Hall of Mirrors: on journeying, viewing, and the critical legacy of encounters. An essay about the exhibition Ever Changing World

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Published: 16.04.2019
Lieta Marziali Lieta Marziali
Lieta Marziali
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A Reflective Essay about the exhibition Te Ao Hurihuri / Ever Changing World, a collaboration between Dialogue Collective and Handshake Project, The Crypt Gallery, London, October 2018.
The afternoon of 23rd October 2018, it all seemed straightforward. Arriving at the Crypt Gallery, seeing old and new friends and colleagues, taking advantage of a backstage pass to the exhibition before the official preview later in the evening. The venue was certainly suitably quirky, but not unexpected for such a collaboration. And the jewellery and objects surely did not disappoint, displayed also as they were in the dark cavernous nooks and crannies of the crypt. All in all, certainly fulfilling the great expectations sparked a few months before in Munich when I had discovered that a second Dialogue Collective / Handshake Project exhibition was going to be staged in London.

Then, in the space of a few minutes, my complacency was rattled. The opening ceremony, something I had not witnessed during the first Dialogue / Handshake collaboration, had begun and I found myself nearly transfixed listening to Neke Moa speaking Māori and then leading the whole Handshake group in a Māori song. On what journey I still did not know, but I soon found myself transported. As a bilingual individual, semi-fluent in a third language, able to read another two enough to follow the gist, and linguistically aware enough to find methods and points of understanding, it took me a while to realise that the sense of otherworldliness brought by these sounds was to be taken, quite seriously, in a very literal way. This was another world to me and I had never heard its language spoken conversationally before.

Neke Moa leading Handshake in the opening ceremony. Credit: Lieta Marziali.

This was not so much a humbling experience as an awakening. Thinking of it while writing this piece, I must have enjoyed watching the haka being performed on television a few times, and understood, even through mediated visuals, its deeply spiritual nature. Still, why had its language eluded me? Why had I never been concerned with researching its words? And this particular singing was definitely a spiritual experience, for those performing it and for those sharing it in the closed acoustics of the crypt. Naturally, I had experienced being transported by music before. And yet, listening to a song's melody is one thing. Listening to a song while aware of not understanding the language is quite another, and made me also aware of the shortcomings of my other forms of perception, and how I had needed (and indeed had probably subconsciously managed) to use other senses to grasp its significance. Bringing into consciousness the process of feeling something I could not understand in a traditional way made me wonder how many times I had looked at jewellery with the presumption of fully understanding its language, and missed so many more planes of perceptions by not letting myself feel it. I mean, feel it like Neke holding a pounamu (1) pendant (by Keri-Mei Zagrobelna) during Liesbeth den Besten's opening speech?

Neke Moa holding a pounamu pendant by Keri-Mei Zagrobelna. Credit: Lieta Marziali.

Liesbeth beautifully contextualised the show not only within the historico-political events that brought the Pacific into the European gaze (and purse!) but also within the current political climate with its idiosyncrasies about expecting global resources while shunning even the nearest other. As a European in Britain, with Brexit anxieties soaring through the roof, I should know something about this...

But Liesbeth's words mostly resonated with me as she talked of her response to the title of the show: Ever Changing World (2). She asked what in fact is this world we talk about and, in an age of globalisation of resources but not of people, whose world it is. And can such a world still be mapped in the way of our European colonial ancestors? By drawing arbitrary lines of ownership on territories even when their boundaries and coasts were still scarcely understood? Or through new methods of understanding such as those offered by this exhibition and through contemporary jewellery?

Spirit of Collaboration
The aim of this exhibition project and second collaboration between Dialogue and Handshake was one of exchange and learning. Both groups were born out of a necessity to do things differently, and to provide an environment for their members to experience 'collaborative making and discussion' (3) and to encourage 'symbiosis, and give & take'. (4) Peter Deckers, founder of the Handshake Project, explains on their website how their programme is geared first towards strengthening the practices and then accelerating the professional development of new jewellery graduates in New Zealand, through pairing them in a mentorship programme with their “heroes” and through exhibitions in dealer galleries, facilitating their transition from recent student into running their own jewellery business. Conversely, Tim Carson, the longest-standing member of Dialogue Collective, points out that the focus for them was always more on the process of collaborative thinking, centred around their weekly meetings, rather than the end products themselves, with exhibitions becoming a safe space for each member to experiment within their own practice as well as a vehicle for the communication and display of contemporary jewellery to new audiences.

