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Tāme Iti and the art of making a point

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Alison Mau is a senior reporter for Stuff.

OPINION: Journalists – unless they’ve spent years covering a specialized area of ​​reporting – can usually speak for about a minute on almost any topic, but no more. This is a joke that I often use to excuse my lack of in-depth knowledge on various topics (Sailing! Pasture Management! Global Economic Theory!)

I would like to know more about art. To use the adage, I know what touches me, but often I don’t know why. I know that the art of Tāme Iti moves me deeply, and I am not alone there; his nomination as a laureate of the arts attests to this. The connection between Tāme’s art and the Maori experience is inescapable, which is why I found the responses to his correction of a painting in a Wellington hotel this week fascinating.

Abigail Dougherty / Stuff

Tāme Iti received the Burr/Tatham Trust Award at the 2022 Arts Foundation, Tu Tumu Toi Laureate Awards.

For those who haven’t seen it, the video of Iti crossing out her misspelled name on a Dean Proudfoot painting at the QT Hotel is worth watching. Wearing a T-shirt with the words “I will speak Maori”, he neatly crosses out the name “Tama” and paints Tāme above it.

In the video, Iti explains that her name isn’t hard to find. Captioned “Every Week is Maori Language Week” and set to a Dr Dre/Snoop Dog track, the video is a work of art in itself.

* Artistic dynasties of contemporary Maori art feature in Auckland’s flagship exhibition
* Tāhunanui gains its meaning in te reo
* Signs of terrorist attacks in Christchurch for some time, says Tāme Iti
* Kaumātua disgusted by gallery’s efforts to show colonial painting, citing racism
* Tame Iti marks the “end of the era” for Tuhoe with an exhibition

Proudfoot’s response was an example of crisis management; a full apology and approval of Iti’s actions. This closed questions like, why didn’t he check the name of the person whose picture he was painting and actions? The play is literally about Tāme – it is Tāme. It borrows its activism for its content — part of a series, Proudfoot says, that celebrates Aotearoa’s unique characters.

Tāme Iti corrects his own name on a painting by Dean Proudfoot in Wellington.


Tāme Iti corrects his own name on a painting by Dean Proudfoot in Wellington.

Nonetheless, he says the correction lifted the coin, which of course it did, and she’s now quite famous because of it.

The response from the painting’s owner was less than enthusiastic. Chris Parkin, art collector and philanthropist, and also owner of the hotel, called it a disfigurement and “no different from graffiti”, saying Iti should be prosecuted.

In some ways it was the perfect colonialist response. It is also puzzling for an “art collector” – a reaction that is both banal and incurious. For him, maybe, it’s just one thing he owns, inside another thing he owns (the hotel), and he can’t imagine how it could evolve and live with it. more context and meaning. It completely misses the point. And now we have the weird situation where the original artist is thrilled (and chastised) and the owner, furious.

Iti has long fought attacks on his name, literally and figuratively. Besides being labeled a terrorist, he was even wrongly accused of being an art thief.

Iti preferred to keep his own advice this week but several people, including members of his whānau, kindly helped me understand the context around the correction. It’s been a problem for a long time, they told me – so much so that after the Urewera raids trial, they created the hashtag #TameNotTama and corrected individuals, media and organizations. Social media has become an important tool for whānau to take control of these racially based projections and open up a conversation.

Iti’s act this week happened for a number of reasons; ideological, situational and practical. For many years, Proudfoot’s Pākeha projection of Iti received mana because it hung in a wealthy Pākeha man’s hotel. There are many colonial parallels here. The family had stayed at the hotel recently and had to walk past the board several times – essentially they were paying to walk past the error and accept it.

Tame Iti's I Will Not Speak Māori on Wellington's seafront.

Trinity Thompson-Browne/supplied

Tame Iti’s I Will Not Speak Māori on Wellington’s seafront.

They were back in Wellington this month to show Iti’s ‘I Will Not Speak Maori’ exhibition.

The viral social media content that followed enabled people to participate in a “soft” form of activism against this racist statement and highlighted the lengths Iti and his friends at Ngā Tamatoa had to go through to bring a positive change for Maori.

They had been interviewing the media for two months, constantly correcting Iti’s name. The timing was perfect. (Incidentally, those who might wonder if this act was a publicity stunt should know that the facility was largely full at the time.)

Iti’s correction was on the mark – he has a long history of creating performance art. Now Iti, his family and supporters, and all of us are left with a number of questions.

Did this correction add value to the painting? Who does this benefit? Why is it important to correctly say Auckland and Wellington but not Tāmaki Makaurau or Te Whanganui-a-Tara? What would happen if we replaced one letter with another on the Prime Minister’s name, and stuck with it without explanation, without shame?

The best result of Iti’s act might be a reconciliation that allows the painting to hang on, corrected, as a reminder of a cultural shift, and the beauty of Iti’s brand of activism.