Murals and Malls: How We Tell Our History
This morning I had a lecture on ethics in the Gospel of Luke, except that instead of meeting in our regular classroom to talk about these ethics, Dr. Sarah Harris sent us to meet in the streets of Auckland city and of our own neighbourhoods to read and engage in Luke’s heart for the poor and economic reordering found within the Kingdom of God. Thank you Sarah!
As I walked and watched around Manurewa in South Auckland, past the many pawn shops, money lenders, $2 stores, and overflowing WINZ building, something particular struck me. In amongst the both obvious and more subtle signs of poverty, economic disparity, and need—all things Luke would have a lot to say about—there was also a clear civic story being told, not just by these things but by the physical landscape and its images too. Along the way on my walk I saw murals, signs, plaques (I’m a huge plaque fan, just ask my girlfriend), and in particular an exhibition of historical photos erected in Southmall which were all telling a story, a story about who we were and who we will become. Yet what really struck me was that it was a story conspicuously estranged and seemingly entirely disconnected from the people who actually seemed to be walking those streets and the poverty which I saw around me.
In the paintings and photographs that emerged, a history of a lovely Victorian town was developed, a quaint community once on the rural outskirts of the Auckland metropolis. Church buildings, beauty pageants, post offices, and World War memorials all highlighted the key events the community was to remember and celebrate.
Yet, and I do not want to exaggerate this, the faces I saw as I walked down this same stretch of mall, the woman I talked to on a bench facing this photo, the many kids and teenagers I see everyday hanging at the local skate park 5 minutes down the road, all had one unmistakable thing that set them apart from these stories: they were not white or European. In the hundreds of people I walked by and observed at the train station, in the mall, lying on the grass, and going about their day at 10am on a Monday morning I counted (I was counting) three Pakeha, not including me.
It doesn’t take long living in South Auckland to realise that this is not a very white part of the country. I saw Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Maori and Pacifica, yet they were not at all represented in the names, pictures, and ideals that littered the billboards and highlights of the town. Where was their story being told? What were the subconscious assumptions of success, pictures of the ‘good life,’ standards of beauty and normalcy?
The history and story being told here seemed almost laughably disconnected from people who were clearly living there now, but beyond, the story being told was even more starkly selective and in contrast with the actual history and story of the place.
The road which Southmall is located on is Great South Road. An expansive and well-known road to all Aucklanders, it stretches from Epsom to Bombay, historically reaching right down into the Waikato.
What less Aucklanders know is that Great South Road was constructed by Governor Grey and 12,000 members of the British Army to improve supply lines to British troops in the New Zealand Wars. The New Zealand Wars resulted in the confiscation of 16,000km2 of Maori land. (Learn about that in school? I didn’t.) The road I walked on was built as part of a war effort to crush Maori sovereignty and protest against unfair land sale and confiscation. It claimed over 2,000 Maori lives and 800 European.
Down the road in Papakura and Pukekohe during the 20th century another story occurred. Michael Botur writes, “You had to sit in a different part of the picture theatre. Some barbers wouldn’t cut your hair. The local pub wouldn’t serve you a drink at the main bar. This wasn’t 1960s Cape Town: it was 1960s Pukekohe.”
In 1959, Rongomanu Bennett, a Maori psychiatrist was refused service at the Papakura tavern. The event made international headlines, covered by the New York Times who compared Papakura to Arkansas facing issues of segregation in the Southern USA. New Zealand historian James Belich called South Auckland “the capital of New Zealand racism.” It’s a story that’s always plagued the civic language and attitude of our past. Take this excerpt from the Auckland Star in 1944 labeled ‘A Pukekohe Complaint’: “The town is upside down because of the waywardness of some of the Maori women and girls … The Maori girls claim that they are just as entitled to associate with the servicemen as the white girls, and they get very cheeky, when spoken about the matter.”
These are the forgotten (or rather, the suppressed) stories and histories which litter Auckland’s past. I must confess that I never even knew some of these stories until this year. It took both moving south and, tragically, the horrific events of Christchurch for me to learn about these local stories. It would be an incredible act of naivety to, as many Pakeha are prone, imagine that these stories do not impact us today.
Yet these stories are not the ones I observed on my walk. The Victorian dress of locals in historical mural, the celebration of white ideal, the quaint photos of a Manurewa gone by—they continue to not only keep these racist stories of our past hidden but upkeep the systemic myth of Maori inferiority and white supremacy. These narratives are told in explicit and implicit ways in the actual landscape and artwork which makes up our neighbourhoods. Malls and murals, plaques and notices tell a story. Whose story is really being told?
Questions I want to ask myself:
Where do I, usually unintentionally, continue to value white/Western examples as the ideal in beauty, ways of being, and success?
How do I, usually unintentionally, give voice only to people who look and think like me?
What are the positions of power I hold as a white Pakeha, and how can I share those so that other voices are heard and represented?
Maybe you feel as though I am being over the top. Maybe you are tired of hearing people go on and on about privilege or systemic racism as if racism is this thing always hiding around every corner (if so, I’d love to have a friendly chat/coffee!).
These questions are not about circulating white guilt. These conversations are not about being so picky that you feel like there is no option for dialogue, but rather trying to engage with the difficult and uncomfortable realities about our past and present.
If you’re someone like me, that can mean having to change the lens on the way you see things to try position yourself from the perspective of minorities and tangata whenua. Maybe it means having a walk around South Auckland. Maybe it means visiting South Auckland (for my North Shore friends) or your local marae. I am sure they would love to have you. Maybe it means reading a little closer and behind the initial innocent sheen of the images and depictions in our neighbourhoods and beginning to retell the story of this country: a place where we reconcile the injustices and terrible stories of white supremacy in both our past and present; a place where there is genuinely equal opportunity to survive and thrive; a place where minorities and those on the margins are not only included but belong; a place where the reordering and rightway-up Kingdom of God occurs in Aotearoa as in heaven.
This is a blog interested in theology, church, pastoral ministry, and the gospel of Jesus in post-Christian, 21st century, Aotearoa New Zealand. Comment and korero below, or get in touch with the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Info about macrons in te reo Maori found here.