From a practical point of view, Handshake lead a more dispersed and digital existence before they come together for exhibitions, mostly due to their spread-out geographical distribution (despite being mostly from New Zealand itself), and a good proportion of their aims are focused at helping emerging artists achieve viable high-quality artistic results. Dialogue instead can take full advantage of being able to interact and plan in a much more direct way by physically getting together around a table in London throughout the year (despite members hailing originally from many countries), but their project outputs are more directed towards personal and collaborative research within the field of contemporary jewellery. On that note, as part of their remit Handshake are committed to an intense plan of documentation of their activities, not only through blogs and their website, but also through a systematic publishing programme which has so far been built into a substantial archive of material. On the other hand, Tim Carson, perhaps with a hint of eagerness to address this in the future, describes Dialogue's fourth ingredient – Mapping (their term for reflection) –  as more ephemeral, evidenced mainly in the other ingredients of Process and Experience and Geography of collective working, and in the more temporary body of their events and exhibitions.

Last but not least, from a financial point of view Handshake have been used, from their inception to dealing with funding applications and engaging with large cultural organisations such as Creative NZ (the Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aoteaora). They also undertake large fundraising activities, like their April 2018 jewellery auction at the Te Auaha Institute in Wellington (where Peter teaches and where the programme is based), featuring past and present Handshakers alongside some of the programme mentors such as Peter Bauhuis and Fabrizio Tridenti, and their September pop-up jewellery sale at Suite Gallery, also in Wellington. Dialogue, on the other hand, operate a small self-financed budget for each project, starting from a seed investment from all their members and incrementing it by common decision according to needs while remaining mindful of their objective of staying economically accessible. It is not a surprise, then, that their fundraising ingenuity should normally culminate in what has become a trademark of all their shows: the humble and yet always most-anticipated Dialogue raffle.

A special-edition Dialogue / Handshake collaborative raffle for Te Ao Hurihuri / Ever Changing World. Credit: Lieta Marziali.

And it is exactly an understanding and appreciation of these differences that drove Handshake to make contact: firstly to see whether, as a group, they could explore getting away from jewellery-making as a commercial enterprise and offer their members an opportunity to just be makers and explore their creativity in a different environment; and secondly, to see what learning could be gained by both groups by working on a common project, observing each other and, above all, being mutually exposed to and having to deal with very different methods and approaches to both concept and project management.

The first collaboration started in 2015. Isabelle Busnel and Mary Hart of Dialogue Collective both recollected the difficulty in establishing patterns of communication and in devising, initiating and then maintaining the continuity of collaborative tasks between the two teams. Both groups had to learn to make new contributions to, as well as concessions in, the way they worked and interacted over and above the boundaries of their individual tribes. The title of their joint exhibition – It Will All Come Out In The Wash – shown at Munich Jewellery Week in March 2017, is testament to that intense process of mutual learning about themselves and each other. And what better way to deepen this relationship than within the context of a new project centred on the difficulties of exchange with its discoveries through voyaging and trading, but also its downfalls of appropriation and trading off?

It Will All Come Out In The Wash at LOT62, Munich Jewellery Week 2017. Credit: Dialogue Collective.

Te Ao Hurihuri / Ever Changing World
If this project was initiated through funding available in New Zealand in the context of the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook's voyage to the Pacific, Dialogue and Handshake chose not to focus on the colonially-outdated idea of Cook's discovery, as the islands had been occupied by indigenous populations for centuries. What they did instead was to concentrate on how these lands were first occupied by people: through voyaging, with leaps of faith but also a deep knowledge and understanding of the vast corridors of the sea. Two 'crews', as the Handshake exhibition webpage calls them, of 11 artists were assembled from each camp, to explore their 'responses to themes such as voyaging, discovery, mapping, identity, navigation, baggage, trade, gifting, adornment, artifact, survival, own perspectives, and natural resources.' (5)

I was very lucky to have been given behind-the-scenes access to the last stages of installation and to catch a glimpse of the collaborative process in the preparatory activities that immediately preceded the exhibition opening. A big part of the Dialogue modus operandi is that a show should speak with a collective soloist voice as well as a choir of individual ones, and therefore that everyone should be able to embody that voice, looking beyond the obvious necessities of an invigilation roster, to become true interpreters of the collective intention. And so my first introduction to the complete exhibition was by tagging along on a tour of the participants where everybody explained the concept behind their work and how it fitted within the collaborative theme.

Becky Bliss of Handshake Project explaining the idea behind her project for the exhibition. Credit: Lieta Marziali.

