Opening speech for the exhibition Te Ao Hurihuri: Ever Changing World

by: Liesbeth den Besten (Crypt gallery 23 October 2018, 18:20)


Thank you for inviting me to be your guest speaker tonight. As a stranger from the Netherlands, by the way also a country with a colonial history, I feel most honored. A collaboration between two regularly changing groups of jewellery-makers from opposite sides of the world, who are both doing things differently than others is an exciting event. And it is interesting to see how those who came from far set the tone for this event.

What instantly strikes you as an outsider is the title of the show:

Te Ao Hurihuri: Ever Changing World – a Māori title, and an enticing theme. The Māori title acts like a signpost, telling us that there are other perspectives in our ever-changing world. One who gets in touch with New Zealanders today will notice the supple and frequent use of incomprehensible words. Māori words, names of places, concepts, stories, songs, and even rituals seem to have become a well-respected part of modern New Zealand society. From the outside the country looks like a pretty harmonious bi-cultural society.

Still there is history. Colonialism has left deep traces. Yet the awareness of Māori heritage made people, especially artists, receptive to the very special character of the country, its flora, fauna, and rocks. More than in other countries, artists in New Zealand take inspiration from materials and substances that they can find all around them. The New Zealand answer to the New Jewellery movement in Europe and America, was ‘Bone, Stone, Shell’. It was the first traveling exhibition about new jewellery from New Zealand in 1988, the work was totally inspired by and made of found natural materials.

Handshake Project started as an international tutorial project, to fulfill the need for more and closer contact with peers and heroes from outside.

Dialogue Collective started in London from a need for collaborative making and discussion. They organized different events and created alternative ways of presenting jewellery. This way they met and collaborated with Handshake artists for the first time in Munich.

For the exhibition the 22 artists, 11 from ‘host team’ Dialogue Collective, and 11 from ‘guest team’ Handshake 3 and 4, explored ideas that are loosely or directly connected with the theme of traveling. As a writer, I will now add my words about my navigation to the theme of the show.

The ever-changing world made me think about our notions of the world – what do we mean if we talk about ‘the world’? The world is the vulnerable blue planet as seen from outer space, as well as a concept that is used to divide us from the other, there is the third world, as well as a first world, there is our world, as well as their world. People are very well in distinguishing oneself from the other – a problem that becomes even more urgent now that gender and cultural identities have become sacrosanct.

Earlier this year, in my country there was quite some fuss about our minister of foreign affairs who stated in a speech that people tend to live together with people who share the same genes. He asked his audience if they could mention a country where people of different cultural background live together in harmony. According to him there was no such country, and unfortunately there was nobody in the room who mentioned New Zealand.

Well, New Zealand is far away of course, and every now and then New Zealand even falls from the world map as I found out recently, so maybe we can’t blame our minister for not knowing New Zealand. On top of that he is the minister of foreign affairs of a pretty unknown country himself. Last week he was invited by a British journalist to explain the Swedish view on Brexit. That’s the fate of Holland always located somewhere in Scandinavia, with Copenhagen as its capital, or Oslo.

So maybe the Dutch and the New Zealanders suffer under the same problem of invisibility and ignorance. And while New Zealand would love to be less isolated, and Holland would love to be seen as a full country located between Belgium, Germany, and the North Sea, Great Britain withdraws in a new area of isolation starting from next year, when the British will fall of the map of Europe, or actually cut off from it – deliberately.

Te Ao Hurihuri, the ever-changing world indeed.

Our planet is inhabited by mammals of a special nomadic species that have always been traveling, migrating, and was always curious to know what was beyond the world they knew. People are voyagers, explorers, traders, and settlers. Europe is inhabited since about 730.000 years ago and has experienced many different population movements from pre-history until today.

How different is New Zealand. For a long time, New Zealand was of itself. It was land, mountains, rocks, waters, plants, ferns, trees and flightless birds. It didn’t have a name, it was totally of its own.

Then came people, they came on the ocean currents using the planets, and currents as their navigation, while also using oral traditions, often in the form of song. These people, Polynesians, came from islands far away. It is believed the first voyagers came in the 10th century, after 950. But the Great Fleet arrived around the year 1350 AD. The settlers defined themselves as tribes. They were hunters, fishermen, and warriors.

According to Māori tradition the land was first discovered by two voyagers. One of them named Kupe, called the land Aotearoa – the land of the long white cloud – a beautiful name that is not about ownership like the name New Zealand, but about a natural phenomenon. The land was still identified by its natural state.

But the land was not itself anymore, it was discovered, it was made useful for the people, and places got names. Far away from the habited world, it was probably one of the last vast landmasses that was reached and taken by people. Through Māori culture we can still connect a bit – just a little bit – to this pre-Māori world, the world that was of itself.

