Blue Ocean, Yellow River: On visiting Oceania at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

The blue wave towers over me, rising up to the ceiling where it hangs suspended from domed glass. I imagine the wave rising higher and higher until it shatters the glass and flows out across the city in a blue current. This is Kiko Moana, a large-scale piece woven together from tarpaulin by Māori artists Erena Baker (Te Atiawa ki Whakarongotai, Ngāti Toa Rangātira), Sarah Hudson (Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tūhoe), Bridget Reweti (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi) and Terri Te Tau (Rangitāne ki Wairarapa), who together make up Mata Aho Collective.Around me in the gallery I can hear the sound of Kathy Jentnil-Kijiner’s film-poem Tell Them playing on a screen. We are little girls cartwheeling in the rain, she repeats. Next to me is a giant map of the Pacific Ocean where, unusually, Aotearoa is one of the largest bodies of land on the map. The ocean takes up most of the entire wall, with the coastlines of Southeast Asia and China just visible in the uppermost edges. I draw an imaginary line between these places—where I was born, where I come from and where I live now.

Oceania opened at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in September 2018 to coincide with events marking 250 years since Cook’s first Pacific voyage. Given this colonial framing, I was sceptical about the exhibition and its purpose. I was also worried about how I might react—about how my body might react. Being far from home can cause sudden and unpredictable reactions in me. Recently at a London screening of Taika Waititi’s film Boy, I burst into tears as soon as “Poi-E” began to play during the opening credits.

I walk into a room painted deep blue. All around me are familiar Māori carvings, a pair of waka from the Solomon Islands, and intricate navigational charts made from strips of wood and shells from the Marshall Islands. Arcs of light flit across my skin and onto the blue wall, dappled as if refracted through water.

Encountering these taonga in this foreign context is strange and moving. I feel protective of them even though they are not mine. The label beneath each piece gives a short description plus the name of its collector (usually French, English or Dutch), the date it was collected, and the place where it’s kept (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge; Linden Museum, Stuttgart; Musée du Quai Branly, Paris; Te Papa, Wellington). In some ways, the objects speak for themselves and need no introduction. But I want more. I want to hear from the Pasifika curators and historians and poets and carvers and weavers. I want to listen to the stories of daughters and mothers. In her article “Complicating the Narrative of ‘Oceania’” for the art magazine Frieze, Te Papa’s Mātauranga Māori curator Matariki Williams (Tūhoe, Te Atiawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Hauiti) writes:

“Once a taonga or an artwork enters the national collection, interaction is materially mediated by gloves… this interrupts the natural processes of their lives: that they were held and used, that they lived with their people.”

What the label for Kiko Moana doesn’t say is that it actually exists alongside an archive of stories. As part of the piece, Mata Aho Collective recorded and published online a series of Taniwha Tales told to them by whanau, elders, friends. They are a combination of myth (both ancient and contemporary), dream, memory and tales from other indigenous cultures. Each is represented on the page as a different shade of blue, all of which make up Kiko Moana, all woven into the current.

I am a descendent of English and Welsh colonial settlers. I am also a descendent of Hakka people, a migratory sub-group of Han Chinese that has a distinctive language and culture of its own. Hakka are believed to have come from the area of central China bordering the Yellow River, then gradually migrated southwards at various points throughout history. My grandparents settled in Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of Sabah, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo.

Oceania connects Asia to the Pacific by touching on the journeys of indigenous peoples from East and Southeast Asia as they gradually spread southwards and settled in the Pacific nearly 30,000 years ago. But it doesn’t include more recent stories of migration to the Pacific from China and Asia, though its map includes the edges of the continent.

Nature is everywhere: birds carved in whalebone, whales carved out of shell. The language used to describe these treasures is scientific: paua shell becomes “haliotis shell”, and a beautiful hei tiki collected by Johann Reinhold Forster in 1773 is described as an “anthropomorphic ornament” made of “nephrite jade.” In an exhibition on pounamu held a few years ago at Te Papa, I learned that jade absorbs body heat. I touch the heart of jade I wear around my neck. It’s Chinese jade, the same type of jade as Māori pounamu but lighter in colour, and it belonged to my great-grandmother who was born in Shanghai. It feels warm in my palm.

