Weekend Herald - Canvas

Okay, Boomer

Simon Wilson on a new history of protest in New Zealand and how progressiv­e our country really is


HART, the Halt All Racist Tours organisati­on, turned 50 last month. At a symposium in Wellington to mark the anniversar­y, the talk turned to the elderly woman who was batoned by police on Molesworth St, during a Springbok Tour protest march in 1981. Her name was Rona Bailey and she was 66, far older than most of the protesters that evening.

Many of the people at the symposium were on that march and they have now reached that age. Boomers! How time flies.

Bailey is featured in the book Protest Tautohetoh­e, a record of protest in Aotearoa, written by three senior curatorial staff at Te Papa and published by Te Papa Press.

Bailey is not there for her anti-apartheid activism, though. In 1951 she and her unionist husband Chip had charge of a typewriter used to produce illegal leaflets and bulletins during the waterfront lockout. They hid it in the walls of their house and would have gone to jail if the police found it. Which they never did.

That typewriter is in the book. It’s in Te Papa’s collection.

The commentato­r Morgan Godfery was at the HART symposium. He talked about the missing generation, between boomers, who protested, and millennial­s like him who are protesting now. There is, he said, “a chasm between youthadjac­ent people and young people”, who were “taken out” by the economic reforms of the 1980s and 90s. Gen Xers. “They don’t know how to protest and they don’t understand it.”

Protest Tautohetoh­e is a book for those who were there, those who are now and everyone who might want to understand it. It’s not a straight history, but a record of movements and events told through the presentati­on of “objects”: the posters, banners, T-shirts and badges, flags, photos and the other parapherna­lia of protest that has somehow ended up in the collection­s of museums.

As such it looks and feels like a catalogue for an exhibition, although the book gives no hint that was ever the plan. Still, it does the trick: there is so much to discover and rediscover here.

There are classic posters: “Had this ship been nuclear powered, thousands could have died”, with a photo of the Wahine sinking. “If Muldoon could get pregnant abortion would be legal”, with a photo of Prime Minister of the day,

Robert Muldoon, his pregnant belly straining at his jack button.

So many quirky little things. Painted fins, used to protest shark-finning. Hundreds of badges: HART’S Trevor Richards is quoted observing that a “cause [wouldn’t have] made it if there wasn’t a badge to buy”. Flags, pennants, quilts, sewn lovingly by an army of volunteers.

There are the more profession­al efforts too. The Wellington Media Collective, a group of photograph­ers, screen printers, artists and designers who tirelessly produced visual materials for all manner of protests, is well represente­d. So is the Auckland group Artists Against Apartheid.

The book is impressive­ly designed, with expansive displays and gorgeous handling of type. Even better, its explanatio­ns of the issues and what happened are lively and concise, evocativel­y placing individual detail in its larger historic frame. There’s real expertise at work here.

Best of all, each section contains a book extract. Often haunting, sometimes highly entertaini­ng, they add up to a gripping collection of personal histories and insights.

Ngahuia Te Awekotuku writes as the only Maori lesbian in the village of early Auckland radical feminism. Geoff Chapple records the violence against Springbok Tour protesters on the field in Hamilton, where many rugby fans singled out women for the worst beatings. There’s Sonja Davies on the women’s sitdown protest on the Nelson Railway Line, in 1955, risking prison, fearing being run over by a train, incurring the wrath of her father for the shame of it all and “ruining” her sister’s wedding.

For all those strengths, the focus on objects distorts the history. If it wasn’t collected, it’s not here, say the authors. Their example is Chinese protests against the poll tax in the 19th century — and it’s an unfortunat­e one. But there are others, perhaps more surprising. Bastion Point is given its due in the texts but almost no objects or images are shown.

Donna Awatere’s enormously influentia­l book, Maori Sovereignt­y, written in the wake of the 1981 Springbok Tour and published the next year, is mentioned in the preface and included in a list of important books but doesn’t make it to the body of this work.

That list, on page 17, will be invaluable for anyone looking for the great books of progressiv­e activism in Aotearoa. Elsie Locke, Tama Poata, Archibald Baxter, Marie Leadbetter, Tim Shadbolt, Dick Scott, Ranginui Walker ... books by and about heroes, with every major struggle including the land marches and dawn raids.

You can’t expect to find everything you want, I know — but was there really no room for any of Debra Bustin’s colourfull­y aggressive antinuclea­r puppets and posters? Sandra Coney might also feel a little aggrieved not to have warranted a mention and a whole lot aggrieved that Broadsheet didn’t either. In any lineup of the foundation­al “objects” of protest in New Zealand, shouldn’t that magazine come near the top of the list?

Especially as the authors have devoted eight whole pages to the Wellington version of the Women’s March on Washington in 2017. Plenty of clever people gave their placards and pennants to Te Papa that day.

Other foundation­al objects have not been overlooked. Auckland Museum’s piece of wood that may be part of a flagstaff cut down by Hone Heke is there, along with Arthur David Mccormick’s painting of him doing it, axe held up, frozen, looking for all the world like he’s posing for a camera.

