Mana / Commonly used as a marker of tapu or sacredness that takes form in people, places, and objects. A term created by the atua (gods) and associated with metaphysical force and spiritual power. The word itself does not translate adequately into English, but we can approximate its meaning by combining the ideas of prestige, power, and authority.
Wāhine / Used throughout the Pacific with slight variations, the term denotes the idea of the female aura or a collective of women, but it does so without expressing or suggesting gender roles and is therefore not defined by its English counterpart.
Mana Wāhine / With a literal translation of “women’s power”, one immediately imagines a superhero fighting crime — but it means so much more. It means embracing the intersectionality of being both female and Pasifika. It draws on thousands of years of indigenous knowledge and migration, resulting in a deep spiritual connection to the ocean and the land. In this contemporary world, mana wāhine belongs to indigenous feminism, cultural renaissance, and the forever shifting use of agency. Dr Teresia Teaiwa described agency as “the capacity of humans to act or to exercise choice; the notion that no human is ever completely powerless.” The mana and agency of wāhine throughout history have paved the way for us today.
I would like to dedicate this exhibition to the memory of Teresia Teaiwa, the founding lecturer of Pacific Studies at Victoria and the inspiration for this exhibition. Her teachings and poetry awakened me to the importance of indigenous voice through art.
Cultures of the Pacific are endowed with powerful female figures whose legends have been passed down through the generations. A lot of these mythologies are used as an influence for contemporary art works in Mana Wāhine, for example entities such as the Earth Mother, Papa. Steady remnants of her story have been carried with those who migrated across the south seas. Known by many names, her separation from the sky father created life itself, and we walk unconsciously on her belly, plucking food from her skin to sustain us. All humans are figuratively born from Earth Mother Papa’s womb, and return there after death. Mana wāhine is echoed throughout the Pacific history, and we drew on this as our inspiration for our collective exhibition.
The exhibition is centred on the artistic agency of a collective of Māori and Pacific women and gender minorities. We want to celebrate diversity in the Wellington art scene while exploring the different ways in which these artists experience and respond to their culture in times of globalisation. An aspect of this is the cultural renaissance, the rebirth, of indigenous knowledge in a postcolonial state. My ability to curate an exhibition dedicated to these concepts was in part thanks to the people I have met on this journey, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the wāhine toa (female leaders) who are at the forefront of the cultural renaissance at Victoria University.
The contributing artists come from different backgrounds and a number of them operate outside the fine arts canon. The works on show are a combination of traditional and contemporary, including painting, sculpture, textile, and video work. The combination of traditional and contemporary work allows us to observe different facets of indigenous art practices. An example of this is the Korowai — a feathered woven cloak made specifically by wāhine — which symbolises a deep connection to indigenous culture. Exhibiting artist Sheree Willman appropriates traditional styles of cloak weaving and depicts them on canvas with acrylic paint, combining both indigenous and European art practices, identifying a hybrid identity that is specific to Aotearoa, New Zealand. We can see a similar practise in Pacific artist Tui Gillies’s work, who utilises traditional Tongan tapa cloth and combines them with acrylic paints and mixed media. Her depictions of fefine/wāhine on these tapa canvases denotes connection to mythological wāhine such as Papa whilst addressing contemporary women’s issues through portraiture. This adaption to colonial histories and the intertwining of two cultures is a major theme with the exhibition, as these artists navigate identity in between two worlds, we are allowed a glimpse into their lives through their taonga.
After centuries of being classified as ethnographical evidence and used in “primitivism” movements, mana wāhine have begun to express themselves and in doing so are redefining their Māori and Pacific identities. In this exhibition we aim to create space for voices that often go unheard, while critiquing and responding to the ways in which women and nonbinary bodies continue to be oppressed and marginalised. So nau mai haere mai to the celebration of women’s power, indigenous feminism, cultural renaissance, and the forever shifting expression of agency.