Constructions & Reconstructions – a conversation with Ayesha Green
Ayesha Green (Kai Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu) is an artist based in Tāmaki Makaurau. Her paintings and sculptural installations often weave together personal experiences with big picture ideas of identity and understanding of place; specifically in relation to the context of Aotearoa, New Zealand. This interview is predominantly a transcript of a conversation that took place in mid-2021, with the addition of a final section which discusses Green's latest work, Ko te Tūhono, a public sculpture unveiled in Ōtepoti, Dunedin in December 2021.
As a starting point, I wanted to try and reconstruct a conversation we had over a year ago now. It was after hearing you talk about your work Transit. What struck me at the time was how you were thinking about identity through your work, and how this was underpinned by theories presented by Avril Bell in her book Relating Indigenous and Settler Identities: Beyond Domination. Can you describe the concepts Bell discusses, how they relate to Transit, and your work in general?
What interests me about Bell’s work is the way she takes Homi Bhabha’s concepts of cultural hybridity and tailors them to the specific context of settler colonisation. Bell uses New Zealand, Australia, the US and Canada as examples, while Bhabha is coming from a broader colonisation, where colonisers extract resources but then “leave”. So, Bell takes cultural hybridity to a new space; what happens when the coloniser settles and people live together and in relation to each other, and how does identity evolve over time in relation to the other, whether that other be Māori or settler. She discusses how the idea of authenticity has not only played into what a Māori identity could be, but how authenticity itself is a construct put on to indigenous people; a construct that settler peoples desperately want a part of in order to feel like they belong in the place they have settled. A lot of this is to do with mimicry and copying but also assimilation; Māori can assimilate only so much, Māori will never be Pākehā. So, the assimilation stops, and it gets to a point where Pākehā kind of start mimicking Māori in order to gain or inherit some type of authenticy, in order to feel that they belong in New Zealand. So this was one of the concepts in her book, and the concept that I have taken with me. I am thinking about this type of performance of culture and identity, and how that performance is a form of mimicry of others and how that performance changes over time within different socio-political contexts.
I enjoyed Bell using the example of how Avatar retells a typical story of colonisation, how the movie romanticises what it means to be indigenous but then—most pertinent to what you’re talking about here—she identifies mimicry in the movie; the empathetic ‘star of the movie’ coloniser literally mimics indigeneity until through some magic he becomes one of them.
It's such a great example. The best way she describes this mimicry might be the way we access it. It all comes back to ‘what is our national story’? What is the story we’re telling about ourselves to ourselves? And how are we presenting ourselves as a nation? An example she gives is the idea that—in the context of Aotearoa—the British came to settle, and they wanted a continuation of the motherland, but it’s always going to be different; the difference from Britain is firstly that Māori are here and secondly the landscape is very different. So, slowly over time the performance of Britishness changes in relation to what is already within this place, which is Māori and the landscape. In the beginning Māori are forced to assimilate this British identity, and then by the next generation, a British identity starts getting lost as it moves away from Britishness and starts incorporating how Māori are interacting, but Māori, through assimilation, are attempting to mimic Britishness. Everyone is kind of mimicking everyone and this shifts and changes over time. The performance of identity starts to really shift to the point where of course the motherland doesn’t really exist anymore, and Pākehā identity is born, and this is through relating. When I think about making artwork, I think about how we relate to each other; who’s the dominant person trying to decide what the relationship looks like, and who’s been copying who to get us to this point. The thing with our national identity is that we need it to be different from Britain because we are not Britain. Māori are needed for that difference, which enforces our national identity and allows for Pākehā to exist, and this is how Bell explains it.
Yeah, that ties to some of the research I was doing in Ōtautahi Christchurch where, after the earthquakes, consideration was made regarding how to weave Ngāi Tahu narratives into the redesign of the city. Researchers Rebecca Kiddle and Amiria Kiddle, wrote about this in an essay called Placemaking and post-quake identity: creating a unique Ōtautahi identity, advocating for the uniqueness of those narratives to that place; nowhere else in the world has that history and culture. It was interesting to me because whilst their essay demonstrated the potential of this sentiment, I also immediately found myself worrying about commercial interests in the city co-opting these narratives; twisting them through cynical marketing speak. I guess these are the pitfalls when you’re trying to build a sense of place and thinking about what makes a place unique.
That’s so true. That’s exactly how it works; Māori are needed in order to create the difference from the motherland in order to create the new country and the new identity. It’s a two-way street. There’s a colonisation happening and Māori assimilating, but also the colonisers utilising Māori culture in a way to tell a unique outward story. Therefore, creating their own identity within the nation.