From this introductory tour, it was immediately very evident how the Handshake members had taken a much more determined stance on the theme of the exhibition, with colonial issues presented and tackled very overtly in most of the works. Kathryn Yeats's oversize neckpiece operates like a pulley system of a mast: as the conquerors' flag is pushed up, the weight of their own presence is slowly shed through time, literally shaken off as sand – useless ballast, both physical and emotional – only to inexorably obliterate indigenous land, culture and language. If ever there was a great visualisation of colonizers throwing their weight around, this has to be it. Sharon Fitness offers slices of Maungawau (Mount Eden) which, like many of Auckland's mountains after colonisation –  important Pā / fortifications and fertile grounds, and representing the theoretical whānau / extended family of local tribes – are still being sold, quarried and built upon. She literally shows us how Aotearoa's land, sacred ground that is not a symbol of some long-forgotten ancestry but is ancestry itself, is still for sale and sliced up for profit. Their price is £56, the same amount traded along for clothes and trinkets for the City of Auckland. Becky Bliss brings an abacus into the hands of the viewers, turning each of them into accountants of but also accountable for the legacy of colonisation on natural resources. And Kelly McDonald shows us in no uncertain terms the length to which the iron nail that was so easily and inexpensively traded by the Europeans is still slowly and painfully piercing through indigenous land and culture.

Kathryn Yeats, Encroachment necklace, 2018 (wool, fabric, cotton rope, canvas, thread, wood, steel, salt, sinkers, sand). Credit: Handshake Project.

Sharon Fitness, He Pukapuka Hoko Whenua: The Deed of Land Purchase, 2018 (map, slices of Maungawhau scoria, hemp rope, scissors). Credit: Handshake Project.

Becky Bliss, Unintended Consequences bracelet, 2018 (oxidised silver), and Counting The Cost abacus, 2018 (wood, aluminium). Credit: Handshake Project.

Kelly McDonald, Needle for a Moral Compass, The Vocabulary of Guilt, and Nail for a Coffin, 2018 (steel, muka fibres, human hair). Credit: Handshake Project.

There is no pussyfooting around here, the elephant in the room well and truly exposed. It is the dog-eat-dog – or, as Neke Moa puts it, in a title pun that is a feat of reality check, the cook-eat-cook – world of appropriation, land grabbing and genocide. From Neke's statement:

'Kai (food) is an integral part of any journey or voyage. Cook's need to refuel, anchor in places to find water and food was paramount in his choice of landing spots. Each place … was unknown, inhabited?, hostile? or friendly? In Aotearoa, there was the potential to eat or be eaten – Kuki kai kai Kuki (Cook food eat Cook).'

And yet, in her powerful pieces, wit is soon transformed in reflection on the significance of the word kai, food for the body that must also be food for the spirit, in a holistic vision of the land not just as bestower of life-giving nourishment but as life itself.

Neke Moa, Kuki kai kai Kuki (Cook food eat Cook) necklace, 2018 (angarua, peita, taura / shells, paint, nylon rope). Credit: Handshake Project.

Aotearoa tu tonu (Standing Forever Strong, Aotearoa) necklace, 2018 (pāua, peita, taura, parahe, pīngao abalone, paint, rope, brass, sand sedge). Credit: Handshake Project.

The contrast with Dialogue's approach was tangible. Perhaps struggling to push through the weighty curtain of shared European guilt (very few members of Dialogue are born British, and even then are often dual nationals or of other descent), or perhaps justifiably anxious of any perceived shortcomings in their ability to discuss the issue without incurring the risk of platitudes, most members of the collective retreated, with varying intensity, into the realm of the personal. Their utterances were much quieter, bizarrely displaying that typically British composed trait that so many of us immigrants seem so quick to osmose upon arrival in the UK. Isabelle Busnel, whose pieces explore, with equal doses of pragmatism and fun, the delicate nature of gift exchanges and mutual interests in the first encounters between Cook and the indigenous island populations, highlighted her awareness at being the only one to have approached the theme very directly.

Isabelle Busnel, Vegetable Necklace Gift from Brits to Maori Chief. Credit: Handshake Project.

James Cook Badge of Musket War Shame, 2018 (silicon, magnets). Credit: Handshake Project.

There are explorations of identity as defined by memories, as in the works of Maarit Liukkonen and Annelisse Pfeifer, and other personal signifiers such as music, as in the works of Petra Bishai, or the material culture that accompanies us in life, whether collected or made by us, as in the works of Tim Carson. And if Vicky King expands the concept to investigate what, collectively as much as individually, literally weighs us down, Velvet Hart draws her inquiry into the idea of journey as inwardly as possible, exploring Jungian theories of the subconscious and the personal development attainable through the various stages of consciousness.

