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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.

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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.

[edit] 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.

Comments:

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From:t_c_da
Date:February 22nd, 2012 09:21 pm (UTC)
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Amen, sister!

Respect is one of the most important requirements of cross cultural interactions, which somehow seem to be lacking in the US vs The Rest conversations on the intawebs that you comment on...
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From:ferrouswheel
Date:February 22nd, 2012 09:36 pm (UTC)
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Respect would be not shutting down someone's freedom of expression because it disagrees with your personal religious beliefs.
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From:ferrouswheel
Date:February 22nd, 2012 09:35 pm (UTC)
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So we are not allowed to experience other culture and art because Maori say we are not allowed? I think that's ridiculous.

If it was a Maori exhibit, that's fine, but trying to prevent other people's culture/beliefs/expression from being displayed is equivalent to saying everyone in NZ is not allowed certain types of medical practices because it's offensive (and potentially "dangerous") to Maori culture/belief.

I think they should be able to complain about it being offensive, and I'll vehemently defend their right to express it, but shutting it down is vehemently offensive to me. Why not shut down the internet too, there's some not nice stuff on it that offends pretty much any cultural belief system. That information probably travels through iwi land as electromagnetic waves or more directly through cabling.

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From:tatjna
Date:February 22nd, 2012 09:42 pm (UTC)
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I disagree that an art exhibition has the same value as a medical practice.

I am also not seeing 'other culture and art' being shut down, just one exhibit that is offensive in the extreme. All the others are still there.

I understand that it's a compromise of a principle that many hold dear, but I'm willing to make that compromise on the very rare occasion that it comes up.
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From:polychrome_baby
Date:February 22nd, 2012 09:57 pm (UTC)
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I have spent years in study of various mystical and spiritual practices. Some of the hardest ones to understand are Sacred, Profane and Taboo. The three ideas are intricately related and interconnected, and often overlap. Things that are sacred are taboo, things that are profane are sacred, etc. etc.

The ideas don't translate very well into a Western Christian Mythos of God (everything that is good) and the Devil (everything that is bad).

I think it's reasonable to follow Maori custom here, even if I don't precisely care. At least, I sorta don't care. Somewhere in my head it's obviously a problem because you totally couldn't get me to walk into such a thing, even if I think it's a sort of transcendently beautiful idea.

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From:anna_en_route
Date:February 22nd, 2012 10:00 pm (UTC)
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Here's an article on the cancellation

http://news.msn.co.nz/nationalnews/8424256/morgue-water-art-exhibit-doused

Sounds more as if it was more about the fact that this exhibit would be in the same building as a 150 year old exihibit of a Maori food storehouse. Seems reasonable that people with an interest in an existing exhibit have a right to object to a travelling exhibit.

Te Papa has had several exhibitions featuring the dead (e.g. Eygyptian mummies and the remains of Pompeii) and have usually compensated by featuring warnings and bowls for people to cleanse themselves after.
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From:tatjna
Date:February 22nd, 2012 10:03 pm (UTC)
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Nice find, thank you! I'll add it to the main post.
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From:ferrouswheel
Date:February 22nd, 2012 10:10 pm (UTC)
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That's a significantly different situation to just preventing the exhibit - so thanks! I think that this was a cultural faux pas on the art gallery's part.
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From:clashfan
Date:February 22nd, 2012 10:10 pm (UTC)
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As a Yank, my cultural blinders are that artistic freedom and freedom of expression trump concerns about cultural respect. If we don't like the medium or the message, we can protest, and make our position known. But we can't shut it down, force off the air, or otherwise ban art.

There was a case in New York several years ago, in which an African artist's work was on display. This included a representation of the Virgin Mary--in a piece that also used elephant dung and "small collaged images of female genitalia from pornographic magazines". (Wikipedia) The mayor at the time (Giuliani, a Catholic) got peeved and tried to pull funding and evict the museum. These efforts lost in court. No one enjoyed that fight.

My point is that, from over here, I'm not certain that respect is the most important thing.
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From:clashfan
Date:February 22nd, 2012 10:14 pm (UTC)
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While I was writing the above, anna_en_route posted the article she located. It does put a different spin on things, but I am left to wonder--is there no other museum or location that could host this installation?
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From:Will Marshall
Date:February 22nd, 2012 11:29 pm (UTC)
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At a base level, I think it's necessary to the function of a state that offense is not considered sufficient for censorship of art or political speech: regardless of who is offended or how powerful they are. That said, this is pretty much a non-issue given the pakata, so getting into the gritty details of freedom of speech isn't really relevant here.

This does raise a bunch of interesting questions around biculturalism, though. There are some (mostly hypothetical at this point) edge cases that make me uncomfortable, and I haven't seen satisfactory resolution on them, even after interrogating Jodi extensively.

So when you say this:

As a European, I understand the cultural value placed on evidence and proof as well as that placed on freedom of expression. However, I also understand that my values, while important to me, are not held by everyone. And I keep coming back to the fact that this is a bicultural nation and sometimes the 'other' culture's values need to take the upper hand (whether we think they are 'right' or not), otherwise the idea of biculturalism is just bullshit lip service.

I read into that (tell me if I'm wrong) "sometimes it's important to prioritize cultural values over evidence" and that is something I don't think is reasonable at all.

I'm also very interested in your thoughts about reconciling biculturalism with humanist values like feminism, e.g. what do you do in a situation where there are cultural reasons to implement discriminatory policies?

quit oppressing me with your cultural idea of gravity, man
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From:tatjna
Date:February 22nd, 2012 11:38 pm (UTC)
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In answer to your first question, what I am saying is that our founding document states that both cultures have equal value and equal right to self-determination in this nation, and that by law we are required to attempt to be bicultural.

If that means that sometimes we have to prioritise cultural values over evidence, then I'm ok with that, because while evidence is an important measure, its value and prioritisation differs between culture and our country has two, both of which must be given validation. Thus, in matters where values are in conflict, I think compromise/biculturalism/respect/whatever you want to call it becomes more important than whose value is 'right'.

My thoughts on reconciling biculturalism with feminism were discussed at length in the post about the Te Papa thing which is in my archives somewhere. In short, again it's a clash of values and again I look to the fact that we have two cultures here, mine usually 'wins' and I'm ok with compromising for the sake of respect.
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From:anna_en_route
Date:February 23rd, 2012 12:10 am (UTC)
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We prioritize cultural values over evidence all the time, we're just not aware that we're doing it because it's the "way things have always been done" (as for example women walking around topless which is not currently illegal but is also "not done").

In cases where there is a dispute I would prioritize evidence over cultural values in public spaces but only in public spaces unless some actual harm is being done.
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From:tatjna
Date:February 23rd, 2012 01:53 am (UTC)
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Also, I'm curious why the pataka (note spelling) makes a difference to your view of offence vs freedom of speech in this case.

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