Snowballing in the Right Direction

Hollie Tawhiao is the new gallery curator at Ramp in Kirikiriroa. Ashleigh Taupaki and Hollie wānanga on storytelling, accessibility and diversity, and future dreaming.

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Notoriously cheeky, with a can-do attitude, Hollie Tawhiao (Ngaati Tiipa, Tainui) is the newest face at Ramp Gallery at Wintec in Kirikiriroa. From studying at Elam and subsequently completing a Postgraduate Diploma in Museum Studies, to working with museum collections and as a project manager for Waikato digital-storytelling platform Arataki Systems, to practising as a carver and painter, Hollie brings a multitude of skills and knowledge into her new role as a gallery curator.

As soon as we started talking, we fell into the typical whakawhanaungatanga that happens when you meet other women of colour. We were both, as she called it, Elamites. We both admired waahine who worked with hard, industrial materials. And we had both stalked each other mere minutes beforehand, shyly admitting to the quick Googles pretty early on. Conversation flowed freely despite the Zoom format, and we started from the beginning of her journey into the role.

Ashleigh Taupaki: Tell me about getting the role. How did you react to the good news? 

Hollie Tawhiao: One of the main reasons I think I got the role is because I am a very staunch Hamiltonian. I was born and raised here, and I love it. One of the hardest things for me was leaving and going up to Elam, so getting this role was huge.

I got the call from my manager. Both of us are on Vodafone, which has a terrible connection where we live, so I was getting bits of it and trying not to get too excited until I heard the full sentences. It slowly pieced together, and I was standing at the end of my driveway just trying to sound as professional as I could while looking very, very excited.

I did say to her, “Okay, so one of the first things you're going to have to do is tell me what I cannot do because I'm probably going to try and do everything! There’s this level, then this level – and then there's like about three more stories – and then here's the level of extra I'd probably go to. So we need to bring it back down and get some clear boundaries for me because, otherwise, I'm going to be pushing this as far as I can.”

And my manager was like, “Okay, sounds great! I'm really excited!”

Everything started snowballing in the direction I wanted to go, and this job was about halfway down the hill

And much like Vodafone’s insistent interruptions in Kirikiriroa, Jellybean and Marshmallow (Hollie’s pets, a dog and cat, respectively) can be heard scratching on her bedroom door to interrupt the Zoom call and jump up onto her bed. A quick chat about their unique names segues into the following question on first impressions and introductions to new people:

AT: What was it like meeting your team in lockdown? Have you had any difficulties so far?

HT: My very first introduction to all of the team was via Zoom. I still haven't been into the gallery as an employee yet and have worked entirely separate from the space. But it's been really good because of the shows we have coming up. We have an exhibition we are hoping to open very soon, and managing that entirely from home has been an experience in and of itself. It's a lot of shuffling, and it’s been amazing, the kind of support that [the gallery management] has given us. It's been a very virtual existence with a lot of uncertainty and a huge amount of guesswork. We have to communicate constantly so that we're all on the same page.

AT: And how have you found the transition into this new role?

HT: During my old job, I thought: “I'm probably going to go back into working with creators because they just fill my cup.” And then I started meeting more people within the community and was like, “I should probably start practising again.”

I said to myself, “You are a person who likes to tell stories and make things and engage with other creatives and have probably far too in-depth talks about the origin of certain kinds of sands, you know, or why you want to use this kind of material.”

As soon as I decided, everything started snowballing in the direction I wanted to go, and this job was about halfway down the hill. It's been good news after good news, and I'm hoping that they give me enough flex to do some fun and engaging things. It's handy that the community is very tight-knit down here.

My curatorial style is to get across the artist's vision for their work and is collaborative

I was really interested in Hollie’s thoughts as a storyteller. We talked about accessibility and diversity in the museum and gallery contexts. A gem that came out of this chat was her passion for empowering the voices of those facing disabilities and mental illnesses. I wondered how all of this compassion for diverse groups fitted into her curatorial style, and whether she had an ideal, big, blue-sky exhibition in mind, if given the opportunity and resourcing.

On curatorial style:

HT: I did some writing on an exhibition and one of the curators reviewed it before submission. I got a reply from her and her whole vibe had a calmness that makes you love yourself. I thought it was going to come back with a bunch of editor's notes, but, literally, the only thing she did was adjust a proper comma from the Hawaiian language because they have their own punctuation. She went through and she's like, “It's fine.” She said whenever she edits someone else's writing, all she does is adjust the grammar because as soon as she starts changing words or sentences or removing bits, she's taking away their voice. And she's like, “I'm not here for everyone to hear me talk when all these other beautiful authors have their own way of speaking, their own way of presenting themselves and their ideas. It defeats the point of getting other people to write. I could have written all this and changed it.”

