The activists who defaced an English version of Ti Tiriti o Waitangi at Te Papa last year planned their actions very carefully, says Cally O’Neill from the social justice action group Te Waka Hourua.
"There's a bunch of precedents for art as activism and that was exactly the direction that we were going … The conversations that [our protest] has incited are conversations that Te Papa itself were reluctant to instigate, which is why we took that action," she tells Culture 101.
From 4 to 5 February (from 11am to 6pm), a two-day exhibition by Te Waka Hourua - Te Waka Hourua Whītiki, Mātike, Whakatika! - is on at the Wellington art space Enjoy. The public is invited to "make their own redactions, print a t-shirt, share zines, kai and kōrero". A book of the same name has been produced by 5ever Books.
O’Neill is a founding member of the tangata whenua-led group Te Waka Hourua, which formed in 2019 after its members connected at a camp organised by the Kiwi branch of the international climate change action group Extinction Rebellion.
After working with Extinction Rebellion for a couple of years, though, the group realised their central focus was actually the fight for justice in relation to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, she says.
On 11 December, in protest against Te Papa displaying the English-language version of the document (in its Signs of a Nation exhibit) as being of "equal importance and equal stature" to the te reo Māori version, her group took action.
Te Waka Hourua's issue was the national museum's decision to display a version of Aotearoa's founding document that is neither "a translation or part of the official agreement", O'Neill says.
"We're beyond the point where that type of presentation is appropriate because it misleads people into believing that either it's a translation or it's part of the official agreement, which it's neither."
Although the English version of the document was read out at Waitangi, it was the Māori-language version that people agreed to, she says, therefore that is New Zealand's true founding document.
"The other document is an English draft of what was then translated into Māori to become the signed agreement.
"In my opinion, that could be likened to a clerical error where someone has accidentally taken the draft out to the field to be signed when it was not actually the agreed document."
To "incite conversations" about a topic that Te Papa itself was reluctant to engage in, Te Waka Hourua took action – entering the museum in high-viz and using spray paint and an angle grinder to obscure the document.
O'Neill says the group planned very carefully what they were going to do on the day.
"There's a bunch of precedents for art as activism and that was exactly the direction that we were going.
"One of the real powers of artists is to be able to allow people to respond through their own emotions, their own feelings and in their own time to have conversations around that. So it was very deliberate.
"People in our group didn't necessarily imagine themselves as artists but I think the reality is art takes many shapes and forms.
"For some people, this is a really serious topic. And what we believe is that through art as activism there are multiple possibilities. And by using humour there is an aspect of healing [where] you can kind of allow people to laugh at something that's been very hurtful and very serious."
The "artwork" spray-painted on the Te Tiriti document was a redaction inspired by redacted correspondence between Te Papa and the Māori Advisory Board about the Signs of a Nation exhibition, O'Neill says.
After the Te Waka Hourua group carried out their protest, they were approached by the Wellington gallery Enjoy who offered to make A3 posters of their spray-painted redaction to fundraise for legal costs.
In the redacted version of Article 2 of Te Tiriti o Waitangi – which will be shown at Enjoy gallery – 'Her Majesty, the Queen of England... is... the alien' are the only words left legible.
"Alien' is the term used by the Crown at the time to talk about alienation of land, so Māori only had the right to sell land to the Crown, [whereas] the Crown had the right to alienate Māori from land. That's where the word 'alien' comes from.
"But in a very literal sense, at the time, in Aotearoa the Queen was the alien. Māori was normal. The word Māori even means 'normal'. She was definitely the foreign object."
A "feudalism dynamic" was very obvious around the time the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, O'Neill says, but now, under capitalism, New Zealand remains in a very similar position.
"We're in a situation again where we aren't distributing resources fairly by any stretch of the imagination and we need to do some really serious thinking about who has the right to use the resources that are currently being stolen from future generations.
"Minority parties who present a minority for both Te Tiriti and also on climate action, environmental action, health ... they have been able to influence the government in a completely disproportionate way.
"Now we even have the National government saying that they won't support the Treaty referendum bill beyond Select Committee, and yet that was the thing that allowed them to form a government.
"I argue that it's a broken system that needs some adjustment."
Te Papa has kept the defaced panel up since the protest, alongside an explanatory panel, and a surge of visitors has since checked it out. The museum has also promised to renew the Signs of a Nation exhibition, admitting it needs “to change to meet the needs of today”.