Exhibition Essays

Reflections on The Asia-Pacific Century

November 2016

Crossing paths in the past

Ioana Gordon-Smith

Whenever I meet someone new, I’ll usually ask him or her where they’re from. If Wellington is the response, I perk right up. Where abouts?, I’ll ask. What college did you go to, what year did you graduate; did you go to uni there? Did you ever go to Flight on the corner of Cuba and Courtney Place? The coffee there is the best. I’ll circle round and round with questions and recalled tidbits until eventually, there it is: common ground.

During our noho, Melinda spoke of whakapapa as genealogical oration grounded in the aim of finding a common ancestor. She called this ‘becoming ordinary’—the process of two people moving from a state of being tapu to being noa through the act of finding overlap in their respective histories. Without really knowing it, I’ve been conducting a kind of bastardised pepeha, tracing back through my life experiences to find a place where my life intersects with someone else’s.

The desire to create some common ground partially informed how Emma and I planned the noho. We knew the responsibility we had to act as good hosts. But it went beyond showing gratitude and respect to everyone for taking the time to come down to Wellington. Sharing space and, in particular, sharing food became a forum for creating a shared experience. Playing games and making postcards (a very vulnerable thing for my art-making-impaired self) were tools for lubricating idle chit-chat. We wanted to take away the pressure of performing one’s intelligence that so commonly marks professional gatherings, and instead encourage the idea of speaking openly, genuinely. What we wanted to inspire, without knowing how to describe it, was becoming ordinary to and with each other.

Becoming ordinary is the phrase that has lingered with me since the noho. I’m drawn to what it might mean to be ordinary between people, and what it means to be in a constant state of transition, as the phrase ‘becoming’ implies. It reminds me of an earlier text I’ve read from Danny Butt and Local Time, participants in The Asia Pacific Century project who couldn't make it to the noho. In their essay about rethinking artist and curatorial responsibilities, Danny and Local Time ask:

If we are always not just being but becoming, can we ‘become from’ as well as ‘be from’ a place?1

At its heart, the subject of The Asia-Pacific Century is rethinking relationships, and specifically how the relationships between peoples in New Zealand, could be in the process of becoming something other than how they’re currently understood. For Emma and I, this idea of becoming something else held in it an empowering potential, suggesting a move away from colonial dynamics and shifting powers. In our initial blurb for the project, we wrote:

The Asia Pacific Century is an opportunity to explore the rich histories of exchange between Māori, Asian and Pacific groups in Aotearoa New Zealand—both positive and negative. Led by artists, writers, and other contributors, this project seeks to explore past, present, and future manifestations of ‘Asia-Pacificness’. In examining Aotearoa’s minority populations beyond their relationships to a dominant Pākehā society—might they be considered in relation to, and find strength in, each other?2

We suggested that the Asia-Pacific might be a geneology worth mining for its potential for common ground. I’ve always been a bit suspicious of regional framing. I wrote last year about the use of ‘Pacific Island’ as an ambiguous term that privileges certain nations to the malignment of others. It feels like those problems are only accelerated when broadening out a regional term to cover an even more amorphous yet arbitrary terrain.

During the noho though, one of our main questions was: can the phrase Asia-Pacific could be rescued from being used as an expansionist tool by mainly Anglo-European parties and used instead domestically to recognise and prioritise the relationship between migrant and indigenous groups in New Zealand? As Ahi said during the noho, people don’t really expect or know that we talk to each other.

I’m not quite sure we really answered that question during the noho. But it does feel as if the idea of knowing one’s whakapapa has renewed relevance as a way of knowing how to relate to each other. There are still lots of questions I have though: is the Asia-Pacific a useful place for common ground? And do some points of intersection matter more than others? Do they need to be as primordial as a bloodline or relationship to nerve-lands, or can it be something more contextual, like a shared experience of being a minority? Can the act of finding common ground still allow for difference and descent?

These are questions that I feel I can’t approach on my own, for fear of calling out into an empty space that only echoes back my own voice. But it buoys me to know that we might have come across a potential way of becoming less foreign to each other. For it seems that only in ordinariness can we speak frankly, and without fear.


  • 1.

    Local Time, interviewed by Emma Ng and Ioana Gordon-Smith, Cause to visit, 25 July 2016, http://enjoy.org.nz/publishing/exhibition-essays/the-asia-pacific-century-part-one/interview-with-local-time

  • 2.

    "The Asia-Pacific Century: Part One”, last modified 22 July 2016, http://enjoy.org.nz/the-asia-pacific-century-part-one