Disrupting the narrative - an oasis found.

‘The natives in Egypt have nothing in common with the Maoris. They belong to races in the lower human scale and cannot be treated in the same manner. The slightest familiarity with them will breed contempt which is certain to have far-reaching and harmful consequences. Every member of the force in Egypt is charged with the enormous responsibility of maintaining the prestige of the British race’ - Special General Order to the New Zealand Forces in Egypt by Major-General Sir A.J. Godley, 30 November 1914 at Suez ( a quote sourced from Disrupting the Narrative Exhibition, Thistle Hall, Wellington 21-26th of April 2015 )

When I go back to my marae and gaze at pictures on the walls of my Wharenui there are a significant number of faces who stare back that I know have seen War. They have taiaha or muskets from the Land Wars or like my great grandfather who went to WW1 as a part of the Māori contingent they are wearing soldier uniforms. Im sure the walls of my Wharenui are fairly typical with others around the country. I figure my great-grandfather and his brother went for the adventure a tendency that runs in the family. He lived to the age of 97, til this day I still remember the morning he passed - it was sunny and the roosters were making a racket outside and my mother was sad.

However the dominant narrative that has come to epitomise how 'we' see ourselves as a Nation in light of WW1 in my opinion disrespects those people on those walls - it seems to me to be more spin than truth.

That narrative is easily packaged with slogans which tell us that ‘They died for us’ or ‘Fought for our country’ (They didn’t). It is designed for 'us' the willfully uninformed citizenry and relies on the Nation’s collective amnesia around the New Zealand Wars and the inconvenient truth that Gallipoli was a place we invaded ( and they would like us to apologise ).

These myths are fueled by politicians talking guts and glory chomping at the bit to send other people’s children to fight their Wars. ( Notice how they or their families never go to fight these Wars? ) On the eve of New Zealand force's departure for Iraq, Sam Neill said New Zealanders should "be cautious when you hear politicians use the word Anzac". I agree with him.

That narrative points to a time between Gallipoli and the Western Front as the preferable birth of the nation. It is less inconvenient than Waitangi ( white guilt anyone? ) and definitively the point where we can collectively say that the British ruling class really did not give a flying fuck about our people who they sent to fight in their imperialist Wars.

If you oppose War the narrative suggests that you are denigrating those that went to War. You may only commemorate in the way the State has sanctioned that you commemorate - you must buy into the bullshit. I take the opposing view. If we are to truly commemorate those who fell and try to understand and respect the silence of those that returned then we must tell the truth about the nature of the conflict. While with the same breath hold those that sent them and those who continue to send others with the utter contempt and disgust that they deserve.

the aftermath of poppy-geddon

The day before ANZAC day I found myself in Peter Jackson’s ANZAC parade. There were vintage WW1 vehicles and planes and people dressed up in soldiers uniforms with some of them on horseback. As they approached Taranaki street 120 million poppies rained down upon us in a downpour of euphoric nationalism. I expect his Te Papa exhibition will be equally gaudy and unenlightening. He is of course the best placed person to put a glamorous spin on a fictional war narrative because he has won a ton of Oscars for staging fictional battles.

However, amongst this sea of patriotic bile there was at least a small Oasis of reason. Disrupting the Narrative was a week-long event incorporating an exhibition of contemporary art, historical material and public talks that sought to reframe existing narratives about New Zealand’s participation in the First World War and link it to contemporary issues.

The purpose of this event was to provide a counter narrative to the official 100-year commemorations of the war and offer people an opportunity to experience the ways in which ideas and concepts about war, conflict, resistance and survival can be reflected in art.

For me the space that art opens up is there to be filled with your own understanding. It has none of the condescending mainstream hollywood schtick that demands a beginning a middle and princess saved at the end - instead it is an invitation - there are parameters which allow deeper reflection and contemplation. I’ll be honest. I love that shit.

However when art is shown during a downpour such as we have now then invariably the open space around it will be filled with nationalist sewage. Art must instead speak truth to power. It must actively confront, disrupt and expose the narrative for what it is. In this case Imperialism fueled by blind patriotism sprinkled with a healthy dose of xenophobia.

Disrupting the Narrative

‘Disrupting the Narrative’ counters this by intersecting uncomfortable WW1 truths with the cumulative Art of the Mataaho collective, Ati Teepa, Brett Graham, Bob Kerr, Elijah Winter, Bridget Reweti, Mr Sterile Assembly and Tame Iti.

From poignant homages which reference location like Elijah Winter’s Memorial/Whakararatia a memorial to prisoners of Parihaka, incarcerated at Mt Cook prison and forced into hard labour. Mt Cook literally a stones throw away from the exhibition venue backs onto the National war memorial an irony referenced in the work. 

This idea of bringing of reflecting how space once used to intern prisoners of War can become disconnected in their present form continues in Bridget Reweti’s work Second Class where people in colourful rain coats gaze out over Matiu (Somes) Island.

Who knew both of these Wellington places had such dark histories? I know now.

Bob Kerr’s iconic No1 Field Punishment was also on display - detailing the treatment of conscientious objectors specifically Archibald Baxter.

Others subverted the ideas of War - like that of the Mataaho collective, which envisioned the masculine Military chevron as Kaokao a tukutuku pattern symbolising feminine strength and associated with birthing positions.

The works of Tame Iti, Brett Graham, and Ati Teepa all reference Tuhoe.  Ati Teepa’s installation the aptly named He moumou ki te po has different arrangements of toy soldiers and weapons compartmentalised - which for me symbolised how the ruling class view those they send to fight their Wars. Brett Graham’s Absolution - references the connection between terrorist rhetoric with the middle east and how that is used to paint those who dissent as ‘the other’ - it is reflected in oil - because after all, that’s why they are over there.

Tame Iti’s work is a compilation of different items confiscated during the Terror Raids, one of the items being a single child’s gumboot. There are also books on Michael Collins and Geronimo. His artist statement is translated using Google translate - highlighting that just because they are intercepting your emails they still might not understand what you are trying to say ( below in all its glory )

“Ko aku taona i haria I raro te ture whaka tumatuma, I to raatau poheehee tana, kei te nanakia a Tuuhoe. Mau hei Tuhi he kupu paakeha ….

“My cooking susceptible Under the Act Tumatuma, their ignorance is bitter bush. Have to write a word in English”

And of course the magic that is the Mr Sterile Assembly:

Yet through the diversity of underlying subtexts in this exhibition for me there was one main overarching question.

What really has changed in 100 years?

Upon reflection. The short answer?

Fuck all.

Some quotes from the Exhibition.

‘our armies do not come into your cities and land as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.’Lieutenant General Frederick Stanley Maude to the people of Baghdad -19 March 1917

Attitudes of Westerners to Arabs particularly around the massacre of Palestinians at Surafend by the Anzacs

“One can hardly help regarding the niggers as animals when you see them lying about”Private Benjamin Colbran referring to Egyptian People 7 November 1914

“a lot of cowards and murderers”General Edmund Allenby to the New Zealand troops at  Surafend16 December 1918

I hope this exhibition gets to tour it really needs to be seen out in the provinces - we are going to have 5 more years of wall to wall WW1 War commemorations - if this is all new to you - then I invite you to use the power of google and find out about my two heroes of WW1 Te Puea Herangi and Archibald Baxter. Two people I think who embodied the principle of independent thought.

and finally when the Drums of nationalism and patriotism beat, look for the dissenters, the artists or those taking action, the voices of reason and remember always .... always