Monday, November 2, 2009

Longhouse & Te Waka Toi International Indigenous Residency Program: Larry McNeil Journeys to the Land of the Long White Cloud

It was a great honor to have completed an Artist Residency this summer in Aotearoa, which is the Māori name for New Zealand. It was a month-long artist residency that was sponsored and organized via a partnership between Te Waka Toi /Creative New Zealand, and the Longhouse Education and Cultural Center at Evergreen College.

In my opinion, the best thing that happened as a result of the Artist Residency was the extended networking that went on between the many Māori artists, scholars, arts professionals, students and myself. In this sense, my role was that of an Indigenous artist representing North America as a kind of cultural ambassador. The networking allowed me to learn the commonalities and nuances between the Māori and the Indigenous people of the Americas. For an example, while in Whakatane, I was completely awed by Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, one of three institutions designated as wānanga.

These institutions provide an education in a Māori cultural context, under their Education act of 1989. I was able to spend a few days with students and Tina Wirihana (the first artist to visit Evergreen through this international residency program). As a University Full Professor, I was deeply impressed by the intellectual rigor that their students brought to their studies in conjunction with artistry that can provide a large challenge to any arts curriculum. Their website states “The formation of Awanuiārangi was an important step, which recognized the role of education in providing positive pathways for Māori development.”

If I could speak a bit more personally, I was constantly struck by how the Māori are so much like our own people on this continent. We both have a history of formidable warriors defending the homeland against foreign invaders, and are fiercest when it comes to defending families. Maybe another way of saying this is that our love for our people is fiercest of all and it is what has allowed us to persevere against all odds and has successfully taken us into the present and is laying the groundwork for the future. And I think that being a warrior today translates to getting the best education possible and constantly defending our mutual rights, land and cultural values. I was fed many of their best delicacies and was again struck by the commonalities we share. While talking on the phone to my brother about my trip he jokingly commented that either we’re the Northernmost Māori or they’re the Southernmost Tlingit!

I would like to thank all of the people at Te Waka Toi and the Evergreen Longhouse for their confidence in my ability to fulfill the ideals of this residency. Tina Kuckkahn, the Director of the Longhouse and Puawai Cairns, the Policy and Projects Adviser at Māori Arts have been my primary contact people with the substantial logistical planning. There were also many people behind the scenes who had critical input into the residencies, like Sandy Adsett, Natalie Robertson, Takirirangi Smith, Bob Jahnke, June Grant, John Miller, Arnold Wilson, Megan Tamati-Quennell, Lawrence Makoare among others. (Please excuse me if I don’t name them all here.)

I am constantly reminded that the arts of a culture are a manifestation of its vitality and sustainability. Art is often an indicator of strength, intellectual abilities and reinforces the spiritual values that are inherent to the peoples that have inhabited the land since ancient times. In other words, art and culture are one, and to nurture one is to nurture the other. It is clear that this is also the great commonality that links the Māori to the Indigenous people of the Americas, and we can share our strengths with each other. It was clear that both Te Waka Toi /Creative New Zealand and the Longhouse Education and Cultural Center are acutely aware of these sensibilities and formulate their missions accordingly.

There is nothing that can replace face-to-face personal interactions, and that is the forte of the Artist’s Residency. I thought that a really great part of the residency was the ability to travel around the country and to visit a very diverse group of artists, schools, faculty, and arts administrators. For example, since I work with photography, new digital media and printmaking, it was great to interact with Māori artists doing the same thing and with other media. It was good to compare notes and see the challenges that we both face and the kinds of creative problem solving we do in order to succeed as artists.

The same goes with being a scholar, and learning the nuances of the challenges we both have to overcome in order to advance in an academic setting. It is a huge challenge to succeed in an academic setting when one is an artist and scholar both in Aotearoa and in America. It was good to “compare notes” and to reinforce our mutual strategies for success. It was wise for both arts organizations to emphasize the strengthening of our intercultural relationships and to do it in the manner of both of our ancient ancestors; to act as both formal and informal hosts and guests. Our mutual protocols help ensure that the proper kinds of relationships continue to be nurtured.

Of course, part of my residency had to do with creating new work, which gave me special satisfaction. And as a photographer, new media and printmaking artist, one of my favorite strategies is to simply travel to different communities to make photographs and images that reflect my own visual aesthetic and unique sensibilities. In other words, I went with a propensity for making art in a specific manner, but kept an open mind about discovering what may reveal itself on the special journey. It was a delicate act to make art that comes from my own background; and any art that is made will be my interpretation of the interactions I shared while there.

One of the fun aspects was networking via Facebook with many of the people I met along the journey and sharing snapshots of events, friends and art (you have to log in to see the album). It became an informal scrapbook that also served as a visual reminder of what happened with whom, when and where. On my end, it was a true group effort that propelled me on my way, starting with my wife Debi, who is always so supportive of everything I do, including releasing me from my responsibilities as a father and husband for a month! My sisters Helen and Patty made me a beautiful Dakl’aweidi tunic with wonderful Keet designs, and my niece Jessica (a Freshman in college who is very good at speaking the Tlingit language) helped with the Dakl’aweidi songs. We believe that our songs are important too, because they are a living manifestation of our ancient history and ancestors.

The art residency was a challenging, wonderful learning experience—not to mention fun! I really love the idea that art drives just about everything associated with this residency and that there is a powerful indigenous component from both the hosts and guest artists. I am very honored to play a role with continuing this very enlightening, creative and empowering set of art residencies.

1 comment:

Shah-yee said...

Thats allot of awesomeness Uncle Larry!