The small 'Fragile' pins by Jo Garner, progressing her line of research on badges and identity started for It Will All Come Out In The Wash, are at once quietly poignant and compellingly loud in demanding that the viewer reflect on and respond to the aeon-long and yet-so-current subject of migration. Jo makes us seriously think about how, especially during this age of intense political and geographical divisions, people react to and are affected by issues of displacement. And if Brexit has definitely made me feel like a package, whose fate of being safely stored or suddenly dispatched is at the mercy of some dystopian governmental postal service, it also made the work of Maud Traon resonate with me more than I had originally given it credit for. At first glance, I did not fully grasp the oxymoronic strength carried by Maud's shipwreck of delightful treasures: as 21st century European citizens in the UK, our birth and adopted cultures are in many ways so similar for us to start unpicking their individual idiosyncrasies. Until that day when, as immigrants, we are forced by events to look at how those combined cultural DNA strands we thought made us who we are, also now make us as much of a stranger in our new home as it would in our country of birth.

As in Ijeoma Umebinyuo's Diaspora Blues biting verses:

'so, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
Never enough for both.'

Jo Garner, Fragile pins, 2018 (stainless steel and vitreous enamel, and embroidered fabric patches). Credit: Enrica Prazzoli.

Maud Traon, The Shipwreck, 2018 (wood, crisps packets, plastic, resin, glitter). Credit: Handshake 

My visit to Oceania at the Royal Academy the day after was meant to provide a wider context for Te Ao Hurihuri / Ever Changing World. I imagined such a blockbuster exhibition would provide depth to the subject, but I was not quite prepared for the kind of dialogue it did, in fact, open up. I left the Royal Academy in a rather despondent mood. If, after 250 years, this show was to serve as a bridge and offer some cultural reparations for the legacy of Captain Cook's voyage, I thought to myself it did not show it well. With very little learning offered to the Western visitor apart from a thematic wall text in each room, I had expected such a large institution to provide more details that would truly foster a greater understanding of the Pacific cultures.

I lamented the scarcity of explanatory texts accompanying the exhibits, and, after it was announced to visitors at the very entrance that there is in fact so much diversity within the continent that it would be impossible to document it all, the lack of any geographical or temporal distinctions. And yet, the geographical question is one that seems to be of great concern to Pacific people themselves, especially in terms of individual cultural representation and of displacement of objects from their original geographical position and function. My concerns seemed to be mirrored by Contemporary HUM editor Pauline Autet in the panel discussion 'Whose Oceania?' when eliciting comments 'on displaying works of this significance outside their home context' and the "risk of them being exoticised: to be looked at and appreciated for their aesthetic value more than sometimes spiritual, religious and cultural significance.(7)

Questioned in the same panel discussion about what Oceania he felt was represented in the exhibition, James Belich said that, one the one hand 'one could talk about the kind of layers of exploitation and cultural homogeneity imposed on most parts of Oceania by European expansion.' On the other hand, 'there will be many Pacific people who see these wonderful treasures who wonder where do these really belong?' and that, in a way, exhibitions with such a large scope as this, counteract some of the 'incrustations of colonialism', thus 'enabl[ing]..., manag[ing] a reunion of those Pacific peoples.' (8)

That notwithstanding, I had found it extremely problematic that there should be only marginal reference to issues of land and resource grabbing, artefact requisition and physical as well as cultural genocide, with only the work of the contemporary artists left to bear the responsibility of redressing the balance of the brutality of colonisation. I literally stomped back to the Crypt Gallery for the Te Ao Hurihuri evening talks programme churning over how, after 250 years, a culturally-aristocratic institution like the Royal Academy, celebrating the same anniversary as Cook's voyage, could still be exhibiting indigenous cultures through all its Western entitled ethnographic splendour, and demonstrate such little regard towards truly increasing its Western viewers' knowledge and understanding.

And yet, the parallel started emerging with the Handshake / Dialogue exhibition of the delicate ground that the colonisers need to tread when addressing their own actions, and how educating the public means first and foremost educating oneself. Broaching the subject with Becky Bliss back at the Crypt Gallery confirmed to me what I had already observed in Te Ao Hurihuri: that many contemporary Pākehā (the Māori name for New Zealanders of European descent), as evidenced again in 'Whose Oceania?', are making great progress in tackling the colonial question and beginning to shoulder the responsibility of decolonisation through adopting (or is it 'co-opting' (9), as it has been questioned) the indigenous voice as one inalienable from their own (10). And so the question kept burning: how could large museum galleries reconcile their vast remit for education with 'other agendas, such as tourism and diplomacy' (11), and win the struggle, as expressed in Frieze's article 'Complicating the Narrative of Oceania', for positive 'mediation' and breach the 'distance that comes with writing another's culture' (12) – an achievement that I had so beautifully witnessed in the work of Handshake's Pākehā?

