Written for the Mana For Jam collaborative exhibition in Wellington, NZ 2013 – See the exhibition page here.
The tension between creativity and income is not a new discussion within art discourse. For as long as there has been patrons, collectors, and connoisseurs of art, their authority to define its worth has conflicted with the views of artists themselves. It has been noted that in a market-driven economy, artists are “increasingly forced to market ourselves by developing a consistent product” (Vidokle, 2013). But what happens when the consistency of a product is maintained through a process of cultural commodification? Mana for Jam examines notions of cultural commodification, self-appropriation, and the lengths to which Maori artists and art professionals themselves will go to survive in a market-driven art economy.
REUBEN FRIEND, ‘Culture for sale’, 2011. Acrylic on canvas.
What qualifies an artwork as being ‘Maori’ is also a debate that has dominated the New Zealand art landscape for quite some time, and certainly lies close to the heart of this exhibition. While Maori representation within the New Zealand art profession has increased in recent years, the question still remains whether this will automatically address the problem of tokenism or merely encourage a generic ‘brand’ of contemporary Maori art – as seen promoted by organisations such as Toi Maori. Certainly this experience led to Reuben Friend’s work Culture for Sale where his involvement in the 2011 Maori Art Market committee indicated to him that Maori can at times be our own worst enemy in terms of acting as gate keepers and promoting a homogenised image of what Maori art is, and how it should be marketed.
Structurally, this phenomenon is a reflection of the market-driven economy within which the vast majority of us exist – an economy where gallery dealers respond to their perceived market, and the market, in turn, develops their perception upon the ‘product’ made available to them. While Friend’s experience relates to the New Zealand art market, this is even more evident overseas, where the market access for art is even more constricted and therefore more vulnerable to gatekeeping. The degree to which the dealer determines the market is relative to the degree of monopoly that one holds over a market. So in the instance where there is clearly one dominant dealer of Maori art within any given marketplace, their perceptions of what constitutes Maori art (and their subsequent promotion of such) will in all likelihood hold strong influence over what is accepted.
Nigel Reading, owner of Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver, Canada, states that the gallery supports “Maori painters whose work is recognizable as Maori with obvious references to the culture rather than more abstract of political orientated subject matter” (Maori Art Market, 2011). This bypasses the fact that for cultures undergoing continued oppression – to ignore their political voice IS a political action in itself. While Reading admits that the North American indigenous art forms are “far too broad to compare to Maori art”, he doesn’t stop short of noting that Maori artists are “much more advanced… in terms of their mediums and techniques”, and in an apparent further comparison notes that M?ori are more educated and professional than indigenous North Americans (ibid). Such statements are laden with value judgements – about the nature of Maori art, about indicators of advancement, about the inferred value of being indoctrinated into imperial systems of education and business.
To be fair, Reading is not a social philosopher and nor is he required to be in order to fulfil his role as an art dealer. It does, however, raise questions about how these value judgements may influence his decision making, and how that decision making in turn influences the overseas market for contemporary Maori art. Indeed, where indigenous self-determination has been defined by the United Nations as the right to: “freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”(United Nations 1966:Article 1, paragraph 1), one has to question to what extent that pursuit is affected by the position of a German, educated in Britain, and living in Canada, effectively defining the overseas market for Maori art. Furthermore, where artistic expression and it’s bed partner cultural identity are so closely linked to cultural wellbeing for minority indigenous groups, does the moral imperative therefore lift this discussion to a platform of social justice?
TINA NGATA, ‘Like this’, 2012. Digital print on canvas in plastic wrapping.
Tina Ngata’s Like This series explores the notions of perceived value and imposed frameworks. Consumers are told what to like, and in turn the artist produces work in a reactionary manner. This creates a climate of increased potential for superficial motif and form to dominate over cultural or spiritual integrity. This series of works considers an alien market that is dominated by the ‘other’, where decisions are based upon imposed structures and protocols – art should be marketed like this, should be written about like this, should be promoted and encouraged to look like this.
SARAH HUDSON, ‘Cliff Curtis as Dr Sinja in A Thousand Words’, 2013. Digital print on card.
The role of artists within a system dominated by the other also features strongly in Sarah Hudson’s work. While the restriction of roles due to race is a common discussion in the American film industry, Hudson notes that M?ori performing artists are able to fill a wide range of ‘exotic’ roles by virtue of their cultural ambiguity. Paradoxically, the social determinants and structural racism inherent in New Zealand society means that having brown skin will often land you with the social role of prison inmate, manual labourer or security guard, the role with longer hours, less pay and poorer conditions. In this instance, the discussion revolves around brown according added value for an artist. Naturally, this discussion cannot be had without touching upon the cultural integrity (or lack thereof) of the system, the role, the artist, and the artwork itself.