For example, my work Mei is a painting of the Pania of the Reef statue in Napier, but it’s actually a painting of my cousin Mei, who modelled for the statue as a young girl. In brief, the statue was unveiled in 1954 and is based on a Māori sea maiden; an iwi ancestor in this place. The Pania of the Reef statue is such a good example of how Māori narratives get told in the cityscape because the statue was a part of urban boosterism and trying to get people into the city. They used this Māori history, but this was an example of purely visual inclusion of Māori in urban landscape; as opposed to actual inclusion in the politics of the town or in land ownership. The Māori story is used to continue the colonisation of Napier, quite literally, with its attempt to get settlers to move to Napier, but it’s wrapped up and presented as Māori inclusion or Māori being a part of this place when actually it is used to do the exact opposite. It becomes even more contentious because at the time the statue was unveiled so many Māori were really proud to have that statue on Marine Parade and Mei was really proud to be the model, but really that pride of being included exists because there’s been a power imbalance. It’s hard because you don’t want to critique someone’s pride, but that pride is a manifestation of constant oppression.
Would it be fair to say that your reading of the statue represents progress? The idea that at the time it was made, pride existed around that particular manifestation of Māori representation in a place, but now you’re looking at it through a contemporary lens and pointing to the problematic aspects, even though back then it was kind of seen as progress in a way for the city and local Māori to have some representation?
Yeah I think so, That’s where the pride came from and that’s where its kind of contentious because it’s not good for Māori, but Māori felt good to be included but their inclusion is also to their own detriment. Its more like a misunderstanding of what that statue is trying to achieve, which is not Māori inclusion, but instead an informing of Pākehā identity through the difference of Māori. I guess I try to argue that this statue is not about or for Māori, but actually is a great way to understand how Pākehā see themselves. Which is tied up in this difference to the motherland. This type of Māori history doesn't exist in Britain, so the statue is the signal of difference.
So, what you are pointing to is a tokenism that’s further revealed with time?
I think so, but I also think it’s more than that because the inclusion of Māori keeps New Zealand different from Britian so Māori kind of have to be included in order for New Zealand to be New Zealand. When the statue was made, this was a part of the selling point of this town, Māori and the difference to Britain which is something to capitalise on, so I don't feel it's an idea that's come to light in reflection of the past, but instead was a strategy in that period of time. Switching roles for a moment, I wonder, how your thinking has evolved in relation to these ideas of nationbuilding?
Let me answer that in a slight round-about way starting with your cousin Mei. I’m struck by the potency of this painting—at a certain point you realised through your direct family connection to that work that the statue is connected to you on a personal level, and also to your big-picture idea of how you feel in Aotearoa New Zealand; your idea of nationhood. I was wondering how and when you started understanding that, because it’s certainly an evident thread through much of your work?
For me, there are moments that have become really important in operating on both a big picture and personal level. In particular I would point to my experience of living through the Christchurch earthquakes and then making work within the post-quake context of that city. A key concept that came from that time was thinking of the city as a façade; events like earthquakes allow us to step behind the façade and begin to understand that things aren’t actually as they seem. I grew up in Christchurch, I went to a private Christian school without paying fees because my father was the Chaplin at the school. It was a Presbyterian school, we all wore kilts—including my Māori and Pacific Island friends. There was a pipe band, and the culture was all very Scottish. Linking this to being at university going through the earthquakes, for me that event represented the unravelling of the colonial narratives I had grown up in the heart of. For example, on a purely physical level, the colonial architecture that so defined that city as an ‘English City of the South’ was largely destroyed, in turn exposing the vulnerability of the narratives it helped to uphold… this is land that wasn’t always like this even though growing up you assume the city always been the way it is. You hold a sense of permanence that’s really not true. Moments like that continue to be formative for me; when you realise both the big picture, and your place in it; understanding on a deeper level how you pariticpate in those histories and the idea of nationhood that you were brought up with. I’m wondering if this resonates with how you came to understand the Pania of the Reef statue in a new way? Maybe as an example of you realising certain things about your own history and your idea of nationhood?
