Slapping a koru on it
I was out. I promised myself I wouldn’t talk about this anymore. No more conversations, no more arguments.
I was done, out, had enough and never wanted to speak of it again. But to talk about what I want to talk about now, I need to talk about what got me twistin.
And so I’m going to start at the flag referendum. "Flegh". That hot mess of a design process. For all the mess and furore, the whole thing did at least succeed in stimulating discussion about our national identity. The country had a bit of an identity crisis. We got a glimpse into how we collectively see ourselves. And one of the things found largely missing in that reflection was a good representation of Māori culture. The few nods towards Māori culture to be found in the top selection were tokenistic or cliché at best. Most involved slapping a koru on it.
It wasn’t something most noticed as an issue, though. Because we have a general lack of engagement with Māori culture.
An accurate portrayal of Maori and Māori culture is largely missing in the eyes of most New Zealanders. What you do see is cliché, token, or offensive, as reflected in this piece that captures the struggles that come with growing up Māori. And because of that misunderstanding, most New Zealanders seem intimidated or even fearful of engaging with the culture.
By and large, people who talk about this lack of engagement end with a plea to engage more with Māori culture. Surely having more people engage with and better understand Māori culture, history and tikanga should create a more accepting and interesting society. But how do you get people to engage more?
The most obvious way, at least in my eyes, is increased exposure. More Māori stories, art, design, music and architecture should lead to more understanding and wider acceptance. Organisations like Māori TV, and Mana magazine are doing a great job of creating that increased exposure.
Leonie Hayden gave a great CreativeMornings talk earlier this year on the topic.
But they’re one small part of NZ.
There is plenty more that can be done to create more acceptance of a culture that is unique to this country and should be cherished. And there is a lot being done.
I was really excited to be asked a few months ago to be a part of branding Tupu Toa, an initiative working to provide sustained support for Māori and Pasifika tertiary students and early career graduates to fulfil their career aspirations, and develop a powerful national network of Māori and Pasifika business people throughout New Zealand. This programme is an important step in the right direction and the fact that the people building the programme are Māori and Pasifika is another important factor to appreciate.
Being involved in the branding of this programme has allowed me to contribute to the diversification of an overwhelmingly homogenous sector. But it’s also raised some uncomfortable questions for me, around how we use cultural symbols in art and design.
The problems I found with many of the designs put forward in the flag referendum centered around the impression that there was a lack of genuine engagement or understanding of the cultural symbols used. Throwing a koru on something does not make it Māori. So how should we utilise Maori symbolism and motifs in art and design? Are Māori graphic elements something that can be used by any creative, Māori or non-Māori? And despite being of Māori descent, since I’ve grown up largely divorced from the culture, am I just as guilty of appropriating the culture?
These questions often arise when I see pieces of art and design that take inspiration from Māori and Pasifika culture. They’re not new questions. The debate around cultural appropriation in art, fashion and design has been raging for a long time, both locally and abroad. Gordon Walters' koru experiments, created in the 50’s and 60’s, have been embraced by many New Zealanders and adopted as logos by many companies, and yet his work has been condemned as appropriation and corruption of kowhaiwhai. And just this week another argument erupted around author Lionel Shrivers keynote address at the Brisbane readers and writers festival.
As far as I can tell there are no easy answers for these questions. There are too many complexities. And in my attempts to find answers all I’ve found are more questions.
Cultural context plays such an important part in graphic design. The process of design is constantly asking you to consider your historical surrounds and tie your work into the visual movements and aesthetics of your moment. And in New Zealand a huge part of our visual culture and identity is rooted in Māori and Pacific culture. So it seems natural that work made here would reference and draw inspiration from these cultures and their traditional symbols, patterns and motifs.
Yet, as I start my journey to learn Te Reo, learn the stories and traditions of tangata whenua and delve into tikanga, I discover more and more the sacred reverence for certain parts and I worry that such use by anyone unfamiliar with a Māori world view may end up harming the culture. At the same time I don’t want the culture to stagnate. For better or worse the Māori and Pacific cultures have merged with Western culture. It's a given that the resulting multiculturalism would change both cultures, and a lot of exciting work that has emerged from the tension that exists between the two cultures, from the pull of tradition and the call of the contemporary.
You may be able to tell that I’m twisting myself into knots. That’s ok.
The many many questions still rattling around my skull guarantees that I will continue to explore the topic, to seek out writing that suggests ways to move forward, ways to do better. For anyone interested in exploring and maybe discussing the complexities with me further I can recommend a few great starting points.
- Johnson Witehira has done some great writing and talking on the topic and I highly recommend you check out his website. His definition of a Māori designer has been particularly helpful, as was his chat with Dudley Benson on Radio NZ.
- This Atlantic piece gives somes great basic grounding around the do’s and don’ts appropriation.
- This piece from Te Papa provides some valuable commentary about the appropriation of New Zealand modernists.
- And this Guardian piece deconstructing Lionel Shriver's recent keynote clearly articulates why cultural appropriation can be so gutting for the affected group.
For the moment, the closest thing I have to a direction forward involves a piece of wisdom upon which a lot of our work philosophy rests - People are the experts in their own lives.
In developing the brand for TupuToa, our first step was to involve Māori and Pasfika students and professionals in the creative process. We invited them to identify what was important to them, how they engaged with their culture, what they responded to and what they didn’t. Our discussions uncovered an understanding and respect for the symbols and motifs of tradition, but also an affinity for contemporary interpretations of their culture. These groups helped to guide us to a solution that I hope shows respect for tradition while acknowledging the ever changing face of the culture.
I recognise that this is just the first step in my journey, and I’m eager for more guidance and discussion on where to look for more direction. I hope that conversations like this will eventually help us all reach a place that means we are all able to better understand and engage with all cultures. To learn why it's so important that we instinctively and repeated check that what we're doing is appropriate and respectful. To ensure that what we're doing isn't exploitative.