FACE TO FACE: DAME ANNE SALMOND
She’s been acclaimed as a distinguished historian and attacked as an opinionated social commentator who believes the powerful and the privileged should be held to account. Dame Anne Salmond talks to Joanna Wane about a new documentary series that required
She’s a distinguished historian and opinionated social commentator; in a new documentary series, Dame Anne Salmond is required to be both. She talks to Joanna Wane.
The image of singer Rihanna posing on the grand staircase of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in her extravagantly caped, canary-yellow gown was a defining moment in The First Monday in May, a documentary on the glamorous annual Met Gala. But Rosanna Raymond blows her out of the water.
Based in New York on a fellowship at the museum, the Kiwi artist and “cultural commentator” strides into a new history series, Artefact, in an episode titled “Threads that Bind”, which explores the political potency of clothing. Regally attired in bark- cloth crinoline and an ornate headpiece, Raymond coolly appraises the naked marble torsos on display in the classical art galleries, then sashays up the stairs, parting the back panels of her gown to reveal…
“Well, I don’t want to give too much away,” says Dame Anne Salmond, who travelled to New York, London and Europe during filming for the series, in a role that’s closer to “in conversation with” than the official title of presenter listed in the credits. “But the sight of Rosanna ascending the stairs like Scarlett O’hara and doing what she calls her ‘backhand maiden’ curtsey, with all the curators just gaping... and an encounter she has with the goddess Aphrodite – it’s unbelievable.”
There are some big personalities in Artefact, none more so than Tūhoe activist Tame Iti, who Salmond describes as “a bit of a fashionista”. Old news clips show him firing a shotgun into the New Zealand flag at a pōwhiri for a Waitangi Tribunal hearing, but also capture his shrewd wit; on trial after the 2007 Urewera anti-terror raids, he arrived at court trussed up in a bowler hat and bow tie.
Here, he chats to Salmond next to a rack of clothes he brought along to the film shoot, telling her how tricky it was to work out his “colours” – the shades that best suit his skin tone. Then he slips on an elegant, tailored waistcoat to which a young Māori designer has, unexpectedly, added a hoodie. For Salmond, whose currency is the written word, the scene that follows revealed the intrinsic power of pictures.
“There’s this moment where he
folds his arms, turns his back and glares over his shoulder at the camera,” she says. “He looks just the way a lot of people would think about Tame, if they didn’t know him and had never met him.
“The next minute, he turns around, opens up his arms so you can see all the moko on his chest and then gives this angelic smile, as if to say, ‘Here I am!’ How do you write about that? How do you say, ‘Don’t judge these people; don’t bring your stereotypes to bear on a guy with a moko wearing a hoodie.’ He did it all, without words.”
There’s nothing dry and dusty – nothing lifeless – about the artefacts used as “portals to the past” in this six-part series, screening on Māori Television from May 7. The key piece in “Threads that Bind” is a black and white dress printed with traditional motifs that was worn by New Zealand’s first Māori woman cabinet minister, Whetū Tirikātene- Sullivan. Another episode, titled “The Power of Gifts”, centres on a hoe ( paddle) given by East Coast Māori to the crew of Cook’s Endeavour in 1769 – an exchange that marked the first peaceful encounter between Māori and European. The series finale uses feathers of the extinct huia to symbolise environmental issues, and follows Salmond to Longbush, the eco-sanctuary she and her architect husband, Jeremy Salmond, have established near Gisborne as an “ark in the bush”.
Often, the political is also the personal for Salmond, who is patron of the Te Awaroa Foundation, an initiative that aims to restore 1000 rivers to health by 2050. The Waimatā River, where she swam as a child, is now degraded by sediment from the forestry industry at the headwaters. “So you have this nightmare scenario of the base of the river rising at the same time the sea level is rising, with Gisborne and the port wrapped right around it,” she says. “One of my students calls it ‘slow violence’, because [that kind of environmental damage] takes generations to unfold.”
The 72-year- old is a Dame cut from the same cloth as the likes of Helen Mirren (who’s the same age) and Te Papa founding chief executive Cheryll Sotheran, a longtime friend and colleague whose loss last year Salmond still feels keenly. An anthropologist, author and professor in Māori Studies at Auckland University, she’s described neo-liberalism as a “cult of naked self-interest”, and was dismissed as “high and mighty” by former Attorney- General Chris Finlayson when she opposed the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) bill in 2013 as an assault on democratic freedom.
As New Zealand prepares to commemorate the first contact between Māori and Pākehā almost 250 years ago, she tells North & South why she finds cause for optimism.