Definitely. I think that the best thing about doing research for that work was first understanding it through the lens of tourism. For a long time, I was really interested in tourism practice; how Māori perform haka or waiata to tourists. Is that an authentic experience of what it might mean to be Māori? Then of course you start thinking “what is it to be Māori” and what is the performance for that? It's important to acknowledge there’s a diverse range of Māori experiences. For example, I don’t speak Te Reo so I can’t do waiata or kapa haka in the way that Māori culture is performed for tourism. It’s interesting to consider how tourism has been a way to enter into nationalism; I’ve found the best way to know what a country thinks of itself is to look at its tourism campaign — how you present yourself to the outside world. It’s like an imagining of yourself. Whether that’s true or not. So within tourism there becomes this idea, or an imagining of what it means to be Māori. With Pania of the Reef it was made for leisure and tourism, which are some of the usual urban boosterism practices, but what flipped my understanding of it was realising that Pania Reef is an actual reef that exists in the landscape. So the settler businessmen that initiated the statue had heard the history, but hadn’t understood the significance of the landscape as being a site of memorial. And in the history, Pania is a sea maiden who gets transformed into a reef. The landscape itself is like a statue or landmark. Instead they decided to make a bronze statue. And even in the language we can see the worldview differences. In that there is a reef called Pania Reef, and the colonisers interpret that as Pania of the Reef. In my mind this links to your comments on the built environment in Christchurch, and the land ultimately dictating, or having its own agenda. I think your idea of the facade makes lots of sense here too, and its about peeling it back. And when I started to peel back Pania of the Reef, I discovered Pania Reef and I discovered Mei. I guess in my work i tried to erase the statue, by announcing the work as a representation of Mei, I unacknowledged the statue
Yeah – if the landscape begins in a raw, untouched state, then whatever we do on top of it starts to morph it. So, the statue is an example of saying something about the landscape but also doing it in an inflexible way? The statue being case in bronze so it becomes really static; as does the narrative it is telling? I think about that idea in relation to tourism and the process of design and labelling. I think Foucault talks about discourse as violence – the idea that we label something as one thing, we start to cut off any chance of it being seen differently. The minute you have the tourisms video that says “New Zealand is this” it subjugates or eliminates other narratives. That’s the harm of commercial design (as a device for distributing tourism narratives) it is always narrowing something down to a really clear, defined message; in the process getting rid of all the grey, in-between or other. I think that’s a harmful practice.
I definitely agree, I guess that’s the issue of categorising because that’s the certain power you can have when you get to decide and then who gets to decide? We have to kinda go back in time, to see how New Zealand tourism began, and if we take the tourism lense of selling our cultural capital and selling the idea of an experience, we have to always look back at the difference. Why do people come to New Zealand and not somewhere else, and our difference is the landscape and Māori. New Zealand was first marketed as a place to migrate to, with the New Zealand Company settler campaigns, and then to the Māoriland tourism campaigns, The systems of classifications are coming from a point of view in the world and in this conversation, the classifications are defining a national idea of what makes New Zealand, New Zealand.
Your practice explores these ideas of copying or mimicry in such a mulit-faceted way; I often think about how your paintings exist as memories; like you’re remembering and re-presenting . Then from an aesthetic point of view you are simplifying forms. Tying this back to my thoughts about design and labelling; a basic reading of this phenomena is that when you simplify something it can act as a funnel; sharpening meaning but creating an exclusive form where other narratives are shut out. However, in your work when you simplify, it opens images up again. I don’t really know how. I don’t know if you have ideas about that but maybe it’s something about the images you present becoming accessible in a new way?
That’s what I hope. Using an illustration or cartoon aesthetic; simplifying things down allows the work to be able to speak to lots of different people. I’m painting from a very genuine place but maybe cartoons don’t normally have that heaviness. I want different kinds of people to be able to take away different types of things from the work. I grew up on cartoons; it’s a language I understand and know. I like the idea you're saying about memory, or painting memories, I think a memory can lose its visual detail. And perhaps that's a type of visual structure found in cartoons. I could paint all of the same things I've painted with shadow and light and include grass, or clouds in the sky, but I'm not sure that all of the information is needed in order to explore the narratives I am interested in. Instead the carton aesthetic can show only the information that needs to be shown to create a type of narrative.
In a way, your paintings are almost becoming symbols that point to the original? I was just thinking now—and it relates to my thought about memory—it’s almost like you’re saying, “I’m still thinking about this thing”. For example Pania of the Reef doesn’t only exist as a statue in bronze fixed in place; it’s also something that has lived on in your family history and memory to the point where you are representing it again, as a painting. It’s like you are saying; this is still worth talking about, it’s worth re-presenting, it’s worth shining a light on or looking at it from a different perspective. It’s not locked in history, it continues to have a bearing on the present.
