These past months have been charged with a sense of curiosity and grappling- of how to make sense of an emergent identity that has been more than a century in the making. There was the recent Helene Wong talk at the Auckland Art Gallery, on Being Chinese, where the speakers were bold enough to ask what kind of New Zealand we wanted for the future, and then, what responsibility do we have to make this happen? Alongside more sticky questions raised by visiting artists Tita Salina and Irwan Ahmett at the recent St Paul St Forums negotiating diaspora and indigeneity, these thoughts have cumulatively left me in a state of cloudy euphoria dampened only by an incapacity to turn words into action.
Working in the GLAM sector, the division between personal and professional often becomes blurred. This isn’t surprising given that institutions clearly determine cultural value through representation. Being a New Zealand-born Chinese, working in this sector has given me a greater sense of my own identity, and while this has been a happy accident, it has also been one of the most isolating. On my better days I do believe that cultural spaces work hard to be ethnically inclusive. And on my worse, I cannot reconcile the essence of my being with a sector that is mired in a bicultural vernacular with little room for anyone else.
But the weight of this burden does not fall squarely on the shoulders our institutions. When Helene Wong affirmed that there needs to be a multiplicity of Asian voices in the arts sector, she was also speaking out against the silence and absence from cultural conversations that Chinese New Zealanders had perpetrated against themselves. And this has been a history over 100 years in the making. In trying to divert attention away from ourselves, to become the model migrants, or to readily subsume our identity to a dominant pākehā culture, our silence was as destructive as any action meted against us because the consequence was also the erasure of our bodies from the cultural landscape.
Race You There was another revelation that I wished had come earlier in my education. Published in Landfall in 2005, Tze Ming Mok’s words were a shallow echo of my own thoughts - a call to arms for the Asian community to try to make sense of our own belonging in relation to kaupapa Māori. I wonder at which point in my upbringing, in my early education alongside kōhanga reo and progression through various schools, and my own interaction with people and society did this fragile connection begin to fall away.
I was recently reminded that it is not easy to carve a space for others who have been twice marginalised by a bicultural discourse, or for those whose being in this country is only via economic necessity, not cultural want. Nor is it the responsibility of institutions to carry forward cultural conversations about identity. This responsibility falls to the community, GLAMers and otherwise, who are able to act as free agents and determine a future that is different to what we can currently imagine.
But the question remains: does our work within the cultural sector absolve us of individual responsibility- or a responsibility to bring about change? And how can we agitate against institutional frameworks?
I no longer believe that it is desirable to bend myself to a system that is foreign to this land. Neutrality should not be a desirable position and might even be a dangerous one. In trying to uncover some of the history around recent Asian New Zealand art practice, I have also come to see that the natural ally of neutrality is not objectivity, but a lack of care, or perhaps even negligence. And that should be our first duty as GLAMers, a duty of care for culture.