North & South: What’s the intent of Artefact – what did you set out to do? Anne Salmond: It changed from the initial concept, which was more of the tried and true format of a “talking expert”, like David Attenborough or Simon Schama. But plants and animals can’t talk for themselves, nor can works of art, so you can be very intelligent and amusing and insightful about them and they’re not going to say, ‘Hey, you got it all wrong.’ I was acutely aware of wanting to make sure people were able to tell their own stories. So we had this idea of using artefacts – these iconic objects – as a springboard to storytelling.
N&S: There’s an incredibly emotional scene in the first episode where a delegation from the East Coast travels to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and gifts a whale-tooth pendant to a carved tekoteko of their ancestor Paikea. Can you imagine a situation where Pākehā would be moved to tears by something like that? AS: Perhaps on Anzac Day. There are moments, but it’s not quite the same as this very deep connection with an ancestor who lived a long time ago. That’s one of the things I learned moving in the Te Ao Māori world as a young woman, going to marae, sleeping in the houses at night and realising they were ancestors, not just carvings, around the walls. That’s the beauty of the series, that people have the chance to share experiences like this, which are absolutely from the heart.
N&S: It must have been tempting to slip Paikea into your luggage and smuggle him home. AS: It was hard for [the delegation] to see him lying on a shelf, shrouded in plastic, in what is really an oldschool museum – not a place where the living presence of the Pacific is evident, let’s put it that way. To them, it feels as if their ancestors are trapped in prison, incarcerated. Some taonga are very potent, and you can tell Paikea is one of those kind of hanging out to come home.
N&S: These are essentially Māori stories you’re telling. What makes them relevant to all of us? AS: In New Zealand, we’ve done so much that is world leading, and often the crossover between Europe and modernity and Māori ways of doing things have been right at the core of that. Writers, musicians and performers, but some of our thinkers, as well, have been for a long time in this kind of space in-between. And I think it’s a world-leading space. Sometimes its very fraught; other times it’s extraordinarily creative.
We’ve used the series to hop into that space and meet some really amazing people doing things every New Zealander should feel really proud of and be fascinated by, because these are our stories. Some are quite painful or heart-rending, but it’s also very joyous and there’s a lot of laughter as well. That’s one thing people don’t understand, perhaps, about what it’s like to be a Pākehā travelling around in the Māori world; they think it’s an angst-ridden experience. But this certainly wasn’t like that.
N&S: How do you feel looking ahead to the “first encounter” commemorations in 2019? AS: I’m excited, actually, and quite optimistic. I’ve made it part of my life’s work exploring those exchanges right from the beginning, trying to understand their resonances in the present and how they might shape the future.
When I think about what happened in 1769, with people who knew nothing of each other’s protocols or ways of understanding the world, but then there was the [Tahitian] high priest Tupaia standing alongside the Europeans and what I’ve called this rough intelligibility between them. They could kind of make sense of each other, but in the beginning it was so crude it led to shootings and heartbreak, and that still echoes. If I’m at home in Gisborne, there are people for whom those shootings happened yesterday. And the Treaty, which was full of promise in many ways, then got overturned so quickly.
But there’s a new generation arising. You saw that at Waitangi this year, with the Prime Minister [Jacinda Ardern] at ease in that environment on the marae as a young woman who is pregnant, being awhied, really embraced, in a very Māori way. At the same time, you can become completely frustrated by some of the other voices being raised, which have been largely male and pale and privileged, and typically from a much older generation. So perhaps what’s going on now is a sort of seismic shift.
N&S: You’re in something of a minority, placing so much faith in millennials. AS: I often find them inspiring. I teach them, of course, and I really like this generation of young people I’ve worked with [on Artefact]. I think they understand the world in ways that are different from my generation, and they’re confronting things that are often quite frightening, even apocalyptic. Many of them have figured out that power and wealth can be very destructive and don’t matter as much as having really good relationships with other people. The world is a tough place. But in that fire we’re forging some pretty remarkable young people.
N&S: Over the years, you’ve copped some criticism for not sitting silently in your ivory tower. Do you regret poking your head above the parapet? AS: If you’re just a spectator sitting on the comfortable sidelines and pronouncing on what’s going on without actually getting bruised and battered, you don’t really know what it’s like in the world beyond the university. The whole idea of academic freedom is to not tolerate the false facts and the fake news; the risks to democracy when power and wealth intersect.
I’ve done a lot of work on that period of early exploration, which was the time of the Enlightenment, and thinkers of that era were quite likely to get shot or hung. They took risks that were extraordinary, and we look back and say that person reshaped the possibilities for women, for example, or for slaves or for democracy. And the debates then were at least as passionate as they are now, much more, probably, because it was lives at stake, not just reputations or getting a bit of a belt from somebody on Facebook.