By K. Emma Ng
15 May, 2017. It is not often that you see a museum curator take off her shoes at a patrons’ event, especially at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met). But less than an hour after I met Maia Nuku, the museum’s associate curator for Oceanic art, she was in stockinged feet, ready to help unfold a 17-foot-long ngatu (painted barkcloth) by visiting Tongan artist Visesio Siasau.
At an institution where the opportunity to see contemporary art alongside the museum’s collection—and even hear contemporary Pacific artists speak about their work—has not been a common occurrence, the evening’s inclusion of both was a quietly radical move.
Nuku, who joined the Met in October 2014, considers bringing the Oceania collection up to date to be an important part of her remit. Though born and raised in London, Nuku is Māori, and is the first curator of Pacific descent to be appointed to her position. She brings a unique cultural fluency to the role, and has been introducing the contemporary Pacific’s energy to the storied museum—not least by opening it up to artists such as Siasau, who was undertaking a six-month residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in Brooklyn.
Last October, Nuku and I discussed her upbringing, the personal resonance of the exhibition “Te Maori”—which was mounted at the Met in 1984—and the value of introducing contemporary artists into the fold.
How did growing up in London, with strong ties to Aotearoa [the Māori name for New Zealand], influence the way you work?
I’ve always felt like a bit of a bridge because I’ve straddled parts of my own identity. I have a Māori mother and grandmother; I was born in London and brought up in that milieu, hosting delegations of Māori bishops, sports teams and academics. We grew up with taonga [a Māori word commonly used in New Zealand that roughly translates as “treasures”] around our home: greenstone, carvings and sculpture, an enormous barkcloth that hung in our sitting room—all of our English school friends remember it with affection. My parents were always hosting visitors in our London home, I remember great conversation and animated dinners with singing and laughing.
My brothers and I also spent a lot of time at the New Zealand High Commission, as my Mum [Esther Kerr Jessop QSM] worked with them to raise the profile of New Zealand and Māori in London. Mum traveled to London in 1958 and is a founding member of Ngāti Rānana, the London Māori club. She has always been tightly involved with the Māori community, so we were part of this extended Māori family in London, which kept us connected with things going on back home.
You have facilitated opportunities for Pacific artists to access museum collections in the UK and the US. How did your desire to connect artists and institutions develop?
When I began working with museums, I realized there was something I could offer. I knew how institutions worked in the UK and had the privilege of accessing early collections of Pacific taonga held in collections throughout Europe. I’d spent much of my childhood in museums—Mum had worked with the British Museum and others, so we were already brokering these relationships in a way. Realizing this, I felt more comfortable. If people were coming over [to the UK], I could facilitate access to collections, and help them navigate the museum—which can be quite intimidating.
Is bringing contemporary artists into the museum to research and respond to objects in the collection still an important activity within your curatorial practice?
Yes, I’m keen to continue that here. The other night [in early October], we actually had Visesio, a contemporary Tongan artist, presenting his work in the galleries. Rolling out his ngatu ’uli [a special genre of black ceremonial barkcloth] and discussing his contemporary work in the context of a selection of historical Tongan artworks was really wonderful—this provided a strong sense of continuity in Pacific art, and demonstrated our artists’ continued innovation.
We wanted to connect the dynamic contributions of artists of the past and present through the artworks themselves. Opening the ngatu on the floor in front of our guests, it felt like we’d rotated the white-cube frame on its axis. It was almost as if we’d spun the universe around and everyone was now looking down into this deep, black ocean. It was a memorable night.
What can artists bring to an institution like the Met? And what does access to the collection offer them?
I feel that the collection ought not to be a static resource that sits there and waits to be drawn from when you want to curate an exhibition. I want to create access so that anyone from the Pacific network that’s coming through New York is able to come and look at the collections with me. It’s always rewarding to have conversations with and around taonga in the stores—the stories just rise up to the surface. Benjamin Work [a young artist with ancestral ties to Tonga and the Shetland Isles] was so inspired by the iconography of one of the ’akau tau [Tongan war clubs] that he incorporated the design into the street mural he painted in Harlem the next day, the results were fantastic! The bold, graphic Tongan designs leached out of the museum and exploded into the street.
As a curator, what insights do you gain from sharing the objects in the collection with artists?