Yes totally and this relates to your experience with the Christchurch earthquakes; it was a personal experience, but its unveiling a bigger issue and a new kind of understanding.
That was happening to me in the moment with Pania; realising that me just being alive in itself is a type of a political act and that I don’t have to look very far outside of being Māori or my Māori family and Māori history to understand that my own personal politics are illustrative of much larger global politics. I think sometimes there is a lot of pressure on artists where they are trying to solve big issues, or talk so broadly about an issue. But if one takes a moment to really investigate their own body or own life in its political form then there will always be a way to think about your own self in the world and the politics that your body or your life encompasses. Everyone has their own politics and I think it’s always a good way to start to place yourself into the world to understand that. That’s what Pania taught me; my own being is deeply tied up with history. Perhaps in a broader sense, to explain, is that one part of the colonial project was for Māori to die out, so then me being alive is inherently political. I mean of course everyone's life is political, but how come I am alive? And what did it take for me to be here? And then thinking through that, what can I do in this world as a person in it.
A key concept that I come back to time and again with my work is that design is inherently political; the realisation that every time I make something and put it out into the world, whether I like it or not I am engaging in a political act. But what you’re saying takes this a step further: simply being is a political act, which is a compelling thought.
I wonder if, to end, you could talk about Ko te Tūhono — your new public sculpture soon to be unveiled in Ōtepoti Dunedin. It’s interesting to consider this work in light of Pania of the Reef — you are placing a monument on the landscape, opening yourself up to public discourse, I wonder how this work seeks to enter this space and challenge it?
Yes sure, I think it is good to think about the work in relation to Pania of the Reef, and thinking about the different types of agency involved when making a work like this. I whakapapa to Ōtākou, who are the mana whenua of Dunedin, and I knew that this would be an opportunity to make sure that mana whenua are represented within the urban landscape. Dunedin's colonial heritage is very Scottish or English, much like Christchurch, so there is lots of strong colonial architecture to work with. Ko te Tūhono itself is the doorframe into the wharenui, Tamatea, at Ōtākou and I had thought about the differences in how architecture or buildings are understood in two different types of worldviews. We have the wharenui space, a space where Māori gather, hui, tangi, sleep and is also the embodiment of the ancestor. So when you walk inside the wharenui, you are effectively walking inside the ancestor, which for Ōtākou is Tamatea. And in the civic centre, we have the town hall, which historically is the space where the town gathers to discuss issues etc. So the sculpture signals at having these two places together as Ko te Tūhono will be sharing space with the town hall. But also, and perhaps the place where the work started, is that the carvings that are a part of the marae at Ōtākou, are all concrete casts of wooden carvings. It's a long story and too delicate to try and condense here, but in summary and thinking about this, Ko te Tūhono becomes a copy of a copy. There exists in the world, wooden carvings, a concrete cast of these, and now an aluminum cast of the concrete cast. In terms of my practice, I am interested in this copying, as we have spoken about, the performance of identity shifting and changing over time and in relation to what is happening around us, and I think this work can speak to that. However it flips the narrative where Māori have had agency in that shifting performance and it hasn't been a performance that comes as a part of assimilation, and instead its a shift that comes through agency within the colonial world. In a way, it's using the resources presented, like concrete and aluminum and assimilating the colonial resources for Maori benefit and self determination. So, unlike Pania of the Reef, I hope that the sculpture sits within the realms of Māori self determination as opposed to Pākehā using Māori for Pākehā self determination.
About Ayesha Green
Ayesha Green (Kai Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu) is an artist based in Tāmaki Makaurau. She graduated with a Bachelor of Media Arts from Wintec in 2009 and went on to complete a Master of Fine Arts from Elam in 2013. In 2016 she completed a Graduate Diploma in Arts specalising in Museums and Cultural Heritage. In 2021 she won the Rydal Prize through the Tauranga Art Gallery, in 2020 she was a Springboard Arts Foundation Recipient and in 2019 she won the National Contemporary Art Awards. Recent exhibitions include: To the best of my Knowledge, Hastings City Art Gallery (2021); Good Citizen, Jhana Millers (2021); Toi Tū Toi Ora, Auckland Art Gallery 2020/21; Wrapped up in Clouds, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 2020; Strands, The Dowse Art Museum (2019); Tuia — Southern Encounters, The Hocken Gallery (2019); Elizabeth the First, Jhana Millers (2019). Her work is in the collection of Te Papa Tongarewa, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, The Dowse Art Museum, The Govett-Brewster, The MTG Hawkes Bay and more