Please don't eat children in my back yard guys. - Tactical Ninja
Feb. 23rd, 2012
10:05 am - Please don't eat children in my back yard guys.
I came across a tweet this morning:
Now, I had no idea what this installation was about, so I went and had a look. Turns out it's a room full of bubbles, the bubbles having been made using water that had also been used to wash dead bodies.
I dunno. Every culture has its own death rituals, and I'm not familiar enough with the ones in the artist's home country to comment on whether this would be OK in Mexico.
I know that as an English-born European kiwi, the idea of having bubbles made from dead body washing water bursting on my skin, while a bit icky or perhaps even - as the artist says - horrific, doesn't break any ritual, religious or cultural taboos. I'm grossed out but not deeply offended by it. YMMV.
So why did the iwi object strongly enough to have it shut down? By the way, I haven't managed to find any evidence of this but for that one tweet. But if it's actually true, it reminds me a little of the furore over pregnant and menstruating women being advised not to attend the Taonga Maori exhibition at Te Papa. That turned into a debate in which feminism was pitched against Maori culture in ways that became pretty unpleasant at times. Interestingly, many of the women I spoke to were happy to respect Maori culture and didn't feel the request was particulary unfeminist.
This one looks like it may end up being freedom of expression vs Maori culture, and I'm a little afraid of some of the commentary that might end up surrounding it. Anyway, in the interest of understanding what the objection is, I went back to my 101 course readings on tikanga Maori from last year, and read up again on the concepts of tapu and noa.
I am not Maori and I do not speak for Maori. I probably am completely missing important subtleties and if you really want to understand I strongly suggest that you ask someone who is Maori. However, here is my understanding. I hope it encourages people to seek out better info.
Translations from Maori to English are hard. Witness the problems with the interpretation of the treaty, particularly the concept of tino rangatiratanga. And tapu and noa are both words that struggle for accurate translation. However, roughly, tapu means sacred and noa means mundane. These concepts have their basis in the Maori creation traditions and have to do with matters of spiritual vs worldly. So when Tumatauenga (god of war) ate the children of Tanemahuta (god of forest) in revenge for deserting him when their other brother, Tawhirimatea (god of weather) destroyed everything in a fit of temper at the separation of their parents, he took a sacred thing (children) and treated them as a mundane thing (food). This was the ultimate insult, and if I were to try to make a comparison I'd say it'd be up there with Original Sin in terms of its impact on what followed. In a similar way to the way Eve eating the apple has affected cultural traditions in relation to women, sexuality, and knowledge, Tumatauenga's revenge has affected cultural traditions in relation to tapu and noa. And taking something tapu and treating it as noa is probably one of the most offensive things you can do.
This is why sitting on pillows (where the head goes: tapu) is offensive. Also putting your hat (head:tapu) on a table (used for food:noa). Learning what's tapu and what's noa is really useful if you want to understand this sort of thing.
Anyway, I'd be willing to bet that the water that's been used to wash a dead body is tapu. And making bubbles out of it and blowing them into a room where people can get it on themselves? Probably noa. Never mind that normally when entering a tapu place (like where, you know, Essence of Dead Body is floating around), one is supposed to undergo a deliberate ritual of transition from your normal noa state (which you have to be in in order to function in mundane life) into a state of tapu, otherwise contact with the tapu place can be very dangerous. Likewise when you leave the place, you should remove the tapu from yourself.
Essentially, if I'm right this exhibit is not only offensive in the extreme through the casual intermixing of tapu and noa, it's also, in the Maori worldview, putting people in danger. So yeah, I get it. I wouldn't want something like that going on in my turf either.
Whether you subscribe to this view or not, whether you believe in these concepts and their ability to affect your life or not, there are a couple of things to keep in mind here. One is purely respect and politeness. The other is the fact that our country is bicultural (or aspires to be). This means that Maori culture has (or should have) equal standing to European culture, and the right to tino rangatiratanga is hardwired into our founding document. So if Maori culture says "Not on my turf sunshine", that is a right of the Treaty. This public gallery is as much Maori turf as pakeha, and Maori have the right to say whether offensive and potentially dangerous things may happen on their turf.
In my opinion, that should be the end of it. But I have no doubt it won't be. Because one of the hardest parts about bicultural aspirations is when values conflict. What's more important? Personally, I think that if we truly want to be bicultural, then the most important thing is respect. Let's have some.
 Thanks to the skills of anna_en_route, an article's been found. Turns out that the main objection was the exhibition's proximity to the exhibition of a historic Maori pataka (food storage house). So yes, tapu and noa, but not in quite the way I'd envisaged. The article has now been updated with a statement from the iwi.
[edit the second] And here's the Stuff article. The comments serve two purposes - to illustrate my point about how few people grasp that there is more than one valid culture in NZ, and to make me embarrassed for my fellow countryfolk.