Talking Heads
The programme of talks organised by Dialogue and Handshake went a long way to return the powerful Oceania serve in what had become a rather earnest game of internal critical tennis. Dialogue's Jo Garner shared her experience of how intense our perception of place and immigration can be even as a Scot in England. Tim Carson included Geography as one of the four pivotal “ingredients” of Dialogue Collective, a community formed by so many nationalities and yet so tightly connected by belonging to a single (albeit metropolitan) centre like London. And both Handshake's Peter Deckers and Caroline Thomas talked about their experience of immigration into New Zealand, of cultural displacement as Europeans, and the necessity not only to tune in but, crucially, to adapt to a new way of thinking. While Peter felt, despite his Dutch origins and persisting accent, a sense of mutual co-operation and contextualisation with the country he has lived in since 1985 (where he is openly called but also accepted as an immigrant), Caroline's words betrayed a difficulty, as a British national, to fully identify as a New Zealander.

Together their talks originated new questions for me such as what factors contribute to our sense of belonging? And how are those shaped by existing negative and positive biases towards a place of origin and one of immigration? Furthermore, how, if at all, do those change after years of exposure to the realities of residency in a new place? In Brexit Britain, after all, these are the existential questions which all in the country, regardless of place of origin or cultural heritage or racial descent or political colour, have been forced to ask themselves.
However, it was Neke Moa's talk that rattled my thinking cage. Neke started by showing a map of the Pacific continent: she called it 'my backyard'. Then, talking about her most immediate landscape and material, pounamu, she called it 'my mountain' (13). And all my shortcomings flooded out as if a critical dam had burst. I was confronted with the fact that my need to have Oceania divided and explained into neat geographical areas was due to my Western vision of a divisive geography based on borders rather than on a physical one centred around the oceanic tissue that lies in between connecting land and people. I was confronted with the fact that my need to learn about a cultural timeline was also due to a Western approach to history based on then versus now, while instead Oceanic culture transcends and is alive across past and present in a way that defies the Western post-Enlightenment compulsion for definitions and classifications.
And so the vigorous volleying between Oceania and Te Ao Hurihuri continued, making me realise how it had been my Western scholasticism that had spurred a desire for clearer and deeper labelling at the Royal Academy. Equally, wasn't my thirst to learn didactically and through written material, this lust to classify objects that really need to be experienced and not studied, this presumption that I could acquire comprehensive knowledge of a vast culture from an (albeit large) exhibition, just another form of cultural colonialism on my part? To this day I regret not buying one of Neke's small carved pounamu pendants, as carrying it with me would have taught me so much more about the subject that I could ever dream of learning in books...

Oceania 2.0
With so many new questions, I decided that I needed another visit to Oceania, this time with a new awareness of how much and how easily I had previously fallen into my own traps. This realisation had cast light on how I had, in fact, been not just hunting but perhaps even expecting a heavy colonial bias from the Royal Academy, with my gaze searching for evidence of it as well as of reparation. Little had I thought about how entitled these expectations actually were!

Wishing to investigate more deeply both my learning methods as a Western European and the curatorial choices made by the museum, I took an audioguide – something I never normally do – to see what different perspectives it could offer on both. The experience was definitely much more immersive and it reminded me of the tour we had taken of Te Ao Hurihuri before the opening, with all the artists sharing their ideas and projects so that all could communicate them to visitors. The first important point that was dispelled was how this was in fact not an exhibition about Cook. Still unconvinced, I was now battling to grasp whether it felt more colonially entitled to think of an Oceania without Cook or regardless of Cook. This made me appreciate even more the very different but also very honest approaches taken by the members of Dialogue and Handshake in exploring the subject. The audioguide certainly went some way towards appeasing my questioning mood, but I am not certain that, again, this is due to more recent pedagogical studies in the psychology of learning methods and teaching inclusivity.

And it was while in this earphone-induced internal conversation bubble that I heard the echo of the first muffled notes. Michael Parekowhai’s piano, He Kōrero Pūrākau mō te Awanui o te Motu: Story of a New Zealand River, was actually being played! As a silent art object, I had been blown away by its sheer fiery-red presence, the masterful carvings and, of course, the contemporaneity of its urgency to counter-colonise the Steinway grand piano, a pillar of genteel Western aristocracy and of bourgeois social advancement. And, although I could not hope to truly understand other than from a visual perspective how its manufacture referenced the ancestral canoes and bai meeting-house beams, as well as shields and performance-related objects, in the rooms before and after, I could hear loud and clear its intention to turn the Western gaze onto itself, calling out such a symbol of Western culture also as an ethnographic object in an extremely powerful gesture of counter-appropriation.

But this object was now silent no more. And nor were its neighbours. The juxtaposition of the sound of Western classical music and the instrument on which it was being played suddenly transformed both into an extraordinary experience of cultural exchange. Sat on a bench, I gave myself time to fully immerse myself in all its intersecting layers. In my younger piano-playing years, I had felt immensely proud of my antique Steinway baby grand donated by my seemingly wealthy (read big saver) grandmother: but what did I think now of the aspirational social qualities that this object, and the years of associated private lessons, afforded (and pinned on!) to a working-class household with high cultural capital but not much disposable cash?

