Exhibition Essays

Reflections on The Asia-Pacific Century

November 2016

It’s gonna hurt, at least a little

Emma Ng

The Asia-Pacific Century is a project built on questions, speculations, and relations—a constantly shifting ground that asks us to remain vulnerable. For Part One we invited people to join us who, as Ioana described it, already have skin in the game.

Skin—the word is so visceral here, in a project invested in the collision and fallout of our constructions of identity. We gathered for a weekend, to slough layers of dead skin from our discourse and try to scratch the surface, maybe even draw a bit of blood.

We have all seen how easy it is for the desire to belong to teeter and slip into a neo-colonial agenda of “laying claim” to this place. At the heart of our korero was the question: how can we belong here (or as Local Time ask, “become from here”) without re-enacting the violence that is historically inherent in the gesture of trying to belong?

We kept coming home to the importance of tangata whenua. We have to as our questions of cultural belonging are relational ones. Sometimes during the weekend I found myself describing this as a commitment to “honoring the Treaty”—an idea that I sometimes see others articulate in this way too. Perhaps it’s just front of mind in this era of Treaty settlements. But I’ve been wondering since, whether there’s harm in this framing. Is this really it? Is Te Tiriti really our impetus in these conversations? It’s significant, as history always is, but when we invoke it in conversation, is it a decoy? A convenient placeholder that allows us to avoid asking the contemporary questions that are most important?

He tangata!

In forming this project, Ioana and I saw our conversations motivated by aspiration rather than obligation. Using an obligation to a contract as the foundation for the relations that we (as individuals; as a group of artists, writers, researchers; as a community) want to enact misses the point. In our wider society it produces a begrudging acknowledgement of Māori claims, paving the way for morally bankrupt groups blinded by the myth of meritocracy (cough—Hobson’s Pledge). If we can’t respect Māori as the indigenous people of this place then there’s little hope that the rest of us can expect to be respected either. Our privilege as artists and curators is that our work is informed by the past and the status quo, but we are not limited by it. We can make possibility and potential our priority.

During our noho, we were tickled by the idea that to some our alliance might seem to be an unlikely one. But our aim is not to ‘celebrate diversity’; our aims are separate from the naivety of a United Colours of Benetton ad—we know that our difference is more than just skin deep. Our question now is how to tend a kaupapa that has room for fracture, challenge, and remaining vulnerable.