A white man listens to himself

Tom Johnson,  What a black man feels like , 2004 (video still) video, 29 min, 4:3, colour 

Tom Johnson, What a black man feels like, 2004
(video still) video, 29 min, 4:3, colour 

Published in:
What do you mean, we?
Te Tuhi, Auckland
ISBN 978-0-9582891-3-9
Click here to download


What we suppress eventually defines who we are. No one acknowledges this more than artists, for the ability to delve deep into the collective psyche to confront us with what we have willingly suppressed is one of the most effective roles that artists contribute to society. Although, as history teaches us, artworks that reveal unwanted truths are never popular at the time of their currency. So to focus an exhibition on the psychology of prejudice is without a doubt not going to draw in the multitude but is nevertheless sincerely created with the populace at heart. It is also a topic not taken lightly, since the fundamental challenge is to reveal the existence of bias within us all – including the curator.

As a heterosexual white male I know very little about being the victim of prejudice but everything about being the demographic of the perpetrator. I mention this not to gratify an agenda of political correctness or to absolve my own Pākehā guilt. Rather this short essay is simply an exercise in self-reflexivity to lay bare my own possible influence on the exhibition-making process for others to consider as they wish. More importantly, I write to give context to the exhibition’s relevance in Aotearoa New Zealand, and to glean what might be learned from current artistic practice.

From my perspective, the predominant cause of prejudice in New Zealand, concerning racial discrimination, is the Pākehā psyche. Generally speaking, the New Zealand European perspective is seen through a lens forged by conservative ideals, born from the comfort of majority rule but burdened by the conscience of colonisation and challenged with the fear of immigration. For Pākehā, it seems that the default is a defensive position to excuse their right to power by hiding behind the guise that democracy should serve the interest of the majority or, in the extreme case, justify their position by affirming past wrongs as the basis of an identity to be proud of.

This perspective is clearly apparent but greatly suppressed by most Pākehā. The commonly leaked phrase ‘I am not racist but ...’  or the qualifying remark ‘Don’t get me wrong some of my best friends are ...’ should be moments to recognise hidden bias but instead act to protect a veneer of justification. Leading stories in national media, from the last two years, highlight the predominance of these attitudes, such as Paul Henry’s comment that the then govenor-general Sir Anand Satyanand doesn’t look or sound like a New Zealander;[i] Prime Minister John Key’s Tuhoe cannibalism joke;[ii] Māori performers being physically assaulted by drunk fans during the opening ceremony of the Rugby World Cup;[iii] and the 2011 election also played on the interests of Pākehā from the likes of Act Party leader Don Brash who answered ‘no’ when asked if Māori have a special place in New Zealand.[iv]

Yet awareness that a particular prejudice exists does not necessarily explain how or why it forms. Cognitive psychologists tell us that prejudice stems from an innate human need to categorise the world and mentally define difference. While prejudice can be consciously addressed it is not something that can be easily changed by modifying one’s behaviour or attitude. Most prejudice is deeply hidden in the subconscious and surreptitiously leaks out, insidiously affecting our relationships with others.

It is for this reason that no one is exempt from creating prejudice; however, ideologically, prejudice cannot be excused in our multicultural and globalised age. It is more important than ever that greater understanding and new strategies are formed to mediate the negative effects of prejudice. The exhibition What do you mean, we? attempts to address these concerns by considering how artists are increasingly adopting innovative practices in response to prejudice, their artistic practices attempting to draw out suppressed bias by deconstructing and persistently seeking slippages for revealing motivations.

Performance in its various forms features prominently in this exhibition as a means to disclose personal neurosis, attain lived understanding, or to intervene in public space to confront the social conscience. In Tom Johnson’s work, What a black man feels like, the video camera becomes the confidant as the artist delves into his own psyche. As a form of self-psychoanalysis, Johnson’s repetitive monologue painfully teases out the latent meaning of a single phrase to probe for hidden racial fears.

Equally psychological is Amanda Heng’s performance series Let’s walk. Originally performing the work in Singapore, at a time when performance art was illegal, Heng took to the streets unannounced, biting a high-heel shoe and walking backwards down busy streets with the aid of a handheld vanity mirror. This surreal Fluxus-like public happening was created in direct response to the then growing gender inequality in workforce during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s.

Also adopting surrealist and activist sensibilities in the public realm is Muffled Protest by artist collective boat-people.org. In cities across Australia, participants wrapped their heads in the Australian flag and stood silently en masse and individually. As a protest against Australia’s imprisonment of asylum seekers, the intervention made an unforgettable public statement of national shame.

In a public intervention of a longer duration, Kalisolaite ‘Uhila’s work Moui tukuhausia provided the exhibition’s only live performance.[v] Over a two-week period during the first month of the show, ‘Uhila lived homeless around the grounds of Te Tuhi. This performance followed months of participatory research into opposing aspects of homelessness when ‘Uhila spent time living with local homeless and then working as a security guard to move the homeless off private property. In temporarily shedding his regular life, ‘Uhila occupied the grounds of Te Tuhi in attempt to a gain greater understanding of what it might mean to be homeless.

Attempt to attain lived understanding also features in Simone Aaberg Kærn’s ambitious social engagement project Open Sky.[vi] In 2002, Kærn flew her small 1960s Piper Colt airplane from Copenhagen to Kabul to answer the dreams of Farial, a young Afghani woman who aspired to be a fighter pilot. The 6000 kilometre flight required Kærn to risk her own life in crossing enormous mountain ranges and violating military airspace to enter war-torn Afghanistan. Yet it was the challenge to cross cultural boundaries and to transcend gender discrimination that proved the greater hurdle. A realisation that it is often social pressure and fear that forms the basis of the most challenging types of prejudice.