I recognised some of the scores, and had played some myself to the point that my fingertips could still trace some of the notes on my legs: did this tacit auditory and haptic knowledge bring another layer of bias to my experience, or did the removal of one cultural obstacle in fact give me an advantage in creating a deeper three-way dialogue between myself, the music and the instrument? And how many of the people who stopped to listen, considering also the strong potential of a shared audience between an institution like the Royal Academy and a concert hall, would just do so because of their own cultural capital? And how many would instead be sharing in these considerations? I thought this was art at its best. Art that heightens self-awareness to the point where one becomes one's own spectator and, in this case, both spectator of and spectacle for those sharing in the experience.
As I frantically scribbled annotations on my pad, the cavalcade of questions continued in my head. I looked again at the exhibits in the cabinets overlooking the piano. How were those familiar melodies in my ears affecting my visual experience of these objects now? Did they bring discord or dialogue? Belonging or friction? And had the pianist been aware of his choice of (mostly expressive Romantic) repertoire? And if so, had his choice been influenced by the possibilities it offered in the context of the exhibition, or by how it would have affected the audience, or simply by his own personal preferences or abilities?
'Whatever you play is always going to grate' (14), proffered Daniel Tong at the end of his half-hour set. Listening to Tchaikovsky's June being played on Parekowhai’s piano had brought me nearer to understanding how the encounter between these two cultures could never be straightforward, and nor could be curating an exhibition about it. And, crucially, nor viewing it, the visitor's gaze and the artefacts fighting at any one time for their own identity, space and voice (a struggle that was really evident, instead of being kept hidden, in Te Ao Hurihuri). And if the piano seemed to impose itself over, or perhaps guide, the player – the artefact using the user – there was a melancholy as Tchaikovsky's music echoed in the room which made the other artefacts feel displaced and away from home.

Daniel Tong playing Michael Parekowhai’s piano sculpture He Kōrero Pūrākau mō te Awanui o te Motu: Story of a New Zealand River during the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy, 13 December 2018. Credit: Lieta Marziali.

When I offered Tong my thoughts that the piano, not just as reference to but as contemporary embodiment of an ancestral culture, appeared to be keeping guard over them, protecting them even, he added that, as he was playing, he felt that the older objects were also keeping guard over the piano and himself: 'I felt I was part of the exhibit but also part of the dialogue.' (15) And it is only when completing this essay that I finally understood how the curators of Oceania did not simply leave the contemporary artists to reverse the balance of how these objects should exist in the world, as had been my first response. Instead, by placing contemporary artists at the beginning and the end of the exhibition, they enhanced the resilient continuity of a culture that was never dead because of the colonial encounter. In this context, the piano yields much needed promise as well as much needed commentary, acting not only as a means for highly-critical meaningful cultural exchange but also for forging a renewed powerful unity within the many voices across time that it is there to represent.
Parekowhai said 'There is no object I could make … that could fill a room like sound can.' (16) The piano is then an enabler of that sound through its interaction with the forces around it: the player and the listener. The epiphany was quite precipitous! When I mentioned to him the trilogy of maker-wearer-viewer necessary for the activation of jewellery, Tong confirmed that musicians also see the activation of a score in terms of composer, player and audience. (17) In this case, the instrument being played also had a central role to play, and what had provided me with much needed understanding and closure of Oceania and of Te Ao Hurihuri was then not just the power of experiencing an object, but the power of experiencing the performance of an object.
The piano, like jewellery, certainly works on a simple visual level. But it is only when that piano is played and listened to, and the jewellery is worn and viewed, that they both come to life. The multiple gazes of maker, composer, viewer, listener, player, wearer are what breathe life into these objects, while also breathing new life into themselves and each other, activating a critical conversation that points inward as it does to the outside world. Parekowhai's piano had the benefit of the dynamics of this triple interaction in a way that so many of the objects in the Oceania displays could not, their original makers and users, as well as those who where gifted them or acquired them through exchange or force, long lost: their stories, their intentions, their voices now cut off from the conversation and reduced to sterile labels of barely-reconstructed histories. As Oceania's co-curator Peter Brunt suggested:
'[Oceania's] success belies a problem: the forgetting – except among specialists – of the intimate histories that have defined relationships between Britain and the Pacific Islands over the last 250 years. I sometimes think of the exhibition as a show composed from the fragments of that forgetfulness, fragments kept in the storerooms of its museums.' (18)

Hall of Mirrors
It is this idea more than anything else that has made it so inescapably clear to me how appropriate jewellery has been, as a body-centred medium, to allow Dialogue and Handshake, to bring people and those intimate stories back into the equation in order to truly em-body relationships and learning, and to offer the possibility of a cultural and economic exchange under new circumstances. Dialogue and Handshake have literally brought a physical dialogue and a meeting of hands into the equation. In doing so, they have perhaps finally and truly achieved the mission of their first collaborative endeavour It Will All Come Out In The Wash. While it purports to be a dialogue of equals and a handshake amongst friends and colleagues, the difficulties of negotiating unfamiliar, and also very political, territory, are not done away with and individual struggles and points of view are instead exposed, warts and all, as a collective effort.