So my curatorial style is that. My goal is to get across the artist's vision for their work and my style is collaborative. I see myself as a person that's there to show the best way to display it. The mounting. Taking care of the work. Making sure that it's presented how the artist wants it to be.

I am a massive fan of having hard conversations [and it’s clear that] we haven't been taught how to properly have those

On her blue-sky dream exhibition:

HT: If I was going to put it down to a single exhibition, collaboration would be integral. I am a massive fan of having hard conversations [and it’s clear that] we haven't been taught how to properly have those difficult conversations with one another. We become so defensive as soon as someone doesn't agree with us, and there's not really much progress that can come from that. So the dream exhibition would be collaborative and include difficult conversations. And I don't just mean us taking from other people, but actively having simultaneous exhibitions that will inform each other. A simultaneous, [laterally] encompassing exhibition with a second division that smaller community groups can be a part of.

That's an insane idea that is very easy to put into the ‘too-hard basket’ kind of thing, but since I'm allowed free rein in this ideal dream exhibition, that's what it would be. It would be a collective art show about hard conversations between as many other people we can have involved and us.

Her name was Rangiaho and she was King Taawhiao’s second wife, and she was important to me because I didn't know anything about her

I wanted to get to know Hollie as a person, the bits and pieces that bring to light her quirks. In the interlude, I found out her go-to comfort food was canned whipped cream (to the dismay of her dad); her favourite place to think was in busyness, hiikoi and her awa; and the show that lives in her mind rent-free was a Jeff Wall exhibition that she visited while living in Perth. This show is insistent in her memory because, while works by greats such as Matisse and Picasso drew in the crowds in the room next door, Jeff Wall’s space was empty as a result. Hollie was able to take it all in by herself and felt like the show was made for her viewing. It was a precious moment. 

AT: Can you tell me about the work you submitted for the Kiingi Tuheitia Portraiture Award? Who did you depict, and what does that person mean to you?

HT: Her name was Rangiaho and she was King Taawhiao’s second wife, and she was important to me because I didn't know anything about her. I couldn't find any information about her and it wasn't until I went to the Land Court that I found 16 pages of her talking about a land claim. Before that, my family only ever spoke about Taawhiao. And yes, he did some great work, but I get really frustrated at how much we focus on the men. 

In protest, I decided to paint her, even though all I could find was that she died in her 20s.

And then, when I did find her in the land courts, I found out that not only did she not die in her 20s, but she outlived Taawhiao. She was also married twice before she married him, and her family didn't want her to marry him, but she did. And I was just like, “Wow, look at her go!”

As I got to know her better, I was like, “Man, this woman is awesome. I'm really proud"

I was initially going to make her look quite playful, but as I got to know her better, I was like, “Man, this woman is awesome. I'm really proud.” I was going to paint her bare-shouldered, but then I tried something that I've wanted to do for a while, which was the use of cellophane to allude to nurturing and gift-giving, but I also wanted to have a jab at colonialism and the forced modesty. She ended up being a really fun piece because it changed so much from when I started to when I finished. The goal was to be empowering and in control of ourselves in recognising the concept of colonial modesty that deeply impacted us, right through to the movement towards a patriarchal view within how we perceive whakapapa. It has been pushed towards a male-dominated view.

We know a lot about the kings and the husband on my side. I know a lot about my grandfathers and great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers, but I don't know a lot about their wives, or even my nan. I know next to nothing about her. It’s a male focus, and I’m not saying they don’t deserve the acknowledgement, but our women were there too.

Our last bonding was over the work itself and the softness in hard materials

AT: And, lastly, what are your aspirations for Ramp Gallery?

One thing that I want is for the gallery space to be very accessible, particularly for those with disabilities. Engaging with people that don't understand the way that you function [mentally and physically] is not really thought about because we're all very able-bodied. It's not really something you generally think about. That's one thing that I'd like to bring into the space consistently: diversity. And I don't just mean doing the bare minimum, because every institution is doing this now. It’s an easy place for people to become quite ambiguous. I would like some really hard-line boundaries about what we actually are going to do.

Before saying our ka kites, Hollie brought her laptop out into another room to show me a wooden work hanging from her ceiling. As she moved the laptop around, different coloured lights could be seen through the wooden clouds. I told her it was so strange to see an installation-type work in someone’s home. Hollie says if it isn’t minimal, then her home is maximal – clearly evident in the array of works hanging in her room and elsewhere. Our last bonding was over the work itself and the softness in hard materials, weaving back to our initial thoughts at the beginning of the conversation.