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

North & South - - In This Issue -

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.

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