The curator of Māori art says care for the environment has always been intrinsic to the Māori world view. He spoke to Jeremy Hansen as part of our Seven Plans for a Better Planet interview series. 

Jeremy Hansen: You’re the curator of Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art, the landmark show that opened last November at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, with a satellite exhibition here in Britomart. What was your vision for the exhibition?

Nigel Borell: Yeah. My name’s Nigel Borell, my tribal affiliations are Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui me Te Whakatōhea. So I hail predominately from the Bay of Plenty region, but I was born and bred and lived in Manurewa and did my art training here in Auckland. And I suppose as an artist, curator, researcher and Māori art advocate, it’s about the visibility of Māori art and the vitality of Māori art for me. Toi Tū Toi Ora was about presenting a survey show in a way that I felt spoke to a Māori audience and to a Māori worldview and Māori knowledge first. 

JH: Why was it important to you, as part of that, to have permanent works here in the city that are more accessible than they might be in a gallery space?

NB: We took the thinking of the show outside of the gallery space and into the public environment with the creation of the satellite exhibition at Britomart. It’s quite exciting because it does that beautiful thing of making us feel and think differently about the power of contemporary Māori art when we see it in the built landscape, when we see it in the architectural spaces, when we see it in the environments that we walk and tread. 

JH: So if we look at Shane Cotton’s mural, Maunga, for example, which is five storeys high, how does such a prominent Māori narrative tweak the feeling of the city?

NB: To have a large artwork such as Shane Cotton’s Maunga on the side of a building declaring itself the way that it does is an amazing contribution to what people are experiencing in these public spaces. Whether it makes them pause or see our built landscape differently, these reactions will have profound implications. They become markers in people’s experiences of space and the city. The thinking behind the work is very generous too, how it talks about Auckland as a melting pot where people migrate for prosperity, for change, for all manner of exchange with other people, other Māori, other cultures. So in that way, it’s perfect for that spot.

JH: We’re talking about sustainability, which to a lot of people is purely environmental or measuring carbon footprints. What does the word sustainability mean to you, and how does Māori art relate to it?

NB: Māori ways of seeing the world are quite holistic; all these things are connected conversations. Our personal health and well-being is connected to the health and well-being of the city and the land. These narratives about different Atua or gods such as Papatūānuku, the earth mother, Tangaroa, god of the sea, Tāne, the god of the forest – they’re what we might call meta narratives about primordial family, and they relate to people. And I just think art does that beautiful thing of enriching our soul, and keeping us engaged with the world that we see around us, as well as offering an imaginative reprieve from the environment we are immersed in.

JH: How optimistic are you about holistic change being achieved?

NB: I’m more optimistic today than I was 10 years ago. I feel like there are a range of templates, ways of working that are starting to be formed, like the incorporation of the Te Aranga Māori design principles in urban design projects. That document is full of different ways of acknowledging knowledge systems and cultural viewpoints in a really courageous and exciting way. I never saw that 10 years ago. This idea of working collaboratively is also about the amount of goodwill we can bring to manifest an idea or to shine a spotlight on the importance of matauranga Māori, Māori knowledge, within those projects. And what’s good for Māori is good for everybody because those concepts are so generous – they’re not fads, they’re part of our cultural way of seeing the world. They are enduring ways that our ancestors have treated the earth and understood their relationship to the environment. And they still make as much sense today as they did thousands of years ago when they were formed as cultural ideas and paradigms. But yeah, I think the important thing is to stress that they’re there for all of us to think about how we can create change that is beneficial for everybody.

JH:  So it would make sense then, given the way those principles are embedded in Te Ao Māori, for voices from Te Ao Māori to be leading sustainability conversations?

NB: Yeah, I think we need to be brave, brave enough to embed Māori cultural ways of seeing the world in everything we do. I think we’ve become brave as a country to want to do that and to make it visible and to be proud of it. Te Ao Māori offers the generosity of allowing everybody to see themselves as part of it. 

Illustration by Lucy Han

Shane Cotton’s mural, Maunga, on the corner of Auckland’s Customs Street East and Commerce Street, a prominent Māori narrative in a very public space. Photograph by David St George.