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Decolonisation is so hot right now – ST PAUL St Curatorial Symposium 2015 – Random Thoughts 

Note: I could not cover everything in this article nor was I trying to, this is just some thoughts that I had post the Symposium on my experience over 2 days of talks and manākitanga.

This years ST PAUL St Curatorial Symposium was centred on alternate ways of being and knowing. It’s a social event for New Zealand’s curatorial community, really. There were talks by Julia Moritz, Cassandra Barnett, Léuli Eshraghi, Peter Brunt, Misal Adnan Yildiz and Marysia Lewandowska and manākitanga by Public Share and Local Time.

The first four talks where led by speakers qualified with or on their way to a PhD. Despite the academic heft present, much of the time was spent considering alternate (non-academic or university sanctioned) ways knowing, often involving a process of unlearning. Learning, then unlearning. It can all be a bit of a vortex if you think about it for too long. Much of the energy seemed to be spent theorising what could otherwise be seen as instinctual.

A common thread of the symposium was the use, redefinition and non-use of language. Charlotte Huddleston the Symposium’s Co-Convener and Director of ST PAUL St Gallery spoke about the hyphen as being a space between. A space that we should choose to occupy rather than what can be on either side of that hyphen. Taken from the perspective of the Pacific, Huddleston’s analogy of the hyphen finds an indigenous expression in vā. This was pointed by one of two Pacific individuals to hold a general curatorial position in one of this country’s major arts institutions.

The hyphen and vā presented two parallel ways of knowing the ‘space in between’. In this moment, the symposium seemed to present distinct bodies of knowledge held in tandem, made visible so that we could consider the difference of expression. Is their difference in the execution? How do we chart a comparative dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous theory?

Barnett spoke honestly about the embodiment of these alternate – and in her case Indigenous – ways of knowledge. Perhaps that’s the crux, it’s embodiment versus methodology. It is easier for us (Pacific people) to occupy the space of the vā because it is not necessarily researched or theorised but a part of our being.

There is no denying that decolonial discourses are hot right now, and so it should be. Though for all the talk of decolonising discourse, what is the shape and form this takes in our arts institutions? Thus far, these structures continue to prescribe to a Western way of knowing, only at best – albeit well intentioned – positing the Indigenous, the other, as an alternative. ST PAUL St Gallery is visibly aligning themselves with Indigenous thinkers and thinking beyond this symposium, evident in their programming. Hopefully this will outlast the current trend of decolonisation and suggest a model for wider New Zealand.

Set amongst the dry interior of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki Auditorium, the symposium constituted Indigenous knowledge as an ‘othered’ entity. Beyond the unfortunate architecture, the symposiums alignment of Indigenous with ‘alternate’ acted to alienate those practices from its audience.  There is a warmth and humanity to the practices discussed that gets lost within a cultural knowledge that continues to exclude Indigeneity.

Lana Lopesi

1 Comment

  1. Charlotte Huddleston says

    Hey Lana, many thanks for your thoughts on the symposium. I know that you weren’t able to join us at Piha for the ‘escape the auditorium’ part for the programme and so have not covered that in your thoughts. I just wanted to pipe up and add in a response mainly for those who aren’t aware of the construction of the full programme which included the day away from the auditorium. The second day at Piha was included to address things such as the often disproportionate amount of energy spent on theorising (and as you note the architectural environment that supports this), and to bring back (for those who have lost touch, or maybe never had it) the warmth and humanity that should be a valued by being allowed to ‘be’. It also emphasised ways of learning or grasping other than what is dominant in this Western system that prizes disembodied objectivity and rationality above other ways of understanding. Alongside the content of many of the speakers on Friday, moving out to Piha and engaging in the programme facilitated by Local Time aimed to un-other by taking us away from the architecture and learned behaviours that reinforce and perpetuate many things including othering and the divide that the hyphen helps with comprehension by being a space to meet. I am off to read more about vā because I haven’t yet done that with any concentrated focus.
    – Charlotte

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