Following a successful tour in New Zealand, “Never a Week Goes By” is now touring New Caledonia, where it continues to cultivate understanding between Pacific cultures. The exhibition compares the war memorial in Balclutha with one in Noumea, and the stories of the two Pacific colonies, going away to fight for “the mother country” in WW1, including the part each indigenous nation played.
When I started work on this exhibition, the idea seemed interesting, and a little idiosyncratic. However, as the exhibition has developed and travelled, I have seen it make a difference, by forging new relationships between Kanak, Maori, French, and Pakeha. Whilst the exhibition is about honouring our ancestors 100 years ago, its real value is in shifting our understanding of each other, now.
“Never a Week Goes By” first opened in Dunedin in February 2015. Here, one of the Kanak representatives, John Trupit, commented that he felt the exhibition was the first time his ancestors had been honoured for their part in the Great War. Now that I have been to Noumea, I can appreciate just how important this is. The historical relationship between French and Kanak, is considerably different from that between Pakeha and Maori. I learnt from “Never a Week Goes By” that one in ten Kanak men were conscripted from their tropical home to the Western Front, yet those that managed to return received no war pension. The Musée de Ville in the centre of Noumea, shows the city’s social history. Although 40% of the population is Kanak, there was no treaty between Kanak and French, and Kanaks were not made French citizens, nor given free education until 1953. On the outskirts of Noumea, a magnificent cultural centre commemorates Jean-Marie Tjibaou. In 1975 Tjibaou organised a festival, “Melanesia 2000”, that inaugurated a renaissance of Kanak culture. Tjibaou went on to become a non-violent leader of the Kanak Independence Movement. Sadly, in 1988, after negotiating an agreement for self-determination by 1998, he was assassinated, by a violent and less patient freedom fighter.
Although Noumea is a charming tourist destination, and most people go about their business perfectly peaceably, there are signs of distrust: All ground floor windows and entrances of the school where we installed the exhibition were covered in steel grills, and some unseen inhabitants of the graffiti-covered block of flats opposite threw small stones at us as we got out of the car. The road to the south of Noumea was blocked off for several days due to “localised violence”. Average suburban bungalows are protected by high walls, automatic gates and large dogs.
I talked with Stephane Pannoux, the New Caledonian curator of the exhibition, on a tropical evening outside her suburban home. We debated the merits of teaching indigenous children in their own language. (In New Caledonia there are about 30 Kanak languages, so Kura Kaupapa would not be so easy to organise.) She explained how she uses her knowledge as a history professor, to raise the esteem of Kanak people. She was delighted to report that local media now use the term “Kanak Civilization”, rather than “Kanak Culture”. It may seem a small thing, but “Kanak Civilization” implies an equal footing with French Civilization, rather than an ethnographic understanding implying an uncivilised and un-modern people.
The Tjibaou Cultural Centre continues to show and celebrate contemporary culture, bringing together people from around the Pacific. In its own small way “Never a Week Goes By” also fosters some new relationships across the Pacific. The NZ curator, Gary Ross of the South Otago Museum, included the story of John Maharoa Rakiraki who joined the Maori Pioneers from South Otago. The Kanak delegates visited who attended the NZ opening visited the monument listing Rakiraki’s name at Kaka Point, with the Waikoau rununga, and were also welcomed onto the Otakou marae, in Dunedin. Although no Maori representatives of travelled with us to Noumea, Gary was entrusted to bear gifts and messages from Maori to Kanak, to ensure the relationship stays alive.
I’m currently reading about Captain Cook, Tupaia and Joseph Banks. I’m thankful that musket fire and eating your enemy are no longer the usual result of misunderstandings between the different cultures in the Pacific. I’m thankful too, to have had a small part in increasing the understanding between cultures, through my work on the exhibition. On a more personal level, I can now also highly recommend the convivial French practice of downing tools and eating together, and talking and laughing together, even though I only understood half of what was being said.