Tour of Duty

Taking the “guilt” tour in Auckland Art Gallery
by Ali Shakir

New Zealand is heaven for outdoorsies. If you’re into hiking, skiing, fishing, kayaking, etc. then you’ve definitely reached your destination. But if you’re the same species as mine: an urbanite who thrives in the darkness of theatres, spotlights of exhibition halls and musical instruments rising to a crescendo; you’d probably find this place….well, a bit of a bore. Even if you can afford expensive concert tickets in Auckland; you’re likely to end up watching a mediocre performance, where you’d frequently check your watch, calculating the time for the trip from the city to your place. Having suffered several artistic disappointments during my first two years of being in New Zealand; I decided to stop venturing and immersed myself in writing instead. What of recreation? Well, thank God for the Internet!

That said, I still haven’t given up on Auckland Art Gallery and would consider paying a visit every now and then. My most recent visit was less than two months ago, and it turned out to be a thought-provoking one. I had already started my journey through the exhibited collections when an audio announcement about a guided tour to embark shortly from the foyer was made, I decided to join in. Why not? A kind lady welcomed us with a heartwarming smile that’s typical of Kiwi women—or, most of them—and the hour-long tour kicked off with an introduction to the building’s history and architecture. We then headed to the Mackelvie Gallery, where we spent ten minutes admiring the artworks by European painters from the Age of Enlightenment. No complaints so far.

It did strike me, though, that on the way to our next destination; our guide barely hinted that the gallery had a collection of modern art by contemporary artists from New Zealand and overseas. What many art lovers (me included) considered to be the highlight of their gallery stopovers—along with occasionally visiting exhibitions—was being ignored in favor of the Rangatira section, where we spent more than thirty minutes, contemplating oil paintings which might have had some historic value, but hardly any significant artistic merit.

The collection, our guide proclaimed, was entirely depicted from photographs taken of chiefly Maoris during the early years of colonization. She also admitted that the painters had taken the liberty of randomly changing several details in the original photos despite their cultural connotation. We were then given a prolonged lecture on every aspect of the early Maori daily life: Weapons, feathers, tattoos, attire, hairdos, beards, etc. I waited for the guide to finish, but she went on and one and on, leaving me with no other option than to slip out quietly to appreciate the overlooked contemporary paintings on my own.

It’s probably worth mentioning here that I’m not against exhibiting the Rangatira collection at the gallery and have nothing but utter respect for the Maori culture. It just doesn’t make sense—given that Auckland does have a grand museum where Maori heritage is being thoroughly and more appropriately showcased—to dedicate nearly three quarters of the tour’s allocated time to extremely technical discussions instead of using it to introduce the gallery’s visitors to its different sections. … An art gallery is not the same as a museum. And art is not folklore, although they sometimes tend to overlap. Even then; their marriage needs to be carried out subtly and creatively. Confusing the two is likely to produce shallow art. Or for that matter distorted, folklore. I had the feeling Someone was rubbing Something in my face. And to be honest, it wasn’t the first time.

While watching performances of the Haka prior to All Blacks matches, I often wonder how Maori feel about their ancestral dance of survival being voided of its original context and reduced to an animated match day mascot. Also, in the several New Zealand films I have so far watched—including the recent film adaptation of Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress – as Hunt for the Wilderpeople—the leading character always happens to be an effortlessly charming, albeit poor Maori, who lives among a number of goofy Pakehas. Again, I’m sure that many Maori are indeed charming, as I’m convinced that skin colour dictates neither charisma nor intelligence, but the juxtaposition of nearly the same portrayal began to raise questions in my head.

“I know what you mean, Ali,” a Pakeha friend said after I disclosed an ongoing struggle with guilt. I had published a piece on how helpless I felt and how burdened my conscience was over the terrorist attacks on Paris. Although thousands of miles away and despite the fact that I was a strong supporter of secularism, it still terribly hurt that innocent civilians were being murdered by fellow Arab Muslims. … “I too suffer for the crimes committed by my ancestors against the Maoris, even if I don’t talk about it,” I listened attentively to my friend’s unexpected confession. It reminded me of The General’s Son, an interesting book I had read years ago by peace activist Miko Peled, on the ongoing Israeli-Arab conflict and the legacy of his late father; an Israeli war hero turned peacemaker.

Like an aggressive lawn weed, the psychological ramifications of transgression have the vicious nature of growing steadily over the years. The history of New Zealand has some points of similarity with that of the post WWI Middle East, but it’s quite different, too. Many New Zealanders today are mixed-race, which means the legacy of the grandfathers—the oppressors and the oppressed—has been passed down through generations and distilled in the collective subconscious. … On the outside, Kiwis appear as friendly, calm and laid back. Browsing through the local media, however, tells a different story.

“One in three women in Aotearoa will experience an abusive relationship, with many more coming dangerously close,” quoting the Women’s Refuge organisation’s website. The frequency of attacks—verbal and physical—against immigrants and foreigners is frighteningly on the increase too. Phenomena like these are menacing, and so far, they have only been tackled on surface level. … Shortly after my Toi o Tāmaki Gallery visit, I started looking for films, artworks and books on how the past is affecting the feelings and daily dealings of the contemporary Kiwis—Maori, Pakeha and mixed. Up until this moment, except for the late Michael King’s work, sadly, I haven’t found much.

Ali Shakir is an Iraqi-born, New Zealand-based architect, and author of A Muslim On The Bridge (2013) and Café Fayroux (2015)