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Solve, express, present

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

We catch up with Nigel Borell, after he has had some time away from full-time work in art institutions. Catharina van Bohemen talks to him about his current projects.

Nigel Borell, 2020. Photo by Sanne Van Ginkel

From 2015 until December 2020, Nigel Borell (Pirirākau, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui, Te Whakatōhea) was the Māori Art Curator at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. During those years, he worked almost exclusively on an idea he’d proposed at his interview for the position: a major survey of contemporary Māori artists. The last such survey, Pūrangiaho: Seeing Clearly, had taken place in 2001 when he was a young, emerging artist. He still remembers the power of this show, and the generosity and inclusive spirit pervading it.

By 2020, his art-making temporarily in abeyance, his curatorial flair alight, he presented Toi Tū Toi Ora – Contemporary Māori Art to Aotearoa. Running from December 2020 till May 2021, it was the largest exhibition the gallery had mounted, showing three hundred works from more than a hundred Māori artists spanning seven decades from the 1950s to 2020. Many of the works were collaborative, and many, indeed a majority, of the artists were women. Nigel commissioned nine site-specific pieces for the exhibition.

Nigel Borell, Talking to the Moon, acrylic and silk brocade on paper, 2023. Image courtesy of Vunilagi Vou and the artist

At its opening, Witi Ihimaera described Toi Tū Toi Ora as “sumptuous and extraordinary” and saluted Nigel and his team for “positioning the kōrero within an overarching mythic whakapapa… reaching back from Te Ao Mārama to Te Pō, to the eternal well of our creative energy, Te Kore, and for celebrating the beauty, scope and stature that this genealogy offers to our understanding.”

But two weeks later, Nigel resigned. His departure was a shock, and his reasons dispiriting. In an interview on RNZ (January, 2021) he criticised widespread institutional reluctance to allow Māori authority over their work, and reflected on his own experience before Toi Tū Toi Ora. He said then, and still believes, that institutions support colonial ideals and themselves, rather than the diversity of people in Aotearoa; ‘For Māori historically, and today, that’s a challenge.”

“We want to do it ourselves.”

Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art (install view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2020

After his resignation, he was exhausted. Only after his departure could he acknowledge the weight and responsibility of mounting Toi Tū Toi Ora, although he salutes Haerewa, the gallery’s Māori Advisory Group, for its unswerving support. He made a conscious decision to leave the gallery, “caught up with” himself, family, and friends,” thought about his artistic practice and waited.

Not for long. In June 2021, he guest-curated two shows at the Tautai Gallery Arts Trust in Karangahape Rd, Auckland, which champions Pasifika arts and artists. Moana Waiwai, Moana Pāti and Oh my Ocean showcased innovative works in film, digital media, painting, tatau, sonic landscapes and performance. This was the time of prolonged lockdown in Tāmaki Makaurau, and both exhibitions honoured artists, who, despite isolation, found new ways of making work that always seeks connection with place and people.

Nigel Borell, New Day Clouds, acrylic and silk brocade on paper, 2023. Image courtesy of Vunilagi Vou and the artist

In 2021/22, Nigel also curated Puhi Ariki, the inaugural exhibition at the Wairau Māori Art Gallery, the world’s first Māori dedicated public art gallery, housed within the new Hundertwasser Art Centre in Whangārei. It featured nine contemporary Māori artists with connections to Northland, and honoured Te Tai Tokerau and Ngā Puhi contributions to Māori art.

He remained connected to Toi Tū Toi Ora. He was proud of the exhibition, and in its final weeks, despite having left the AAG, gave many free, well-attended tours and accommodated many requests within the arts sector to speak about it.

“Once you do a show, it doesn’t just finish just because you’ve put it up; you’ve lived with it. My aspiration was that it would speak to people, especially to Māori, in ways that institutions haven’t done in relation to how we think about our art histories. People were moved by it, which was humbling and rewarding; you saw how they responded to different parts of the show. Perhaps its broad appeal for Māori was that it presented a cultural story they know to be inherently true, and for non-Māori, it was a fresh, embracing, and generous experience into a new world and way of seeing.”

Pōwhiri to welcome Nigel Borell as the new Curator Taonga Māori. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Photo by Richard Ng

He also edited, wrote, and commissioned essays for the resplendent Toi Tū Toi Ora, published after the exhibition had ended. For those who couldn’t see Toi Tū, this book is a cornerstone of a Māori way of thinking about Māori art as always linked through time and place by the creation story endlessly unspooling through whakapapa, and whenua, unlike the Western tradition with its adamantine adherence to chronological time.

