be mere craftsmen and women, who work inside static, pre-modern traditions, rather than creative artists responding to the contemporary world, Pacific Islanders who paint on tapa or carve wood or tattoo are denied grants, space in galleries, and critical attention.
Mahina-Tuai is determined to force upon the doors of art galleries to Pacific creators like the members of Fafine Niutao i Aotearoa. But in an industry that revolves around individual 'art superstars' who sell their work for fantastically high prices to institutions and collectors, her championing of obscure Pacific Islands arts collectives that produce gifts for their communities rather than commodities for sale is not always understood, let alone appreciated.
Mahina-Tuai’s determination to bring new communities into the austere white spaces of the contemporary art gallery was reflected in the launch party for Fafine Niutao i Aotearoa's show. To ensure that a significant section of Auckland’s Tuvaluan community was on hand to celebrate the collective's work, Mahina-Tuai and her co-curator Marama Papau hired a bus that drove to remote parts of Auckland's suburban archipelago, collected whole families, and brought them across Mangere bridge. Dancers adorned with kolose performed for these guests, who sang and beat time on the gallery’s walls and floor.
As I read Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai's polemics against the art establishment, I was reminded of a controversy started by the young Christchurch artist and political activist Jared Davidson, who in 2009 published a manifesto called Give Up Art.
Davidson's text condemns art galleries as squalid institutions where money is worshipped and creativity crushed. Instead of making commodities for the wealthy patrons of galleries, Davidson vowed to create an art of 'the barricades', by working to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a better economic and social system. For Davidson, the 'Red' Federation of Labour, whose working class members tried to seize power from New Zealand's capitalists during the Great Strike of 1913, was an exponent of the art of 'the barricades'. The manifesto's conclusion was uncompromising:
A tree that has turned into a club cannot be expected to put forth leaves. Any artistic practice short of advocating the abolishment of capitalism and replacing it with logic, frankly, should be left to die.
Give Up Art was a deliberately provocative text, and it provoked negative responses from a number of art-lovers, including the poet and literary critic Ross Brighton, the Marxist scholar of Latin American modernism Tim Bowron, and me.
I thought in 2009, and still think today, that Davidson's manifesto is a curious mixture of nihilism and utopianism. The text was nihilistic, because it asked us to abandon art altogether, when it could have differentiated between the positive and negative aspects of our art tradition and our arts institutions.
Because of his justifiable anger at the abuse of art by wealthy, self-interested collectors like Alan Gibbs and his justifiable exasperation at the pretentiousness of certain inner-city galleries, Davidson wanted us to turn our backs on the taonga created by our greatest artists.
Davidson seemed to lurch from nihilism into a sort of utopianism when he demanded that we begin to practice 'the art of barricades'. As Tim Bowron and Ross Brighton both pointed out, barricades are not being built in the streets of New Zealand in the early twenty-first century. No mass organisation like the Red Feds is leading the working class into battle with the bourgeoisie. Our trade union and our left-wing parties are weak and moderate. Davidson was fascinated by the radical years of the early twentieth century because they offered such a contrast to the uninspiring situation of the left and the trade union movement in the twenty-first century.
Like Jared Davidson in 2009, Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai is challenging some of the official tenets and procedures of the New Zealand art industry. But where Davidson wanted to abandon art galleries, Mahina-Tuai wants to democratise them. And where Davidson could offer no living movement as an alternative to the art establishment he despised, Mahina-Tuai can point to and champion groups like Fafine Niuato i Aotearoa and the communities they represent. For me, at least, Mahina-Tuai's campaign seems both more progressive and more realistic than Jared Davidson's enterprise.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]