Magic Playgrounds: Historical Images of New Zealand Childhoods Opening Speech for Exhibition One: Ko te Taiao
Nau Mai Haere Mai. The kaupapa for the first exhibition is Ko te Taiao – The Natural Environment. When I first began thinking about these exhibitions, it was important to me to capture something of what it’s like to experience childhood in Aotearoa/New Zealand, both in the past and now. What are the elements of our identity that make our childhoods distinct? There are many things that come to mind, but few are as embedded in our memories and sense of self as our environment. Whether we are down the beach, on the farm, going on school camp or climbing a mountain, perhaps it’s safe to say that Papatuanuku, Tangaroa, Tane Mahuta, Ranginui and Tawhirimatea all form one aspect of the New Zealand character – that is, that land, sea, rivers, and forests leave their imprint on our childhoods.
Before I go on, I’d like to thank the NZ Film Archive for allowing me the privilege of rummaging around in their databases, viewing all kinds of film in all kinds of formats, requesting all sorts of favours, and generally poking about in areas where I sometimes had little former experience. They trusted me to come up with a decent show, and I’m grateful for that. There are people in this organisation with so much more knowledge than me, but I think it is a visionary thing to allow ‘outsiders’ in to do a project like this. It means a certain amount of risk, but also bringing in a fresh point of view. That can result in the collection being shown in a way it hasn’t been shown before, and for an infusion of energy and enthusiasm around material that insiders already know well. I hope that this project achieves some of these things. I have been awed, overwhelmed and enthralled by the vast collection at the New Zealand Film Archive. This is truly a Whare Taonga, a House of Treasures, and I hope that visitors to these three exhibitions will get some sense of that.
This exhibition has several parts, which revolve somewhat around the main screen – a montage that loosely chronicles historical visions of New Zealand childhoods and the environment. In the viewing room there are five other screens – Te Mahi a te Pāmu or Farming; Ngā Kōrero a ngā Kaumatua, in which older Māori remember the environments of their childhoods; Advertising or Whakatairanga; Patterns of Growth by visionary educator Gordon Tovey; Ngā Kiriata a te Kāinga or Amateur Film and Home Movies. These can be viewed with the assistance of headphones, except the amateur films which are silent. In the television room, Tūrangawaewae, from the precious and iconic 1974 Tangata Whenua series, will play according to the schedule posted. A feature film series including Vigil, The Strength of Water, This Way of Life and Rangi’s Catch also completes the exhibition. It is my intention that viewers will think about all of these different elements in conversation with each other. There may be questions or gaps in the main screen montage that are addressed or highlighted by the other screens, television room show or feature films.
Early on in this project I had to come to terms with the idea that historical film doesn’t tell historical stories the way we would tell them now. Early films reveal the moment of making, and thus are not retrospective and do not have the overlay of analysis that we might put on history now. They reveal us to ourselves in ways we might not have anticipated at the time of making. And it is often not so much the events of those times that are revealed, but our attitudes towards ourselves and our place in the world. The result is sometimes weird, sometimes disturbing, sometimes hilarious and often poignant. Most of all I’m grateful that these records of earlier times in our collective story continue to exist and be cared for by the film archive.
While I found the older footage immeasurably valuable and interesting and exciting, I felt the need to present film that could also act as a counterpoint to those times and ways of seeing the world. What does it all mean now? So some of the more contemporary material presented through this exhibition is one way of thinking about history indirectly – for example The Strength of Water exemplifies a way of relating to the land and a world beyond the physical that has endured through colonial and postcolonial turmoil, This Way of Life addresses many questions around how we raise children, and what the ideal environment for family life is. Interestingly, the freedom experienced by the Karena children in that film highlights a question raised by Iritana Tawhiwhirangi on the Ngā Kōrero a ngā Kaumatua screen regarding how children at play are overprotected these days compared to when she was young. In this way, a conversation is generated. We look at history to understand where we are now, how we got here, and even where we should be headed. Where we are now is intimately linked to the journey we took in getting here.
Finally, I must also mention the other exhibitions. Each will run for six weeks. After this one closes in late July, the Cultural Diversity exhibition will open, and seven weeks later, the Social Equality exhibition will complete the series. These are the elements of historical New Zealand childhoods that I chose to explore because they are elements of our culture I hold dear, but each exhibition will both explore and question these ideas about Kiwi identity. At this stage, it looks to me like each exhibition might be quite different in content as well. A highlight of the next exhibition will probably be culturally diverse short films and animation, because filmmakers have often chosen children and culture as subject matter for their creative work. So do come back again and again – take time to explore.
Kōrerorero - Conversations
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