From June to August 2021, Nigel was also artist in residence at the Oxford Community Gallery in Canterbury. His artmaking project entitled Haumanu Hauroa – to revive, restore to health, rejuvenate, after the hectic pace of his previous five years, focused on health and wellbeing.

He loved making again: as well as a curator, he is essentially an artist. During this residency, he became the inaugural recipient of the New Zealand Arts Foundation’s A Moment in Time – He Momo Award honouring his curatorial practice, and specifically Toi Tū Toi Ora. This was followed, to his surprise and delight, by his becoming a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to Māori art.

“I accepted it because it was an endorsement, not just of me, but also because of the people who’d supported me; it was about them as well. It was also, in part, an acknowledgment for the way I spoke truth to power in that moment of leaving the gallery as well, so politically, it was important to own that space and time.”

Nigel Borell, Whakawhitinga, acrylic and silk brocade on paper, 2023. Image courtesy of Vunilagi Vou and the artist

Today, Nigel is one of two curators overseeing Māori taonga in the Auckland War Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. He’d worked there previously before his appointment at the AAG, so returning is a homecoming with texture. ‘Now that I’m in a more senior role, it’s great to be in a position to nurture and support younger Māori and Pacific career professionals, and the acknowledgement I’ve had from Toi Tū lets me use that spotlight to get behind younger artists and help them manifest ‘wow’ moments in their own careers.”

He and fellow curator, teacher, and weaver Kahutoi te Kanawa, daughter of Diggeress Te Kanawa and granddaughter of Dame Rangimārie Hetet, are working on many projects, most significantly a gallery renewal of the Māori Court Te Marae Ātea where the display of the collection hasn’t changed greatly since 1999.

In an interview in E Tangata Nigel says, “Working with such treasures is a charged experience. We look at carvings, may think they’re just carved posts, but you come to see them as carved people. It’s better that you treat them as carved people as opposed to carved posts, because your duty of care will change with the way in which you think about them” (22 May 2023). He says, “I’m really keen to rethink how we might display these taonga and their narratives, a little bit like Toi Tū Toi Ora: to make connections and ideas more accessible; more aligned to a Māori world view. At the other end of the spectrum, practical things such as lighting, darkness, and colour can shift perceptions and present opportunities to load cultural meaning. The museum interacts with local iwi, descendant and source communities, and the rigour around those relationships within that bicultural space is something I’m really excited about.”

Nigel Borell, 2020. Photo by Sanne Van Ginkel

“I love being able to curate and lead and bring people along on that journey.” Regarding trends in the arts sector, Nigel’s baseline is always collaboration, and the recognition of Te Ao Māori in public institutions. He is delighted that there is now a designated assistant Māori curator role at the Govett Brewster Gallery in Ngāmotu New Plymouth, and the Christchurch Art Gallery has recently created a Pouarataki Curator Māori position.

He has also noticed how the pandemic exposed the importance of creativity in complicated times, forcing us all to find solutions to challenges, and how a foundation in creative practice can help navigate ways forward.

Collaboration extends to his involvement in several major international exhibitions now that artists can collaborate, exhibit, and travel again. One project is Indigenous Histories, organised by the Museum of Art in São Paolo, Brazil, which will open in October this year. He is collaborating with its director, Adriano Pedrosa, and is one of six invited Indigenous curators addressing indigenous histories from Oceania, North America, South America and Scandinavia.

Nigel Borell, Whakarongo uru – Listen to the setting sun, acrylic and silk brocade on paper, 2023. Image courtesy of Vunilagi Vou and the artist

Nigel’s art practice has also reasserted itself. He participated in this year’s Aotearoa Art Fair, and new works on paper, cloud studies and depictions of the setting sun are currently hanging at the Vunilagi Vou Gallery in East Tāmaki.

“My first voice has always been art-making and being an artist, so now I want to bring this back before I’m classified as a curator for the rest of my life. It’s partly about making People think, ‘Who is a curator? What does it mean to be a Māori curator and a Māori artist?’ Every activity I do I’m tapping into my creative self to solve, express, present” (27 May 2023).

First published in Art Zone #95


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