Centuries later in 1642, a Dutchman moored the land. His name was Abel Tasman, and he called the land Stateland, thinking it was connected to Staten Island. Later it was renamed Nova Zeelandia or New Zealand, after the Dutch province Zeeland. Since then this land has two names, which are used interchangeably reflecting the cultural perspective of the person.

The idea of a world that was still of its own, made me wonder about the early tribes that settled in Europe, the first coming from Africa, and ages later from Asia, or the Polynesians who initially came from Taiwan some 4000 years ago, or about Vikings who traveled over huge distances by boat – even to North America, centuries before Columbus. These movements of humans into wild and unknown territory is something we can hardly imagine today – stuck as we are on our google maps and other gps systems; we are helpless without our devices.

Polynesians were smart navigaters. They used language, and songs. Besides that, they made stick charts, encrypted objects to point the way by sea. These charts, that look like beautiful abstract art works, encoded different features from the world than our maps do. Such as swells around islands. The stick charts were memorized and not taken during the voyage.

On the other side of the globe the Europeans were very keen on mapping the world. Mapping was about ownership. The Europeans explored the world in a completely different way than the Polynesians did, besides curiosity, and bringing the true faith, the main incentive was profit.  But that does not mean that these journeys were without danger, adventure and beauty.

There is this proud map of the world in the Palace on Dam Square in Amsterdam. It is inlaid in marble on the floor of the imposing Citizen’s Hall. The map is based on a world map made in 1648 by famous cartographer Joan Blaeu, so some years after Tasman sailed to Australia and New Zealand.

The building on Dam Square, built as the City Hall in the mid 17th century, in all its architectonic, sculptural and painterly details was a celebration of the power of civilians, of burghers – instead of royalty, nobility or clergy. The enormous space of the Citizen’s Hall was freely accessible to all citizens. The people who entered the building would found the map of the world, divided in two halves, below their feet. Hollandia rules the world.

We can still see the map today and walk over it. Thanks to the 16th century Spanish and Portuguese explorations, Latin America is completely drawn on this map. But North America, looks strange as if a bite has been taken out. Until about 1900 nobody, apart from the native people, knew what lay beyond Mississippi river.  The big move westward was yet to come.

The Southern hemisphere is one jolly big mess. Indonesia is drawn in detail – of course, it was an important trading center for the Dutch. New Guinea is attached to a big body of land, to Terra Australis, the South Land, the hypothetical big land mass that was believed to be there in order to keep the balance between the Northern and the Southern hemisphere.

These old world-maps are difficult to understand – especially with all these strange names that are disconnected to the names we know today. While also the shapes of the countries are strange, incomplete and sometimes hypothetical.

When I was looking for New Zealand on the marble floormap in Amsterdam I couldn’t find it. It should be there somewhere not far from Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania. But it wasn’t. I didn’t understand and was afraid it had fallen of the map. I was afraid that this was another proof of ignorance or deliberate omission which seems to be a continuing problem until today. Although New Zealand is a big country, in size comparable to Great Britain, it is positioned in such an isolated part of the ocean that it can be overlooked easily. I noticed it was actually in the news recently: New Zealand is disappearing of world maps. There is even a hashtag and a campaign: getnewzealandonthemap. Although this is a funny advertisement campaign for tourism to New Zealand, there is some truth in it.

But studying the map again, and walking around it, taking another perspective, I found out that Zeelandia Nova was placed on the western hemisphere, not far from the American continent. New Zealand is so isolated that it can easily be put randomly somewhere on the world map, or it is just overlooked, forgotten. Poor New Zealand, marginalized, isolated, part of the most scattered continent of the world, Oceania.

On this mid 17th century Amsterdam floor map, the very first representation of New Zealand is an abstraction, nothing more than two small lines, representing the west coast of the North and the South Island. Murderer’s Bay at the North tip of the South Island is clearly indicated – this is where Abel Tasman lost 4 of his people to the Māori The first observations of native people in Australia were from far away, or only through the smoke from their fires, but the Māori people were rather pro-active – they simply scared away the first European intruders who took home a not very flattering name: Murderer’s Bay, you can still find it on the New Zealand map today.

17th century Dutchmen thought the people on these far away islands were murderers and linked the name to New Zealand forever. In the same period when they put the first failing New Zealand coastlines on the map, a long list of Anglo-Dutch sea battles began. While Murderer’s Bay is still on the map of New Zealand, the Dutch named streets after victorious sea battles with Britain until well into the 20th century.

The world is full of misunderstandings, assumptions and celebrations of wrong events. And I didn’t even talk about Captain Cook.

But here in Crypt Gallery a new attempt is made to create a better understanding between history and present, colonizer and colonized, between Europeans, Pakeha and Māori . Thanks to the people behind Dialogue Collective and Handshake, thanks to contemporary jewellery.

History lives on, while the world is ever changing.

I hope you enjoy the exhibition.


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