In other works, language is deconstructed and appropriated to reveal telling semiotic slippages or blatant injustice. Newell Harry’s neon work compresses and fractures the sentence ‘THE NATIVES ARE RESTLESS’  until it is almost illegible. The message is also momentarily disrupted when the text times out to reveal the word ‘AR ... S ... ES’. By injecting mischievous wit into a phrase laden with latent colonial disdain and fear, Harry questions the hidden meaning within language and subverts the semiotic codes at play. 

Text of a more legible nature features in Colin Nairn’s video work God is dead which features the legislation of the 79 countries where it is currently illegal to be openly homosexual. With conceptualist calm, Nairn presents the legislation animated to scroll down the wall. The legal justification of discrimination reads like a list of sanitised insults. Terminology such as ‘unnatural carnal offences’, ‘obscene acts’, ‘illicit’, ‘gross indecency’, ‘fraudulent representations as to the order of nature’ features consistently throughout. This blatant institutionalised prejudice also takes on a sadistic tone as penalties such as life imprisonment and 100 lashes scroll by. Reality hits home given that it has only been 25 years since homosexuality has been legal in New Zealand, and that some of the countries where homosexuality is illegal are neighbouring Pacific island nations.

Lists of readymade information also form the basis of  Ayanah Moor’s audio work All my girlfriends; a five-hour recording that references 25 years of Jet magazine’s feature ‘Beauty of the week’. Since 1952 the African American men’s weekly has published centrefold images and profiles of swimsuit models. In a performed reading, Moor recites 1296 model profiles from 1973 to 1998, a timespan representing the artist’s first 25 years. Here, demeaning and chauvinistic language is humorously subverted as it receives a dose of satire by Moor’s calm telephone-operator-like tone.

Parody of existing text is also apparent in Elizabeth Axtman’s video work The Love Renegade # 1 (Sincerely, All White Women). Here, Axtman narrates one of the more than 200 letters written by Ohio man David Tuason to African American men. For 20 years, Tuason wrote hate mail to these men as acts of vengeance for being left for a black man by his white girlfriend.[vii] In narrating Tuason’s letter, Axtman accentuates the juvenile and ridiculous nature of the convict’s violent threats and racist statements. In response, the artist writes to Tuason pleading him to confront his hate by finding love, compassion and forgiveness for his victims and for himself.  

In a completely different approach to those already mentioned, Rangituhia Hollis’ work Kia mate mangō-pare broaches the psychology of prejudice by creating a haunting virtual reality.[viii] From the summit of Māngere Mountain, Hollis animates spectre-like mangō-pare (hammerhead sharks) to swim through the sky as if encircling prey. To Hollis’ iwi, Ngāti Porou, the mangō-pare are symbols of strength and resilience – even in death, the shark is known to thrash and fight. In bringing together the tangible and intangible, Hollis also creates a liminal space where linear notions of time are collapsed so that the history and ongoing impact of colonisation are brought together in a context where decolonisation might occur.[ix] A space that recognises that the past is the formidable road to the future.

Humour, absurdity and cold hard facts feature throughout the exhibition and are used to petition rational awareness of latent assumptions that lead to hegemony. Duration, place and the body are also crucial considerations in all works, not as fixed knowable entities but as uncertain, in between and contested. Needless to say, there is no optimistic forecasting from these artists, no oracle-like guidance, no ‘prophet in the wilderness’ syndrome. Rather, the only glimpse of a future resides in an acknowledgement of the past within us. For those who continue to suppress what might be lurking in the past, the future may be one to fear; Tom Johnson elicits this from his stream of consciousness: ‘I am scared ... because there will be a reckoning and what will happen to me after the reckoning? It is easier if I am just polite.’


Note: The title of this essay A white man listens to himself is taken from a performance by Tom Johnson presented as part of the exhibition Black Is, Black Ain’t at the Renaissance Society, Chicago, in 2008.


[i] Not to mention Paul Henry’s insulting of Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit over her surname which caused an international uproar, or his juvenile comments about Indian service-station attendants. Paul Henry, Breakfast, TVNZ, 1 October 2010 and 1 April 2009

[ii] James Meikle. 'New Zealand's prime minister apologises for cannibalism joke' The Guardian 13 May 2010 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/13/john-key-apologises-cannibalism-joke (accessed 12 January 2012)

[iii] Sharon Lundy. ‘Waka Cup paddler’s ribs broken in “cowardly” attack’. New Zealand Herald, 13 September, 2011. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10751504 (accessed 10 January 2012).

[iv] An attitude shared by 81 per cent  of TV One viewers. See: http://tvnz.co.nz/national-news/most-kiwis-don-t-think-maori-hold-special-place-4158363 (accessed 10 January 2012).

[v] Mo’ui tukuhausia translates as ‘life put aside’.

[vi] The Open Sky project features in the exhibition as the feature-length documentary Smiling in a War Zone, directed by Magnus Bejmar and Simone Aaberg Kærn, 2006.

[vii] Associated Press. ‘Ohio man sentenced for writing racial hate mail’. MSNBC News. 26 August 2008. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26408704/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/t/ohio-man-sentenced-writing-racial-hate-mail/#.T1FJqfEgdy2 (accessed 3 February 2012)

[viii] Kia mate mangō-pare is an abbreviation of the proverb ‘Kia mate mangō-pare kei mate wheke’ which translates as ‘It is better to die like a hammerhead shark than die like an octopus’.

[ix] Anna-Marie White. ‘Whakawatea/Decolonising third space’. Eyeline, no. 73, 2011. Also available at http://www.eyelinepublishing.com/eyeline-73/article/rangituhia-hollis (accessed 15 February 2012).