REUBEN FRIEND, ‘Big Dave’, 2012. Photographic print. Photography by Sarah Hudson.
Reuben Friend again raises notions of systemic determination by presenting images of Maori and Pacific Island staff members of the City Gallery Wellington. These works address issues surrounding the roles of M?ori and Pacific Islanders within the job market, how these can act to reaffirm social expectations and typecast cultural assumptions and capability to job types. Micro-cosmically, the presence of Maori and Pacific Islanders within the art job market is presented by Friend as a visual discussion point that leads us to the question of by whom, and for whose benefit, is ‘our’ art being presented, promoted, and dealt? Is the content of the national art market a reflection of our nation, or a reflection of the systems that drive our nation?
Kaaterina and Tai Kerekere’s works answers the question of ‘who benefits’ quite practically – all sales from their installations will be donated to the KAI4KIDS kaupapa, an initiative managed by leading Maori artist Robyn Kahukiwa to help feed local children in low decile schools. Who Stole the Cookie from the Cookie Jar directly references the Maori and Pacific Island whanau who work hard to provide for their families, yet still struggle to maintain the physical and economic wellbeing that is enjoyed by others. Targeted support policies (often produced by Maori and Pacific policy writers) can be a double-edged blade, and if due attention is not paid to systemic prejudice then government programs intended to help whanau can contribute to victim blaming and racial profiling. As a process, these artworks not only draw attention to structural racism in social settings, but use the income from their art to aid the issue – emancipatory art in action.
RINA & TAI KEREKERE, ‘Ko wai te taniwha?’, 2013. Glass bottles, wooden crates, digital print on adhesive paper.
In the same instance, however, the artists are quick to acknowledge the personal responsibility of the consumer and the art that guides them in these processes. Through the use of branded beer and milk bottles, Ko wai te Taniwha? debates the use of Maori imagery in the branding and marketing of specialised products such as alcohol and tobacco, to appeal to Maori consumers. The brand Taniwha Wai raises the questions, who is the Taniwha? While artists may question the use of cultural imagery used to market products with such clear links to addiction and poor health, Taniwha Wai acknowledges the reality that, as mature consumers, many whanau make the conscious choice to purchase and consume the products that lead down the path of violence, poverty, and hunger. In the artists words: “Basically we are saying, never mind the alcohol and drugs, go buy your kids some kai’”.
Commercial campaigning is also a dominant theme in Langdon’s Piri Aporo works. A major food-chain motif has been re-appropriated in a manner that creates a cyclical process of taking an image from Countdown, to create income for the artist, to purchase food from Countdown. This cycle acquires another layer in consideration of the way in which the dominant economy restricts our ability to source our own food, creating dependence upon large food chains, a philosophical debate compounded by the manner in which large multi-national food chains ‘glocalise’ their campaigns to appeal to local audiences, whilst channelling money away from local economies. Notions of appropriation and re-appropriation turn back upon themselves like the cycles of the motif itself.
Similarly, the layers of Tina Ngata’s Ten Guitars Mandala spin around each other in a reference to the counter-productivity of micro-level economic behaviours toward macro-level economic outcomes. Again, the responsibility of the consumer is called to the fore. The work questions how we, as Maori, support the systems of appropriation and homogenization that assail our culture. The dancing dolls, light hearted audio, and kitsch nature of the work belie the seriousness of the message, in a manner that reflects how easily we are lulled, as consumers (both Maori and non-Maori), to opt for what seems cute and digestible without questioning the larger systems to which we are contributing.
Mana for Jam discusses power relations between Maori and the art market. While much discourse positions M?ori art as the faceless victim of globalisation, the artists in this exhibition call upon Maori communities to reflect upon their role in the process of representation, commodification and standardisation of M?ori cultural and artistic offerings, urging audiences to consider not only the structures that lead to cultural devaluation but also how each of us, wittingly or not, may contribute to these cycles. The resultant message is one of empowerment – to be aware of one’s own role in a process is to take ownership of our contribution.
Maori Art Market (2011) Retrieved 10/02/2013 from http://www.maoriartmarket.com/latest_news.php?news_id=47
United Nations (1966) International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 2200A (XXI) Retrieved 23/4/2013 from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CESCR.aspx
Vidokle, Anton (2013) Art without Market, Art without Education: Political Economy of Art. eflux 43(3) Retrieved 14/3/2013 from http://www.e-flux.com/journal/art-without-market-art-without-education-political-economy-of-art/