I wonder if all artists have complicated relationships with their cultures and traditions. I know for a fact that I do. While I have strong north east Indian roots, and value a lot of cultural elements, I do not have a sense of complete loyalty to any one culture. While I rail against the colonisation of our cultures by India or by the ‘West’, I also recognise the debt I owe to both. I therefore find it extremely interesting to watch the Maori, especially in their art, and see if I may learn from the way they interpret their ‘taonga’ (cultural treasures) in the light of their life in a modern, westernised, and largely colonised society. I found a very interesting book called ‘Taiawhio*’ that documents 17 conversations with contemporary Maori artists. Two that have jumped out at me are Anaru Rondon and Tracey Tawhiao*.
Anaru Rondon’s “dream is to help facilitate a revival of ancestral Maori tool-making” (Tamarapa, 2002). He specifically seems interested in toki (adzes) and whao* (chisels).
These stone tools were used to hollow out waka-the canoes that brought the Maori to Aotearoa New Zealand from Hawaiki. These tools are also used in Maori carving and weaving, the primary traditional art forms. What inspires me about Anaru Rondon is his apparent rejection of the ‘modern’ value system that is the West’s gift, and a desire to do things the Maori way. While artists all around us are scrambling all over themselves to prostitute their way into the high society, here is a person who wants to understand and practice the ‘old’ way of doing things, with almost total disregard for contemporary values of production or profit. His work is beautiful in a very primal, minimalistic, and functional way. I have been unable to find any of his work online, and these photos were taken from the book (without permission, but I believe this is fair use). At a time when many in our tribal cultures want to modernise and ‘develop’ as fast as possible, people like Anaru Rondon stand, as blogger Joe Pinto would put it, against the tide.
“The main theme in which Tracey [Tawhiao] is immersed is that of being Maori in a colonised country” (Smith, 2002). This is expressed through poetry and artwork. My immediate interest is in her poetry. Again, I have been unable to find any of Tracey’s poems online, though her visual artwork is available here. One of the things I love about Tracey’s poems is that while they tackle modern or immediate conditions in Maori society, they do so in an unabashedly Maori way, not stopping to ‘interpret’ words or contexts to the non-Maori reader. The poems are, however, extremely simple and accesible, and remarkably free of the jargon and poetic bullshit many of us indulge in every once in a while. One is able to connect with them even as a stranger, though a more intimate knowledge of the language and context would help understand better. She is not shy of critiquing what she sees wrong in her society, but does it with an understanding, love and dash of humility that makes it palatable. I am reproducing parts of a poem called ‘Fatty Meat’.
“If I could just explain
This horrible chest pain
That I get
When I see fatty meat boiling
I react so violently…”
“…Are we killing our own people
So the marae will
Maintain its tangi quota…”
and, referring to her aunt,
To join conversations
about being fat and happy
while all the time seeing
She can hardly bend down
She is beautiful, all of her
But she sweats profusely…”
Two approaches then-one to dig back into one’s roots, and the other to engage one’s culture in the here and now. Both these approaches, especially in combination, seem to me good guiding posts as I try to find my place as a north east Indian artist. Good learning for the day!
*’wh’ is an ‘f’ sound in Te Reo, the Maori language.
Smith, H. (2002). In H. Smith (Ed.), Taiawhio, Conversations with Contemporary Maori Artists (p. 168). Te Papa Press.
Tamarapa, A. (2002). Taiawhio. In H. Smith (Ed.), Taiawhio, Conversations with Contemporary Maori Artists (p. 154). Te Papa Press.
Tawhiao, T. Fatty Meat. Taiawhio.