Art to bind cultures

Karl Johnstone (Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Ngāi Tāmanuhiri) is the owner and director of Haumi NZ, a business that initiates designs and delivers projects of national and international significance both in New Zealand and throughout the world. Karl's story is part of our series looking at Māori who are succeeding in Asia through embracing their own culture and the cultures of the people they meet.
Karl installing a wooden carving

Curator Karl Johnstone installs a taonga within the Tuku Iho exhibition at the Hokkaido National Museum in Sapporo, Japan. Photo credit; Te Puia - Cinzia Jonathan

Since 2013, Tuku Iho | Living Legacy an exhibition he curated as the then Director of the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, has been touring the world including Asia, supported by both private and public funding, and has attracted the attention of tens of thousands of visitors worldwide with particular success in China, Malaysia, and Japan.

Karl is highly cognisant of the ability of art to unite people and sees Māori artforms as having an important function in fostering relationships between New Zealand and Asia.

“For generations, our art has been created to serve both a practical and symbolic function ... carvings augment the spaces we reside within, but they are also our literature; they memorialise moments in our history and bind us through time. They weren’t just decorative and certainly weren’t ‘art’ in isolation. They were and are the pillars of our identity.”

Karl says, “The combination of art and culture, enables a gentle form of diplomacy, a way of strengthening relationships, discussing sensitive issues and progressing opportunities without the overtness of politics. Arts and culture enable a mana-enhancing process.”

He says that creating an “exchange platform” such as this, allows us to share our story with the world while helping define who we are as a country at a domestic level.

 In Karl’s experience, expressing and sharing our creativity and pride – and in particular strength and self awareness – not only allows Asia to gain insight into Māori culture and New Zealand’s heritage, it also assists Māori and other New Zealanders to gain an appreciation for foreign art and lifestyles.

“I feel I am able to connect deeper with the people of Asia, because this platform provides a space where we can both articulate and share our culture. Operating from a position of cultural survival allows us [Māori] to get very good at articulating ‘who’ and ‘how’ we are in the world.”

A member of the Tuku Iho exhibition explains aspects of the taonga to the indigenous Ainu of Japan. (Photo credit: Te Puia - Cinzia Jonathan)

Knowing that many practices and values are shared between indigenous people, it came as no surprise to Karl that Tuku Iho attracted so much positive attention in Asia.

“Some Asian values mirror our own as Māori. For example, the Japanese have a concept called ‘omotenashi’ which completely mirrors what we would call ‘manaakitanga’ and the Chinese operate fluidly with concepts like kai tahi (eating together) and mahi tahi (working together)”

Paramount to any other alignment, manaakitanga (hospitality) is the most obvious.

“In Asian culture, generosity is the norm and benevolence is ingrained in their DNA.”

This article is one of a series of stories the Foundation commissioned that look at Māori who are succeeding in Asia through embracing their own culture and the Asian cultures they encounter.