With tickets priced at £18 (but free for NZ and Pacific Island passport holders), this feels like an exhibition mainly for those who can afford it. London is one of the most multicultural cities I’ve ever lived in, but at the Royal Academy, you wouldn’t know it. Anthropomorphic ornament, nephrite jade—this is the language of the collector, of the institution and the coloniser. To me, these words alone capture almost nothing of the hei tiki’s significance. In instances where the object’s European collector is named but the artist or maker is not, such as the hei tiki, Oceania does not do enough to acknowledge the living, breathing cultures and lineages that these taonga come from.

I notice that a wreath of leaves has been placed as an offering underneath a row of West Papuan altar gods collected by J.C. van Erde in 1929. The leaves are thick and wide like the leaves of plane trees currently falling all over London, and they have been positioned under the human skull at the centre of the display. I cautiously interrupt a conversation between two gallery assistants, both white men in their sixties, to ask how the leaves came to be there. One of the men replies to me without looking at me or at the leaves. “Yes, they were left there by visitors.” “By who? How long ago?” He glances at me now, a little impatient. “At the beginning of the exhibition,” he says, and turns back to his colleague.

A white woman reaches out to touch the leaves. She is only curious, perhaps unsure whether they’re part of the exhibition, but when she touches them I flinch.

I’m seated in a pearl-coloured room somewhere deep inside the Royal Academy. Oceania curator Adrian Locke is joined on stage by writers Witi Ihimaera (Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki, Tūhoe, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui), Paula Morris (Ngati Wai), Karlo Mila (Tonga, Palagi), Tina Makareti (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Rangatahi, Pākehā) and David Eggleton (Rotuma, Tonga, Pākehā). Each writer has been given the task of responding to objects in the exhibition, and soon I realise that this event brings to light everything that I felt was missing from the exhibition: stories, myths, songs, poems. Ihimaera begins to sing as we watch Yuki Kihara’s video artwork Siva in Motion moving behind him. Yuki Kihara is of mixed Samoan and Japanese descent and created the work in response to the aftermath of the 2009 Tsunami. In the video, the artist is dressed in a high-necked Victorian mourning gown. At intervals her silhouette doubles and she twirls inside her own shadow, a four-armed goddess.

Paula Morris speaks about Michael Parekowhai’s (Ngā Ariki, Ngāti Whakarongo) red piano, titled He Korero Pukakau o Te Matu: Story of a New Zealand River, explaining the many tales entwined within it. “The confluence of cultures is a meeting of rivers,” she says, and I write this down. A meeting of rivers. I think of the map, and how my multiple motherlands all touch one ocean. Karlo Mila’s poem confronts her shock and grief at seeing that the exhibition features human remains from West Papua, yet makes no mention of the atrocities currently taking place there.

“We’re not talking about objects, we’re talking about people,” Ihimaera says, and then he leads us in singing “Pokarekare Ana.” I look up at the ceiling to try and stop myself from crying too much. I went to a talk by Ihimaera at the Shanghai International Literary Festival last year, when I was living in Shanghai. At the end, he invited all the Kiwis in attendance—or anyone who knew the words—to sing with him. I didn’t know all the words off by heart but my skin and my body seemed to know the song. Later I walked out into the neon Shanghai night and crossed the road to look at the Huangpu River, its dark current glowing silver and gold.

In the gallery shop, I find an enormous clothbound book with its title printed in gold letters: Joseph Banks’ Florilegium: Botanical Treasures from Cook’s Voyage. I flip past the lush illustrations to the index, searching for K: kōwhai. The tree is indexed under its Latin name, which I learn is “Sophora tetraptera”: four-winged fruit.

There’s a kōwhai tree in my parents’ garden that blooms brilliantly every September, sending the tūī into a riot. It was there when we first moved into the house, as was the hardy lemon tree that produces bulbous, thick-skinned fruits. I’ve been fixated with kōwhai ever since I saw one in full bloom in a garden in suburban North London this spring. The quietness was the thing I noticed first: not a single noisy tūī in sight. I took a picture and sent it to my mum on WeChat. She was in Malaysia at the time, and sent back a video of a rainstorm.