Last week, Visesio [Siasau] and I were joined by Benjamin Work and Sergio Jarillo de la Torre, who is currently undertaking a fellowship here with me. Sergio works in the Massim region of Papua New Guinea and it was fascinating to draw analogies between art made in the Trobriand Islands and a later evolution of ideas expressed in Tongan culture. When Benjamin and Visesio were talking about Tongan ways of thinking and being, Sergio was able to relate that back to his understanding and knowledge of New Guinea art—there’s a lot of crossover in terms of foundational ideas about the agency of art, how and why art is created, why it looks like it does. These points are often missed when we limit ourselves to discussing art from specific regions.
That’s the joy of curating a collection like the one at the Met; you’re working with such a deep tranche of space and time, you can really begin to understand the migration of ideas and iconography right across the Pacific. For example, you find the motifs that are associated with headhunting customs in Asmat art from New Guinea in earlier examples of Indonesian art—in the gold jewelry, ornaments and textiles from Sumba Island, for example—and you can understand and appreciate the genealogical links with our Austronesian ancestors in a very tangible and concrete way. Being able to see this evolution expressed in the art is a real privilege.
Was that breadth why you were drawn to working at the Met?
It was certainly one of the reasons. I was also drawn to the museum because of “Te Maori,” the ground-breaking exhibition of Māori art that opened at the Met in 1984 and then toured to San Francisco, St. Louis and Chicago over the next three years. I had thought about and researched the cultural impact of “Te Maori” during my master’s studies at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts back in England. The exhibition changed the way that Māori art was received internationally, on a global stage.
What was the impact of “Te Maori” on the practice of curating Pacific art in the US and New Zealand?
The exhibition set new precedents in areas of consultation. From the outset, iwi [Māori tribal communities] were involved in deciding which of their taonga would travel overseas and insisted they accompany their taonga to each venue and oversee appropriate tikanga [formal protocols]. This extended kaitiakitanga [custodianship] and constant Māori presence ensured that US audiences understood that for Māori these objects were not simply relics of a forgotten past, but were living spiritual ancestors.
It changed the cultural landscape of Aotearoa, with museums opening up a degree of decision-making to Māori in terms of how they wanted to be represented. You could say that the ripple effects of that shift are still being felt in other parts of the Pacific today. Other island nations have been inspired by the way in which Māori were able to direct and articulate that crucial relationship between institutional art collections and the Māori community.
What is the legacy of “Te Maori” at the Met?
“Te Maori” opened in September 1984, and I started at the Met thirty years (and one month!) later. I felt like I’d stepped into a portal opened up decades before by those beautiful kaumātua [elders] who had forged a new path in the 1980s, and created access for many of us a generation later.
Just three months after I arrived at the museum, Christina Wirihana and members of Te Roopu Raranga o Whatu Aotearoa [National Collective of Māori Weavers in New Zealand] were in New York to install 50 tukutuku panels at the United Nations General Assembly building. I invited them to spend some time with me at the museum. It was an exciting period, I’d just arrived and it was important for me that they were here to give their blessings. It completed the circle of “Te Maori”, since woven works had been the missing element in the original exhibition.
What was that experience like?
We had the opportunity to spend time with the kakahu [cloaks] and kete [baskets] in the Met’s collection and then I asked if we could perhaps record people’s memories of “Te Maori”—if some of them had actually been here, or if they’d heard stories about it back in New Zealand. Instead of interviewing people separately, Jim Schuster [one of the weavers] suggested that we all stay in the room together, and talk with the camera rolling, so we did.
The memories began to unfold. We all began singing Te Hokinga Mai—this was the song originally composed to welcome the taonga returning home to New Zealand after their long journeys overseas. It was wonderful. Everyone has a connection with “Te Maori.”
My colleagues in the Met’s archives and collections management departments had an opportunity to hear that, and be moved by it, and understand this distinct relationship with the collection. That’s another reason why I feel it’s important to have people come through and visit the museum on this side of the world. It’s not just so I can engage with visiting researchers or so we can add information to the collections management system. It does so much more: It begins to change the culture of the institution from the inside, which is vital.
How will that continue with artists you’re working with in 2017?
Rosanna Raymond, a Samoan artist from New Zealand, is going to be our visiting fellow in education and public practice for six months beginning in March. An important aspect of her practice is that she works not only with the collections and archives but also with in-house staff. When you create access, and invite artists into the institution with their visions, it opens up everyone.