Changing lenses for perspective

Leadership Network member Tessa Ma'auga's exhibition Kāpuia ngā aho 單絲不綫 looks at narratives around Chineseness and the links between Chinese and Maori cultures. The exhibition is a collaboration between Tessa and fellow artist Wai Ching Chan. It is on at The Physics Room in Ōtautahi Christchurch until April 24.
Wai Ching Chan and Tessa Ma'auga

Tessa Ma'auga and Wai Ching Chan at The Physics Room

In the 1860s Chinese men sailed from southern China’s Guangdong province to the goldfields of Otago.

Yet, despite more than a century-and-a-half of living in Aotearoa, Chinese New Zealanders are still too often perceived as foreign.

At home in Palmeston North, award-winning sculptor Tessa Ma’auga is challenging this us-and-them narrative as she completes her PhD in creative arts at Massey University Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa in Te Papaioea.

Tessa’s research is rethinking the story of Chineseness in Aotearoa, partly by ditching a Pākeha lens in favour of a te ao Māori one.

She says for long enough, it’s been a dominant Pākeha narrative calling the shots – Chineseness has often been the other of the West.

“My research looks at the ancient whakapapa that exists between Aotearoa and China.”

three sheets of material with patterns and images

Tessa's work Longing for Homeland

Many, many moons ago, ancestors of the Polynesians left southern China on multi-hulled sail boats, migrating through Taiwan and the Phillipines and onward into the vast Pacific.

It’s a bit of a no-brainer then, that there’s much that connects the two.

There’s a coherence that exists between the origin narratives, philosophical worldviews, cultural practices and visual arts indigenous to southern China and te ao Māori, Tessa says.

But, it’s that last one, the visual arts, that gets Tessa going.

For her PhD, Tessa’s honing in on fibre-based art to explore connections across Aotearoa and southern China.

“The fibre in my artwork is used as a medium to explore the nature of these relationships...across cultures or ethnicities, with the environment, with human beings, with our ancestors. 

“Weaving, lashing, knots – they can speak across cultures. There’s kind of a universal language to it.”

At primary school in Paekākāriki on the Kapiti Coast, Tessa was in a te reo Māori immersion class.

“It’s shaped my perception of life here in Aotearoa. It’s grounded in an understanding that life in Aotearoa should be grounded in te ao Māori.”

She was definitely the sole Chinese in the class; her family, the sole Chinese in their neighbourhood, she says. 

“You kind of forget what you look like to others.

“You can tell when people treat you in a certain way that they expect you to be, you know, this kind of stereotype.

“Out of my siblings, I look the most Chinese and at times throughout my life I’ve had people say they’re surprised I speak English so well, or as I walk down the street sometimes people say ‘ni hao’ or ‘konnichiwa’.” 

This sort of casual racism is normalised for Chinese New Zealanders, but coming together to acknowledge it is relatively new, she reckons.

“Over the generations there's been a lot of assimilation - kind of try and keep your Chineseness invisible, keep your head down and work, don't cause any trouble. 

“There's also a cultural thing - you don't complain.”

But things feel different for her and her contemporaries – they’re experiencing a level of comfort that provides a freedom to start talking through some of the issues, she says.

While she talks through her art, there are still challenges carving out a space for the discussions, she says.

“A lot of the institutions - you know, the museums, the galleries - they come from a colonial history.

“They’re starting to diversify or there's conversations around decolonization and indigenisation of these spaces.

“But, I think even the contemporary art world has left out the Chinese diaspora in Aotearoa.”

Tessa and her whānau

Tessa’s on a mission to demystify art, so the themes of her work and that of her colleagues can have the most impact.

“I'm hoping to bring in or collaborate with others of southern Chinese heritage to pull out their voice or highlight their kind of change up the ways we do art exhibitions and openings, trying to have a bit more of a discussion, a shared conversation.

“Sometimes, especially in the contemporary art world, the artwork itself can be so hard to read.

“It's hard to know what artists are saying, sometimes, because it’s a very conceptual language, intellectual, even, accessible to only a certain population.

“I want it to feel joyful and uplifting again, connected with village or community and enhancing collective life and wellbeing.”