Pūrākau: stories of future homelands
Catalogue Essay for Pūrākau project organised by Xavier Meade, 2010.
Mauriora-ki-te-Ao describe pūrākau as “a Māori term for stories which contain mythological perspectives concerning the nature of reality and the human condition. A pūrākau is a story within which is contained models, perspectives, ideas of consequence to the people who recite them”(1). More than just a compelling narrative, pūrākau are culturally specific vehicles for the retention and transmission of knowledge. As Cherokee writer Thomas King says, “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” (2)
All stories spring from a place, but trading and sharing stories is a natural instinct that has always had a role exemplified by the travelling minstrel or today’s artist. Contrary to the scientistic and capitalist models of “information transfer” that values an idea or expression for the universality of its appeal; the story only finds its value in a specific experience or moment. There is no external rationale for this project connecting Cuba, Mexico and Aotearoa New Zealand: it only works because of the specific connections that are mobilised by the project leader Xavier Meade and all those involved. That is a story in itself.
Can a poster tell a story? At first glance, the poster appears to have a more provocative than narrative quality. A poster is not so much studied, but seen as a whole in a flash, instantaneously. Traditionally, a poster makes an intervention in a story, more than it makes a story. Susan Sontag suggested that “a poster aims to seduce, to exhort, to sell, to educate, to convince, to appeal” (3). But in order to do any of this, it must reference a genre or back-story that is already known to the viewer in their cultural environment. No time for weaving intricate tales.
So it would seem that to make posters about myths, legends and stories in an international exchange might be contrary to the nature of the poster itself, because the pre-existing languages and narratives that make the poster effective are not going to be located in all the local environments. A standard poster, on the other hand has an immediacy that stems from its dissemination in a public – and it is no surprise that political posters have such a strongly nationalist history. They almost require an urban public imagined in the European model. The way a poster desires energy and action is captured in a Venezuelan poster from the 1970s documented by Tschabrun:
“Don’t stick it up in your dining room or in your study, don’t keep it in your bedside table. Don’t misplace it. Don’t collect it, don’t archive it, don’t keep it in your library. Don’t give it away. Post it on the walls of the city.” (4)
But when the poster moves outside its intended community, it becomes something else, an artefact that may hold the talismanic force of a possible other future, such as the Che Guevara posters that held pride of place in Australian bedrooms of my teenage friends. Or, in a more aesthetic mode, it might become part of a collection referencing the very history of the poster itself.
The poster collector might be seen by the Venezuelan commentator as a counterrevolutionary force, but posters like those in the Pūrākau project become valuable precisely because they step back from the poster in its usual form. Like the previous Liberators project coordinated by Xavier, these posters require a a consideration of the connections and differences between cultures and environments. To borrow a formulation from William Kentridge , they start to reflect on the poster rather than to just be a poster (5). We can start to ask, what might this poster mean in its own place, and what could it mean in my place? Worlds meet in a place of the imagination, where many stories can be held together.
From my view as an outsider, the imagined world of the Pūrākau project seems connected to the legendary nation of Aztlán, where Aztecs resided many years ago in the North American southwest. Aztlán was also the title of classic silkscreened poster by Richard Duardo (1982) that would fit well in the current collection. Greeley says that Duardo’s Aztlán, with its linking of ancient forms to contemporary urban culture, “posits a ‘return’ to a Chicano homeland, a mythical, pre-Conquest Mexican past invoked in terms of a consciously marginal present that rejects dominant cultural patrimony of both Mexico and the United States” (6). The imagined future is born of the struggle for autonomy, a reaction against racism and oppression. The writer Cherrie Moraga explains her own awakening, saying that “Aztlán gave language to a nameless anhelo inside me.” Through struggle, “the Mexicana becomes a Chicano (or at least a Mechicana); that is, she becomes a citizen of this country [the US], not by virtue of a green card, but by virtue of the collective voice she assumes in staking her claim.” (7)
Since the 1980s, indigenous peoples have insistently asserted their collective voice in the international legal and cultural domain. For the non-indigenous activist, the stories of indigenous history have become less of a symbol that can be appropriated for our own invented mythologies, as they become more powerfully expressed by indigenous peoples themselves, from the Zapatistas to the Taino to the Tino Rangatiratanga movement in Aotearoa. Still, the effort to undo colonial oppression and regenerate indigenous sovereignty invites a future for all peoples. As Lilla Watson put it to her non-indigenous colleagues, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” (8)
This mode of indigenous regeneration deconstructs Western assumptions about the relationship between the present and past, as the Māori whakatauki explains: “Ka haere whakamua me hoki whakamuri” – we must walk into the future facing the past. Ritual, story, legend, language, mythology – pūrākau – are maintained not simply for their own sake, but for the decolonisation of the imagination in the time to come. In this mindset, there is no tension between the immediacy of the European poster tradition as it migrates to the Spanish-speaking Americas; and the traditional tales of the natural world that are embedded in pūrākau. Unlike the flat spatial world created though global financial instruments and intergovernmental agreements, this new homeland of the imagination – a United First Nations perhaps – is as rich and diverse as the planet itself. These posters both speak to this new world and work toward bringing it into being.
Danny Butt, Auckland/Tāmaki Makau-rau 2010
2) King, Thomas. (2003). The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.
3) Sontag, Susan. (1970). “Posters: Advertisement, Art, Political Artifact, Commodity,” in Donald Stermer, ed., The Art of Revolution: 96 Posters from Castro’s Cuba, 1959-1970, New York: McGraw Hill.
4) Tschabrun, Susan. (2003). “Off the Wall and into a Drawer: Managing a Research Collection.” The American Archivist, 66: 303-324, p303.
5) Kentridge, William. (2007). “Director’s Note,” in Ubu and the Truth Commission, edited by J. Taylor. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2007: viii-xv
6) Greeley, Robin AdÃ¨le. (1998). “Richard Duardo’s ‘Aztlán’ Poster: Interrogating Cultural Hegemony in Graphic Design.” Design Issues, 14(1), pp. 21-34, p34.
7) Moraga, Cherrie. (2004 ). “Queer Aztlán; the Re-formation of Chicano Tribe,” in Carlin and DiGraza, eds., Queer Cultures. Pearson. p229-230
8) Watson, Lilla. 1992. ‘Untitled’. Health for Women. 3. p.1