My iTunes library is a mottled, aging archive: shuffle has repeatedly proved a source of embarrassment, and in consequence remains turned off. Yet yesterday, of its own accord, my playlist shuffled. An unlabelled track started playing. I found myself listening to the sound of my own voice, squeaking a deferential greeting. A heavy-sounding microphone bumps around.
The voice that replies to mine has a dignified boom, and the English-accented clip. And I recognize the recording. The speaker is Professor Jonathan Mane-Wheoki (Ngāpuhi/Te Aupouri/Ngāti Kuri and, yes, English descent). It is May 2011: Mane-Wheoki is two years into his post as Head of Elam School of Fine Arts, and I am a third-year student.
Before the interview, I hadn’t had much to do with Professor Mane-Wheoki, although he’d appeared sketched in my journal, puffed up with pride, saying cartoonishly “I’m as pleased as punch.” I was a shy undergraduate, and my head of school seemed as inaccessible to me as everything else – my peers, my lecturers, and, naturally, my purpose in being at art school at all. Considering all this, it astonishes me to remember that when I received an essay assignment on the role of curatorial institutions in contemporary Pacific art, I emailed Professor Mane-Wheoki, and asked if I could please interview him. Still more surprising – he immediately emailed me back, acquiescing with enthusiasm.
Before coming to Elam, Mane-Wheoki had been an influential director of art and collection services at Te Papa Tongarewa, and prior to that, Dean of Music and Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury. In my recording he is a consummate, passionate professional, moving smoothly from pragmatic (“What they hadn’t reckoned on were all the people who don’t catch buses”), to provocative (“There’s a spectrum of Maori-ness that’s widely recognised in contemporary Maori art”) to nostalgic (“Robin White remembers McCahon saying to the students ‘Well of course the Pacific will become the centre of the art world.’ And if you think of the Pacific in that its commonality is this vast expanse of water, how loopy must that have seemed to the students at the time?”)
Mane-Wheoki died of pancreatic cancer in 2014, seventy years old. My recorded interview with him lasted 51 minutes and 21 seconds, after which we did not speak in person again. I hope I sent him a copy of my essay, but it’s quite possible that shyness overcame me again, and I didn’t. It makes me shiver, to think that I might not have sufficiently thanked him for his time, and his intellectual generosity. Then again, Professor Mane-Wheoki may have been one of those blessed few, who, having played their part and received their accolades, do not ask for more.
As the recording ends, I apologize to Professor Mane-Wheoki for the time. “There’s more where that came from, Evangeline,” he says, pronouncing my name with the assurance of an old friend. “I’ve lived a long life. But I’ve had a good one.”
Another shuffle, and another song came on.
Evangeline Riddiford Graham