Kate Sheppard’s 32,000 strong petition, on rolls of paper, is also there. In Parliament, “they unrolled and they unrolled and they unrolled until the great ribbon of paper lay stretched, like a little pathway of white and black veined marble, from the Speaker’s chair right to the door at the end of the aisle. Then the messengers had to stop for they could go no further but the roll showed no signs of diminution.”

Talk about a dramatic gesture. Those were the days.

Protest Tautohetoh­e, as the work of museum and gallery curators, is pushed in some unusual directions by the inclusion of a lot of art. Some of it is overtly political: Ralph Hotere on Aramoana, Robyn Kahukiwa and Emily Karaka on Maori rights and particular­ly the causes of Maori women, Barry Lett’s work during the Springbok Tour.

Some of it is more ephemeral. One of the most arresting images is Rita Angus’ The Apple Pickers, a part-finished work showing 12 men and women of different races taking their lunch

break in an orchard. The painting was done in 1944, when Angus had spent time at the pacifist Riverside Farm.

It’s a statement about the beauty of humans engaged in honest labour, a counterpoi­nt to violence and horror. Protest is also affirmatio­n.

Because protest is protest, the other side has also snuck in. A dress suit worn by Brian Tamaki; upright citizens marching against abortion. A couple of jokers wearing FART T-shirts, which might seem unbelievab­le now but it’s true: they were For All Racist Tours.

The authors explain there aren’t many protest “objects” from the right, but they’ve done their best. Fair enough, they’re the national museum.

Despite those occasional interludes, though, the book presents progressiv­e protest as a wellspring of the nation. We are who we are because of it, even when it’s awkward.

Eden Park hosted the Nelson Mandela exhibition this year: the Rugby Union did not take the opportunit­y to apologise for anything, but the park administra­tors, with perfectly straight faces, had no trouble associatin­g themselves with New Zealand’s role in the antiaparth­eid struggle.

Is that okay? The people of South Africa who were treated so terribly by apartheid may not need an apology from New Zealand but this

[Climate change is] the issue at the heart of everything it means to call yourself a progressiv­e New Zealander. Which, it turns out, is not always as easy as perhaps it once seemed.

book makes it very clear things were ugly here, too. There is still scope for an apology to the people of New Zealand, from the NZ Rugby Union and Government, for the appalling violence and social division they wilfully unleashed.

Protesters R Us. Greenpeace director Russel Norman spelled it out in his Bruce Jesson Memorial Lecture at the University of Auckland a month ago. “Everything good in society comes from people like us,” he said. “It comes from mass movements.”

Kate Sheppard knew that. Pania Newton in the protest village at Ihumatao knows it now. That cause is in the book too.

Dots are joined. Muldoon was never slow to call on “Rob’s Mob” but, without irony, he liked to sneer at “Rent-a-mob” protesters. It was always puzzling. If you understood why it was wrong for New Zealand to go to war in Vietnam, why wouldn’t you also see the evil in apartheid and want to stop nuclear testing?

Why wouldn’t you also realise that all protests are about power, which no one ever gives up willingly. Protest is about forcing that to happen.

HART veteran John Minto, at the symposium in Wellington, has always joined the dots. We have a new big issue now, he declared: “It’s capitalism or the environmen­t, in a fight to the death.” Is that true?

Environmen­talism is well represente­d in the book, from the great campaign against the drowning of Lake Manapouri in 1970 to the Student Strikes and Extinction Rebellion today. “There is no Planet B,” proclaims a placard in Balclutha, 2014. It’s not just a city thing.

The climate change cause goes to the heart of one of the great themes of protest: land use. How to build a modern city. How to restore indigenous land rights. What to do about waterways, how to do better with agricultur­e and forestry.

It divides us deeply and it’s the issue at the heart of everything it means to call yourself a progressiv­e New Zealander. Which, it turns out, is not always as easy as perhaps it once seemed.

Anti-apartheid activist Graeme Easte is in this book, being beaten up in Matamata in 1985 for bravely protesting the plan to send the All Blacks to South Africa that year. On the very next page there’s a “Don’t Go” T-shirt from the same campaign, made by artist Stanley Palmer.

Easte and Palmer, once comrades in arms, now staunchly oppose each other over the future of the Chamberlai­n Park golf course in Mt Albert. How did that happen?

Theirs is a land-use battle, although it’s also a sideshow. The big event is happening on dairy farms, in forestry blocks, in cities clogged with cars and suburbs facing intensific­ation and, most of all, down the road at Ihumatao.

Godfery has called Ihumatao a model for modern activism: using Facebook, not as a chatty end in itself but to help mobilise mass support, keeping the focus on basic issues, raising up the culture in the process of raising up the protest. Te Papa should be collecting, now.

Protest Tautohetoh­e by Stephanie Gibson, Matariki Williams and Puawai Cairns

(Te Papa Press, $70), is on sale now.

Why wouldn’t you also realise that all protests are about power, which no one ever gives up willingly. Protest is about forcing that to happen.

 ?? PHOTOS / MICHAEL O’NEILL, ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY, ARCHIVES NZ, ?? Memorabili­a featured in Protest Tautohetoh­e.
PHOTOS / MICHAEL O’NEILL, ALEXANDER TURNBULL LIBRARY, ARCHIVES NZ, Memorabili­a featured in Protest Tautohetoh­e.
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