Council admits downplaying major Māori exhibition

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New Plymouth council says it got it wrong when it chose not to promote the powerful Tai Moana Tai Tangata exhibition at its Govett Brewster Art Gallery / Len Lye Centre to general news media.

Brett Graham's Tai Moana Tai Tangata exhibition at Govett-Brewster gallery.

Brett Graham’s Tai Moana Tai Tangata exhibition at Govett-Brewster gallery. Photo: Supplied / Neil Pardington

Instead, it pitched Brett Graham’s commentary on the impact of colonialism on Māori to specialist arts contacts only.

A gallery insider said Graham’s show appeared to frighten the council which wanted to avoid controversy.

The insider – who RNZ has agreed not to identify – said that approach was at odds with the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery / Len Lye Centre’s positioning as the country’s “most courageous contemporary art museum”.

Subtitled A cautionary tale about human endeavour in Aotearoa New Zealand Graham’s Tai Moana Tai Tangata exhibition draws parallels between the land wars and confiscation and environmental and economic problems of the present day.

Graham (Ngāti Koroki Kahukura, Tainui) was artist in residence at the Govett-Brewster in 2019, where he researched ties between Waikato-Tainui and ngā iwi o Taranaki, and the effects of the raupatu, or land confiscations, on both.

Brett Graham

Brett Graham (Ngāti Koroki Kahukura, Tainui) was artist in residence at the Govett-Brewster in 2019. Photo: Don Gill

One video installation in the exhibition, Te Namu, depicts the Ōpunake beach of the same name.

It’s the place where the Hauhau prophet Te Ua Haumēne had a vision, in which the Archangel Gabriel informed him God had chosen him to cast out the Pākehā and restore the land to Māori.

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In the video the beach is covered in oil rigs and gas flares while the ocean is a sickly black.

The gallery insider said it had become apparent the exhibition had not been promoted in the normal way soon after it opened in December.

“I think there’s just an over-sensitivity and it’s a very cautious approach from the council’s comms team. They don’t know how to handle this exhibition and the themes it touches on.

“Which is surprising because we’ve been working on it for years and no concerns were raised, so it’s mystifying as to why there’s anything wrong with the exhibition.”

The insider did not think racism was at play, however.

“I think it is a fear of tackling the issue which is politically something that the council does have to consider, but art galleries and museums are not meant to be afraid of these things.

“I mean we are here to do these sorts of challenging projects and this is not one we thought was that challenging.

“Certainly our sector, the arts sector, is celebrating it and wants to celebrate it and wants everybody to know about it both nationally and internationally.”

Gallery treated as a liability – support group

Friends of the Govett Brewster Art Gallery / Len Lye Centre president Sue Kelly said lack of council backing for the institution was nothing new.

“We sometimes get quite disappointed with the fact that the council appear to view the gallery as some kind of millstone around their neck.

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“As opposed to as an amazing, phenomenal building and the contents of it and the staff who work there. And that should be promoted.”

Kelly said the friends’ group was left to publicise the show to local media itself, resulting in delayed coverage.

“It’s one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen and it’s so poignant and has so much meaning to this region that I would’ve thought that there would have been a greater amount of promotion from the council.”

It’s not controversial – artist

Brett Graham's Tai Moana Tai Tangata exhibition at Govett-Brewster gallery.

Brett Graham’s Tai Moana Tai Tangata exhibition at Govett-Brewster gallery. Photo: Supplied / Neil Pardington

Graham, who was happy with the exhibition’s launch, said people making decisions about its promotion should familiarise themselves with the Govett Brewster’s mission statement.

“They talk about how they like to challenge people. They talk about how they want people to either come away loving or hating or being passionate, angry or sad.

“They want people to be moved. They don’t want people to walk out feeling nothing, so this is the perfect chance to do that.

“If they think that’s controversial, well they should read their own manifesto about what that gallery is supposed to do.”

Graham said there was nothing alarming about the exhibition to him.

“In my head it’s not controversial at all. It’s just telling the story like it is and, yeah, so it’s disappointing if that’s the attitude, but in a way it’s the greatest compliment that I could receive.”

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In a statement, the council acknowledged a media release about Tai Moana Tai Tangata was sent out to its arts contacts list only.

It said this was an approach it took when it felt the content was of more interest to an “arts audience” rather than to the general public.

The council said it had reviewed this decision and, in hindsight, believed it should also have gone to all local news media.

It said it had since updated its processes so that in future this would be the case.

The Tai Moana Tai Tangata exhibition continues at the gallery until May.

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