Decolonising Design in Aotearoa: From the Studio to the Archive and back again
I wonder if what you originally pictured yourself doing in design to be has radically shifted from when you first started? The premise seemed straight-forward: A client has a problem. You ride in on a white horse to remedy it with an award-winning solution, and zap! Everyone’s happy, money rains and life goes on. The end. The world is full of well-meaning designers chasing dream scenarios, yet when it comes to designing for diverse audiences, there’s still a struggle to find nuanced voices and representation in popular culture, literature, film, media and advertising. Ask your grandma.
More than once I’ve heard you use the term ‘imposter syndrome’ lately, also expressing your fear of being misunderstood. And I commiserate, knowing all too well the precarity of working in the space between cultural frames: the awkwardness of being wheeled into the end of a project to ‘add flavour’ or ‘perform your culture’ — having to explain that although you’re from here, that you don’t know how to speak Te reo Māori, Samoan or Mandarin well enough to design, market and sell goods and services to people who do, and feeling under-resourced and overwhelmed.
By sharing your frustration, you also hold onto a hope that your design might make the world a more equitable and empathetic place. You asked me what “decolonising design in Aotearoa” could look like. Creative resistance and solidarity comes in many forms, and has potential for whakawhanaungatanga — to facilitate reciprocal relationships between people, sites, systems and ecologies, and sustain our collective desires for the future. Designer and educator, Juan Carlos Rodríguez Rivera from Decolonial School at the California College of Arts encourages designers to centre Indigenous knowledge and perspectives to present “new possible futures that are non-oppressive and non-hierarchical.” Decolonising design methodologies can enhance dominant culture in its criticality and inclusivity.
Tired of cultural appropriation and reductive cliches, we desperately seek new and thoughtful strategies and articulations. What I could offer you here evokes what scholar Uzma Rizvi refers to as ‘Decolonising as care’ with a view to who and what’s happening around us. Recent events at Ihumātao, the Christchurch Attacks, Black Lives Matter, and Covid racism have shaken our postcolonial understandings of biculturalism, multiculturalism, historic injustices, visibility and representation. To centre Te Tiriti-based relationships between Mana Whenua and Pākehā / Tauiwi enables us to carefully and purposefully transform Eurocentric Design and Archive practices. Look at scholarship by Vā Moana / Pacific Spaces, Te Ipukarea Research Institute (behind the successful Te Aka Māori Dictionary) and Indigenous Design in Aotearoa (IDIA) who employ a Culture Centred Design (CCD) approach. Examples of contemporary design following these values and aspirations can also be found in the new Kātoitoi design archive.
Mana Moana Digital Ocean explores this through their online collection of multimedia and digital art. The work draws us back to the water’s edge to a place of awe and
wonder through Mātauranga Māori and Kaupapa Pasifika perspectives, “glowing like islands” in the digital ocean.
If you haven’t already, also check out the Pacific Arts Legacies Project by Pantograph Punch, Untold Pacific History by Radio New Zealand, The Spinoff’s The Single Object series and New Zealand Herald’s Land of the Long White Cloud web series. Who came before you? Who’s working right now in areas that are related and inspiring to your research? What format does it come (books, art, film, fashion, video)? Who consumes this media and who misses out (due to time, money, access, know-how)? Again, ask your grandma.
I was going to discuss specific challenges for BIPOC educators in design, but maybe another time. Some of our current Honours-level design students have been doing some interesting work. One student is researching into graphic methods to persuade migrant parents that studying art and design is a viable option, while another is asking how to celebrate culture and heritage without trauma. They’re encouraged to build a glossary of useful key terms and understandings to reference. Perhaps such a thing could be useful for commercial projects too?
Now that we have this archive please use it. Value those documented so far, but also the cultural work of those yet to be recognised and those nowhere near an archive (out in the community). Like I said before: that if you chose to study design, you will never be able look at the world the same again. How can you, knowing what you now know? Use your powers for good, be generous, critical, kind and stay hopeful. We will always need role models and allies and since you’re here too, you are very much part of this.
He waka eke noa.