Agency, belonging and the divinity of plastic

Originally posted in July 2010

I went to a fascinating workshop at the October Gallery yesterday with George Nuku, a Maori, an artist, a collaborator with museums and champion of young people. He was also the first contemporary Maori with a complete body tattoo. The trail that led me there started when I was wandering round Sheringham, my Norfolk ‘ancestral home’. I’d just visited the newly opened Sheringham Museumand seen a photo of my great great grandfather, who had been coastguard and promenade inspector. He had also been to Japan & the Pacific as a naval officer, training the Japanese navy in British ways. I was thinking about how I had his eyes and nose, about my belonging to that place, yet also my distance from the town now. My relative (‘the Old Chap’) must have felt an odd dislocation travelling East, and I was wondering what he saw through his eyes and what stayed with him, what knowledge he brought to Sheringham and how it infused the place. That led me to reflect on my husband Brian’s ancestors who went from Scotland to settle in New Zealand. I wondered about what changed in them, despite always looking Scottish, in becoming part of a place that was another people’s.

I was carrying my camera, as I have on and off in Sheringham for 30 years, looking for something different to photograph. As it happens I always find something different even in a small place like that: evidence of change, of erosion of the coast or evidence of moments in time like the 1st World Cup English game. But, then I saw George. I’d never seen anyone in Sheringham like it before. I was stunned because in a second I knew he was Maori, and realised the resonance with all my thoughts at that moment. So, that sense of interest led me to his workshop in London. He’d been working at the October Gallery with young people related to the EthKnowCentrix exhibition, which included his work, and the resulting Cut it Out exhibition can be seen there now. He’s a sculptor who brings traditional Maori forms into new materials and locations. For example, he reconstructed missing parts of a war canoe, using perspex rather than wood, for the National Museums of Scotland, and he loves to carve in polystyrene.There has been some criticism from Maori for this, that he’s not using proper traditional materials. He says to them ‘don’t worry, plastic will be traditional by this afternoon’.

The first words he spoke to us were in the tongue of his mother’s people, the Ngate Kahungunu from the Heretaunga region of the North Island. It was an incantation to draw in our ancestors to the meeting. I was reminded of the way that many indigenous people make decisions, consulting with generations of ancestors and successors, not just the living. Immediately I was struck that agency was a central theme for him. He talked about the relationship of his people with the British. The Maori were honourable and generous, to be in a position of agency, to give and ‘treat’ in order to be equal. They have been disenfranchised and alienated but he feels the story isn’t over yet, that having no hope for equality would make all that suffering in vain. When the ‘knives and blankets and tables and chairs’ started coming, Maori saw they must be part of that change, to see the value of those things and deal in them. ‘You had to be part of that change, to direct change rather than be directed by it. Nobody is more equipped to deal with these changes than yourself’.

He showed some images from a ceremony in which he performed, at the Pasifika Styles exhibition in Cambridge, associated with the birth of a child and he talked about how creativity and procreation are the same thing. He feels that men in particular have a longing to create, to be closer to the miracle of creation of people which women are blessed and pained with. Creativity  is an utterly human power, and human agency is all around our potential to convert materials and to ride change. One kind of material at the moment that is giving the planet a lot of grief is plastic and of course the oil that it’s made from. I asked if those who object to his use of modern materials most object to the use of plastic for reasons of marine pollution causing biodiversity loss and climate change. He said that plastic is from the earth, it is indigenous, and that through art we can give it its divinity. It was an optimistic moment for me, in a week in which I felt mired in worries about the unrepairable cracks in the ocean leaking millions of gallons of oil. I don’t know yet what reasons for optimism there are but I felt stronger for his example.


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