The road to completely open dialogues and durable handshakes is a long one, and fraught with political, economic and social interests that go beyond the historical events preceding and following Cook's voyage. In this context, this is much more than an exhibition: it shows a method for dialogue, in its etymological origin not of a talking with or to but of talking across, and the handshake offered is not only a sign of peace and of carrying no weapons, as it was in its European antiquity, but a very important encounter of hands that make. And what they make is (mostly) designed to sit on the body, engaging maker, wearer and viewer not only as aesthetic objects but ones with both an ancestral and contemporary sense of materiality, narrative and, ultimately, of themselves, bearing testimony to the efficacy of another model of globalisation and cultural appreciation of the “other”: that experienced in the contemporary art jewellery world.

Researching and writing this piece has taken me on my own voyage. It has been my first large piece of writing outside academia, and its development – both in terms of length and the time it has taken me to complete it – has been testament to the depth and richness of the subject material and my own need to pause often and work out things as I went. As part of a growing practice which I have been developing from just medium-based work into a more research-based holistic pursuit of wisdom (19), I welcomed the challenge as a reflective exercise. Indeed, it has pushed me to delve much deeper not only into my European viewer's gaze and expectations, which I already considered aware and critical, but also into the language that I use to express them, and the cultural pedagogic baggage from which they all derive.
And it is by this benchmark that I judge Te Ao Hurihuri / Ever Changing World: its complexities and layers, overt and conscious as well as hidden and uncalculated, for both makers and viewers, have succeeded in that great endeavour of creating more questions than they would hope to provide answers. It took me weeks to process this exhibition and its context, especially under the glare created by its block-busting sister Oceania. This is because it had the capacity to push me into a hall of mirrors that has confronted me with more distorted narratives constructed by my Western gaze and language, as well as to create a kaleidoscope of possibilities, both in terms  of collaborative practices and, above all, on the communicative abilities of an intelligently and mindfully curated art exhibition. Whether it would have had the same effect on me without the stark contrast, weighty presence and constant clamour created by its Royal Academy counterpart – and the large amount of associated literature and debate generated by it (20) – I cannot tell. What I do know is that each helped me read the other, and my own expectations of and responses to both, in ways I had not anticipated. And the question is for me irrelevant as, after all, what critical gain can be realised by looking at anything at all without taking into account its bigger frame of reference?

The Māori Dictionary ascribes the following meanings to the word hurihuri:
'1. (verb) (-a,-hia) to turn over and over, turn round and round, toss and turn, roll, spin, revolve, rotate, twirl, reflect upon, ponder, convert' (21)

and, as such, the exhibition has completely fulfilled its title. Which brings me to my final reflection. The philosopher and educational theorist John Dewey thought of both art and education as experience and attributed their effectiveness to their ability to create an 'experiential continuum, or the ability of experience to promote and live in further experience(s).' (22)  More and more it is being questioned how objects of cultural significance can continue to fulfil their original mission when they are not only displaced from their homeland but also very often stored by museums and therefore not visible even to those who now claim ownership over them. In Oceania, it was unfortunately only in the audioguide and the catalogue (23) that I felt the issue was properly tackled of the role of the museum – as a self-appointed educational institution – as care giver, and of its duties of guardianship of objects that need not to be stored or displayed in an ethnographic context but to be experienced in their original function.

Peter Deckers, in his contribution to the exhibition talks event, made the strong point that, in fact, as an indigenous culture, the Māori one transcends Western understandings of the ancestral as belonging to a discreet, finite past that is 'open for reuse, or reinterpretation, in particular within contemporary art'. Instead, Māori culture defies the idea of myth as temporally confined and, still carved, danced and, crucially, spoken, it 'stays alive and is kept alive as a vital connection to place, ancestry and beliefs.' (24)

Dr. Maia Nuku, Associate Curator for Oceanic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in her article 'Oceania: animating collections – activating relationships at the Met in New York' talks of the objects in her guardianship as having 'active agency'. She describes artists' intervention projects within the museum that have helped 'connect the living dynamic with the collections to activate and enliven relationships'. Her language is one of looking at the empowerment of the objects she cares for so their voice is projected back and forth between the past and the future:

'In this way, we can pull the knowledge backup and safeguard it going forward. For art not only offers us a window onto the past, it propels us forward into a consideration of what the future also looks like. This practice is cross-cultural and interdisciplinary. It can bridge the past with the present. These projects push at the boundaries of the institution, forcing it to re-assess itself, to become self-reflexive.'

