HOW NEW ZEALAND OPENED MY MIND
by Rosanna Albertini
My seven stars on the kitchen wall have been carved and cooked. Maybe thinking of the new comet that’s becoming more and more visible in the Christmas sky, and is called Lovejoy, this year I see them as the tale of a comet. They bring me back to New Zealand.
At Toihoukura School of Maori Visual Arts, in Gisborne, ten years ago, Steve Gibbs, head of the school, offered me such generous hospitality that I almost forgot money existed. Students’ art was displayed in the entrance hall. I could like the pieces, but my cultural keys were not the right ones to understand them. A good reason for me to rush headlong into a fog of ideas, searching for new springs of perception. I bought three small paintings by Alison Waru as a present for my husband. I met the artist, while a joyful chaos surrounded my purchase.
More surprises: artist Tawera Tahuri brought a pile of crosses to me, and put them in my hands. No explanations. “Ceramics,” she told me. It was a present charging me with Maori stories and meanings that I had to discover by myself. The stars, or diagonal crosses, contain the present and ancestral spirit of New Zealand native tribes. Maori objects are not inert matter. They are human events that art makes palpable. Life instead makes them silent, or covers them up. My odd discovery, during my visits to the Maori New Zealand, was a journey that guided me beyond words, to observe rituals and challenges that helped me to feel my core, as a living thing, no more significant than a bird’s. Except, I couldn’t sing like them, in perfect synchrony with the sun rising.
As a guest of Maori tribes, I became one of the many, one knot in my family’s string of people; was allowed to share for the first time in my life a day of direct democracy: practiced for real, instead of idealized. It was not enough to be there, I had to earn the Maori’s trust at every step. The effect, was a sense of contentment. Effort to be myself? Pointless. Perception of life and death, in every form, like melting in water. It was a change with no return. Tawera told me that her visit to the Colosseum, in Rome, learning about slaves fighting with African lions in the arena, changed her life. She probably lost her illusions about European primacy. I certainly lost my native illusions in Maori land, about individual power sanctified by the Renaissance. I’m quite sure it’s only the winning side of a more complex history. After coming home, I looked for discordant voices in the modern time. My favorite is Robert Musil’s, when he discloses
“a secret rising and ebbing of our being with that of things and other people.”
Tawera’s crosses are the art version of signs put as signatures by the Maori chiefs on the Treaty of Waitangi, the sixth day of February 1840: by that treaty Queen Victoria of England extended to the natives of New Zealand her royal protection and imparted to them all the rights and privileges of British subjects. A non-written civilization received the same rights as the empire of written words. Reality had been bloody and violent, legal agreements were amazingly clean although hard to accept. For more than one hundred years the document was lost, became a flying rumor. But the day came that it was found, and now the Maori tribes are slowly recuperating their territories.
In the meantime the colonial wisdom had destroyed and burned most of the native trees on the mountains around Gisborne, to replace them with European pine trees not compatible with the island’s soil. Tawera and her husband brought home the dead trees, carved them and placed them in front of their house as spiritual guardians.
As my New Zealand experience became a book, (New Zealand with Italian Accent), I asked Tawera to draw some punctuations for the end of each chapter. Knowing it was going to be a hand made book, sewn by me copy by copy, she conceived images kept together with stitches, free buttons and Maori speech signs in a dialogue with verbal abstractions: stories, not decorations.
On a theme by Hone Taiapa, by Hone Tuwhare*
Tell me poet, what happens to my chips
after I have adzed our ancestors
out of wood?
What happens to your waste-words, poet?
Do they limp to heaven, or go down easy
And what about my chips, when they’re
down ― and out? If I put them to fire
do I die with them?
Is that my soul’s spark spiralling; lost
to the cold night air? Agh, let me die
another hundred times: eyeball
to eyeball I share bad breath
with the flared nostrils of the night.
For it’s not me I leave behind: not me.
Only the vanities of people;
their pleasure, their wonder and awe
Bite on this hard, poet: and walk careful.
Fragmented, my soul lies there: in
the waste-wood, around.
My cells have probably a precise memory of me, better than my mind. I am a dresser opening drawers here and there with no chronological order, with no order at all. And stories come out of my fingers. When they take shape, they are like clouds of miriad passerines, looking black on the page after a long pause on the ground, pecking what’s left of dismantled piles of hay. Stretching their flight higher and wider, looping, and inflating the blue with sudden explosions of wings, birds keep drawing their distance from the ground and yet they need it, somehow like the artists.
*Hone Tuwhare’s poem is from Deep River Talk, collected poems, 1993.
Hone Tuwhare was the first Maori poet writing in English.
** Rarohenga, in Maori mythology, is the underworld and realm of the spirits