In November of 2021, I was invited to speak at the opening of the Trouble in Paradise exhibition at the National Library of New Zealand. It was to a small group of invited dignitaries and staff of the Library.
Tēnā koutou katoa
Ko Nabukelevu te maunga.
Ko Drekenikelo te awa.
Ko Ōtepoti te ūngā.
Ko Blundell te waka.
Ko Kong te hapū.
Ko ngati Whītī te iwi.
Kei te noho au ki Whanganui a Tara.
Ko Timoci Kong toku ingoa.
Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa.
E kui tēnā koe I want to mihi to you Bella — to acknowledge your mana in this place, and for your korero to each of us today. It is always a privilege to hear and learn from you — so in the language of my father — vinaka.
Tēnā kōrua to Her Excellency High Commissioner Laura Clarke and Chief Librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Chris Szekely, and I want to also acknowledge your acting as National Librarian on this occasion.
Fakafetai lahi lele to you both for your words.
Tēnā koutou to Peter and Fiona and Sheyne Tuffery, Igor and Anthony and those who have put together this exhibition, to Zoe and Anna and Seb and to all those in the public engagement team. I also want to acknowledge the cleaners and security and all those who will care for this space over the duration of this exhibition.
On behalf of those of the Pacific Islands, who work within DIA and the National Library we are grateful for the care and attention you take with these taonga.
Malo 'aupito to each of you.
Yadra and good morning to everyone else — thank you for joining us today. I’ve been asked to say a few words and after having a sneak preview of the exhibition yesterday I have a few reflections to share.
“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountain green
And was the holy lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pasture seen ...”
Some of you may recognise the opening of William Blake’s poem if not in the written form, probably in the soaring choral arrangements and storied choirs of ‘Jerusalem’ — sung traditionally at the Last Night of the Proms.
For Gen Z among us or those on Tiktok, those words are not a translation of the smash hit Jerusalema by South Africa’s Master KG and Nomcebo Zikode.
The words in this stanza wonder about a divine visit, a moment in which there might have indeed been a heaven in England, a paradise if you will. I thought about how that sense links with this exhibit — entitled as it is — Trouble in Paradise.
Because often and for many, these islands, these twenty-two distinct Pacific Island countries and territories are idyllic, beautiful, jewels scattered across a blue canvas — if you’re so inclined ‘it’s a magical place’.
In popular culture, in advertising, in movies and television our default mental model of the Pacific is of untouched paradises.
Yet for many, including for many here today, they are not that.
They are just home.
Places we call home, despite them often being the place our parents left behind, seeking opportunity for themselves and a future for us, their children.
So they are and are not home — but they will always remain and be a part of us.
It’s a complex and multi-layered relationship — between the land, between our cultures, between our communities — stretched as they are across this ocean.
I see that complexity when I look at these images. Images that capture a myriad of Pacific places in simple, un-polished and non-magical ways.
Almost every single one of these sixty images show the edge of lands and the intersection with the ocean — that is of course a looming reminder of the inevitable impact of climate change.
In our lifetimes and upon our children.
But I think they also echo a line of another poet, a more localised one — Sir David of Dobbyn who wrote in his song ‘Welcome Home’:
“Out here on the edge, the Empire is fading by the day ...”
I use that line with no disrespect intended to the High Commissioner — because I think what this project, funded by the British Council, has done is to enable the edges to be shown from the perspective of those who live on those edges.
In doing so this project starts to re-centre a Pacific version of the lived challenges and very concrete realities that exist for Pacific people.
That is incredibly important.
So I would ask as you view these images and take in this exhibit — read the names of these Pacific Island photographers and artists, say their names, bring your family and friends to see their work and share these names.
Because these names represent the future stories of this Pacific.
As I read these names, I thought of my own daughters — who through their mother connect to Ulster’s ‘mountain green’ of the Mournes and whose awa is the River Bann which rises in County Down.
I wonder about their place in this Pacific and how they will shape their own version of this place — being as they are connected with the North, but born of, and raised in Aotearoa.
I thought of Brianna Fruean’s challenge at COP26 in Glasgow this week: ‘E pala m'a ae le pala upu’ — even the stones decay, but words remain.
Somewhere between the divine paradise of Blake and hell on earth that is climactic upheaval there lies a space for our stories.
Stories to and for each other. Stories to and for the world.
May the words of these Pacific Islanders, in these images — and in your stories — from the edges of home, land and sea — start to fill that space, to shape and define our shared oceanic future.
Vinaka vaka levu.
This speech originally appeared on the National Library website.