Importantly, she talks about the necessity to bring them to life and for the public to 'see this cultural dynamic in flow... witness it, … understand it in a nuanced and embodied way that no explanatory text can communicate.' (25)

In a sort of reverse situation, as an assemblage the objects in Te Ao Hurihuri / Ever Changing World were an attempt to construct (or at least bring together), in a gallery environment, a model of collective culture deeper than the sum of its components. Will these objects be able to maintain the same impact outside of their exhibition environment? Will each individual piece of jewellery project that hall of mirrors to each individual wearer who might not have partaken in the collective experience that has been the exhibition and all its corollary events? How can each piece be launched towards and navigate new individual and unconnected landscapes to seek the shaking of new hands? And how can the future guardians of these objects wear them and display them in a way that they retain the power of their collective and collaborative provenance while still individually opening up new critical dialogue?

I wish to also express my thanks to Peter Deckers, Hilda Gascard, Becky Bliss and Neke Moa from the Handshake Project, and Tim Carson, Isabelle Busnel and Mary Hart from Dialogue Collective, as well as pianist Daniel Tong, who all kindly gave their time to be interviewed, provide further material and answer questions for this essay.

1. Pounamu is a type of greenstone (more precisely New Zealand nephrite jade). See also Dalton (2016)
2. den Besten
3. Dialogue Collective website – About, at
4. Handshake Project website – About, at
6.  Umebinyuo (2015)
9. ibid.
10. ibid.
11. ibid.
13. Talk delivered on 24 October 2018, The Crypt Gallery, London.
14. Personal comment in conversation 24 October 2018.
15. ibid.
16. Royal Academy website – Oceania exhibition resources, at
17. Personal comment in conversation 24 October 2018.
18. Contemporary HUM, Facebook post '12 Days of HUM // Day Seven: Peter Brunt', 3 December 2018 at
19. Sloterdijk (2010
) .
20. For example, see Frieze issue no. 199, November-December 2018 on the theme 'Decolonizing Culture: Where Do We Go From Here?'
22. Dewey (1997), 
23. Brunt and Thomas (2018).
24. Deckers (2018).
25. Nuku (2018).


Autet, P., Belich, J., Lopesi, L. and Williams, M. 'Whose Oceania?', edited transcript of discussion panel held at the New Zealand High Commission in London on 29 September 2018 (facilitated by Contemporary HUM), 14 November 2018 in Contemporary HUM, available at

Brunt, P. and Thomas, N. (eds.) (2018) Oceania, London: Royal Academy of Arts

Contemporary HUM Facebook page at

Dalton, A. 'Neke Moa: Mahi A-Ringa' in Art Jewelry Forum, 26 October 2016, at

Deckers, P. 'Transient boundaries – the geography of boundless myths', transcript of talk delivered on 24 October 2018 as part of the Te Ao Hurihuri / Ever Changing World exhibition talks programme, The Crypt Gallery, London

den Besten, L. 'Misunderstandings', full uncut text of (edited) speech delivered on 23 October 2018 for the opening of the Te Ao Hurihuri / Ever Changing World exhibition, The Crypt Gallery, London

Dewey, J. (1997) Experience and Education, New York: Simon & Schuster (A Touchstone Book)

Dialogue Collective website at

Frieze no. 199, November-December 2018: 'Decolonizing Culture: Where Do We Go From Here?', London: Frieze Publishing Ltd

Handshake Project website at

Māori Dictionary website at

Nuku, M., 'Oceania: animating collections – activating relationships at the Met in New York', 28 November 2018 in Contemporary HUM, at

Royal Academy website at

Sloterdijk, P. (2010) The Art Of Philosophy: Wisdom As Practice, New York: Columbia University Press

Umebinyuo, I. (2015) Questions for Ada, USA: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform

Williams, M. 'Complicating the Narrative of “Oceania”', 22 November 2018 in, at

All online resources last accessed on 15 February 2019.


About the author

Lieta Marziali is a contemporary jewellery artist, independent writer and researcher based in the United Kingdom. She holds a BA (Hons) in English Literature from Roehampton Institute (now Roehampton University), a BA (Hons) in Three-Dimensional Design and Craft from Colchester School of Art, and a research MA by Project from The Sir John Cass School of Art, Design and Architecture (The Cass). She has been a regular contributor to and was on the editorial board of Findings, the magazine of The Association for Contemporary Jewellery, for which she also sits on the Advisory Board.