I often find myself sneaking an envious glance across the Tasman Sea at you. While our friendly rivalry is well known, there are other more pernicious traits that we have inherited from our shared colonial history. Aotearoa New Zealand. Godzone. And yet- while we would condemn you for your treatment of indigenous peoples and more, we can no longer claim the moral high-ground where racial discrimination is concerned. Our reticence to speak openly – blame it on our sense of humility or our laissez-faire attitude – means that we are still struggling to adapt to the rapidly changing demographics of our urban cities.
Like you, we have seen a new wave of migration from East Asia, new faces that promise to diversify our bi-cultural policies and refashion our Victorian sense of nationalism. And like you, we have seen the ugly hand of racism rise once again and seek to divide us, infiltrating our society through common denominators of interconnected mobiles and throwaway commentaries on social media sites. Unlike you we have been more content to let this conflict simmer. It is the spectre of the yellow peril that began in the gold fields, and as we reach the 175th year milestone of settlement by Asian immigrants in New Zealand it is a spectre that shows little sign of being put to rest.
Where can we begin to look for our bearings, as the geopolitical terrain begins to shift under our feet? Standing on the edge of the Asia-Pacific we seem ill prepared for what the 21st century might bring us.
New regional and national strategies are attempting to make up for the lack of visibility of Asian artists in our cultural scene, yet there is little attempt to account for the range of experience encompassed by such artists. How might an artist with long established ties to the country have a different understanding of place and belonging, compared to one who has immigrated recently within the past five or even ten years? It goes without saying that these experiences are likely to be mutually exclusive, yet the imperative for ‘diversity’ creates a homogenising effect on culture that is more likely to provoke more hostilities.
And what about our recent art history? While you have just witnessed the success of your eighth APT, we are only beginning to recognise that our future lies beyond the warms waters of the South-Pacific. The years in which 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art was founded were also the years that we in New Zealand witnessed the most vociferous attacks against our Asian community since the poll tax1,2 – and the two decades since has seen the gradual erasure of the Asian body from the cultural mainstream.
Real, discursive exhibitions investigating the rich ties between Aotearoa and Asia have been sparse. Where practices fall outside of accepted forms of representation they are unlikely to be supported by national institutions. But there also seems to be a general withdrawal from artists to claim a cultural positioning. Perhaps this is an effect of societal whitewashing or stems from a fear of being typecast as an ‘Asian’ artist. As we enter the so called ‘Asian Century’ how might we begin to address these issues? And can we, as artists, collectively demand more about how we are represented?
The tide is beginning to turn, and with it comes a sense of urgency about how we might take an active role in shaping our cultural landscape. In the near future I hope that we will be able to look towards you with more than envy in our eyes. That we can stand proudly in the knowledge that we seized every opportunity available to us to make ourselves better understood, and that we might be able to play an active role in shaping the course of Asia-Pacific art.
From an Asian New Zealand writer and practitioner