I learn from Banks’ Florilegium that a kōwhai tree grew at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London in the late 1700s from seeds brought to England by Banks. I wonder where in Aotearoa he collected the seeds from, and where the tree grew. I trace the shape of the flowers on the page with my finger. I shut my eyes and the floor beneath my feet becomes a yellow river.

I wanted to create work in response to Oceania from my perspective as tauiwi living overseas, as an Asian New Zealander currently living in the place that was once the seat of Empire. I wanted to consider the artworks’ natural life cycles—their origins, their imagined futures. I chose the following materials: words (in this case, pixels on a screen), poly-cotton thread, sewing needles, photocopy paper, felt-tip pen, light-sensitive cotton fabric, a dried magnolia leaf, sunlight and cold tap water.

Poem for Tohorā (after Kiko Moana, Mata Aho Collective)

there is a dream in which the wave comes
and comes and comes but never touches land.
the harbour slowly empties and whales
lay their heads down in the shallows.
tohorā, you’re now a part of all my dreams
of home. from far away i saved your picture
on my phone; i watched a video that showed you
swimming on and on between the island
and the shore. tohorā, i felt the distant
echo of your breathing. tohorā, please leave
and don’t come back. turn towards the deep.
we may be gone when you return.
in my sleep, the moon comes apart
and the land softly falls away.

Tohorā: southern right whale. Also the nickname given to the whale who took up temporary residence in Wellington harbour in August 2018.

Tivaevae ta’orei (cotton patchwork quilt) c. 1900, from the Cook Islands (Te Papa, Wellington)
The quilt was first imagined within earshot of the sea.
The quilt is made of unripe mangoes, yellow jackfruit, pink dragonfruit, and red rice cakes under blue umbrellas.
The quilt smells like banana leaves and sand and salt and dust.
The quilt feels like a pack of strawberry-flavoured starbursts in your pocket.
The quilt contains many small triangles like the little slices of tinned pineapple that you can swallow down almost whole.
The quilt was made by women’s hands, women who held all the pieces in their arms and stitched them together to make something whole, stitched while laughing and singing.
The quilt is remembered by all the daughters and the granddaughters.
The quilt winds its way up the mountain road.
The quilt was carefully folded into a temperature-controlled box and loaded into the cargo of a plane.
The quilt has never been so far from the sea.
The quilt resembles one made by my Po Po just after I was born, composed of squares of patterned cotton that Po Po must have collected up over the years, scraps leftover from my mum and aunt and uncle’s clothes when they were little, sewn together with a blue flannel border round the edges, which travelled at some point in someone’s arms from Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, to my bedroom in Wellington, New Zealand, which is now in a storage unit somewhere in Lower Hutt, and which must have taken Po Po a long time, but I’m not sure precisely how long because I never asked her but she made three quilts in total, one for each of her grandchildren, and mine had little green sailboats on it, and gold stars and plum blossoms on white linen.

Origin Myths (while watching Lisa Reihana’s Transit of Venus [Infected])

Where are you from? (In the background a woman’s voice is the wind)

What is your ethnicity? (Blue and green leaves shake while waves pour at my feet)

On your mother or father’s side? (I have never seen trees like these growing so near the sea)

How long have you been here? (The trees and mountains are listening to the wind)

How long has your family been here? (The imaginary trees cry out)

Where were you born? (Singing, dancing, an endless loop of sea an endless loop of sea of sea)

Where was your mother born? (They say the sun never sets on the British Empire)

Where was your passport issued? (A ship with white sails slips into the Sounds)

What is your permanent address? (A woman with feathers in her hair stands on the shore)

What is your mother tongue? (Watching small volcanoes erupt slowly in the distance)

Is your hair colour natural? (To complete the scene I sew my own star map in red thread)

What does this country mean to you? (I embroider volcanoes onto horizons)

Is this your home? (I stitch my name into the sea)

What is the purpose of your visit today? (I measure the distance)

This writing was made possible with the support of