Your Cart

Nothing in your cart yet.

Continue Browse Publications

Regional Art Stories On having hope and imagining community

Hana Pera Aoake for Regional Assembly

In her book All About Love bell hooks wrote, “..definitions are vital starting points for the imagination. What we cannot imagine cannot come into being. A good definition marks our starting point and lets us know where we want to end up.” [1] The word ‘community’ is derived from the Latin communitas—meaning the same, which initially came from communis—meaning ‘common, public, shared by all or many’, with the Latin con—meaning ‘together’ and the word munis which describes the act of performing services. In keeping these word etymologies in mind, I began to think about the ways in which language is so frequently inadequate when we are trying to find a space where we can come together and although this is my starting point I wonder where the end point may lead when considering ways of describing not only what community is but how we find it.

Coming in late from a morning with a sick toddler, I approached this conversation with Regional Assembly with a complex thread of different ideas around what community meant to me, and of who my communities might be. I was curious to see how a group of people spread across oceans might define what community is, how they find it and how they feel held or not held by different communities in their lives not just as artists and cultural producers, but in all the roles that they embody. As an outsider to the group I felt that each person drew together a disparate web of thoughts, experiences and reflections that knitted a patchwork of tensions, as much as it held hope, imagination and love.

I was reminded that the best moments of being in community are when we remember that ‘...though our paths are many, we are made one community in love’[2]. What does it mean though to be in community in love? The diverse and unfixed communities I belong to (or have belonged to) have been tied together in different ways and in different contexts. First there is the everyday community of which I am a mother, a partner, a daughter, a grandchild, and a friend. How does my everyday community inform the way I might think outward or imagine a collective version of living that is informed by love? Is that even a possibility?

The Ancient Greek philosopher, Hierocles developed a term called ‘oikeiôsis’, where the central idea posited that we are all innately concerned with ourselves, but drawn to care for the people who are close to us—namely our friends and family. This then allows us to expand our concern for others further and further afield and then care for our fellow citizens, and as this duty to care expands we learn to care for mankind as a whole. It is through this paradigm that we could begin to think through different ways of enriching and contributing not just to our everyday community, but to our extended communities around us. The practitioners within Regional Assembly raised important questions, probing; Where do I stand? How do we stand together? What do I love? What am I good at and what skills do I bring to a community?[3]

Oikeiôsis is a nice way of visualising how we might expand an ethic of care beyond our immediate circle, but Hierocles did not live in a society in which everyone was afforded the same rights that he enjoyed. The strands of domination that informed his society are etched into ours. Building community requires a vigilant awareness that in order to come together in a way where there is equality and dignity we must continually undermine the socialisation we have all undergone that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.[4] The art community I belong to feels more slippery to define as a ‘community’, because it is often a site where the kinds of white supremacist, classist, sexist and utterly toxic modes of socialisation are completely embedded. It’s less a community and more like a messy thread of ‘networks’ that exist in different cities and countries around the world where those same structures of domination are present in different forms and shaped by different histories. This ‘network’ can feel like an interlocking chain, or system, where the idea of ‘love’ is fraught by the reality of neoliberalism, which has made so many of us believe that the issues we face in our lives are ours alone—a result of individual weaknesses—and that we must compete with one another for finite resources.[5] It can feel lonely when these networks are not positive.

I wrote down a lot of questions during the Assembly, underlining those that challenged the rosy picture we often associate with words like ‘community’:

What does it mean to leave a community?

What if you choose not to belong?

What does it mean to be claimed by a community?

When does the idea of belonging to a group become stifling or even toxic? [6]

Sometimes we must also choose not to belong.

Often there is a tendency to think of community in terms of sameness: the same class, the same race, same ethnicity, same social standing or being geared towards the same goal(s).[7] bell hooks reminds us that we need to exercise caution, “...I think we need to be wary: we need to work against the danger of evoking something that we don’t challenge ourselves to actually practice.”[8] Within the contemporary art field the idea of ‘being in community’ or simply ‘community’ feels like a fraught and difficult term to define and often feels cheapened or reduced to a commodity. Community is never a given.[9]

The experiences that are most valuable are always experiences where there is very rarely a clearcut sameness, other than a sharing of similar beliefs and sometimes outcomes, and perhaps through a commitment to sharing we find a sameness that is a commitment to service, hospitality or reciprocity. In te ao Māori, not unlike many other Indigenous cultures, we have two terms that can denote and expand on a word like ‘service’. The term 'whanaungatanga' refers to a familial relationship, not necessarily family family, but building meaningful relationships with other people who become your family. Whanaungatanga describes the ‘glue’ that holds people together in any form of whānau (family). In tough times, it’s the relationship-glue of whanaungatanga that causes the whānau to gather, provide support, and put the needs of the group before the needs of individuals. Everyone knows that a family doesn’t always get along, so the idea that within a community there needs to be ongoing consensus is problematic. Within the framework of whanaungatanga we can disagree but still respect and support each other. Disagreement can be positive, but can pull communities apart. In the words of the great American writer James Baldwin, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

My Nana always used to say that, 'when you are in someone else's whare (home) you roll with it. Always share. Always use your manners. Always remember the world is bigger than you.' Having been put in a few sticky situations in my life I always remember this advice from my Nana, especially when I get stressed or anxious or feel frustrated or out of my depth via language or cultural barriers. Her words remind me that I can always show manaakitanga, offer kindness and share what I can. Manaakitanga encompasses a broad range of different meanings, including making someone feel at home, being a responsible host, showing kindness, hospitality, caring for the environment, treating people with respect, nurturing relationships, caring for others, and the reciprocity of all of this. It is the idea of caring about others and caring about the world as being interconnected rather than something that has been classified or rooted in binaries. We can engage in radical openness and hold a commitment to seeing the world of both. We can think through a complex analysis. We can let go of wanting everything to be explained and to be simple.[10] We can uplift, support, make people feel at home, listened to and even loved if we begin to engage in these ways. When we give to others we will always get back more than what we have given and we will always be surprised.

Within the broad field of contemporary art perhaps it is possible to think about what it means to share and to begin by thinking about sharing rather than longing to belong to a community. Knowing how to be solitary is not mutually exclusive from being in community. I am thinking again of bell hooks, who reminds us that, “...many of us seek community solely to escape the fear of being alone. Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” [11]

At a protest I attended recently in solidarity for Palestine in Wellington, the MC stated that not only was the act of gathering together special and an act of solidarity, but that it is powerful and an act that demonstrates to systems of domination the importance of collectivity. It also reminded me of what the theorist Judith Butler meant when describing the importance for individuals experiencing precarity to “..make alliances with other populations broadly characterised as precarious.” When we gather together and form alliances against systems of domination we are always aware of the precarity of our existence. This is because in our society not all bodies are given the same rights and whose body can be recognised, made legible and who is able to live with dignity is dependent upon our material conditions. Who is excluded and who is given the agency of visibility are issues we must face in order to secure a space where communities can come together, because when despair takes hold we cannot form communities of resistance.[12] We need to imagine spaces where we might be able to hold each other, which is as the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire reminds us, “…without a vision for tomorrow, hope is impossible”. [13]

Recently I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I went into this space uncomfortable at what I might find and thinking about the different communities who have been collected and studied through the British colonial project. I went into a room titled simply ‘South Asia’ that contained a number of textiles, ceramics, and paintings from across the Indian subcontinent south of the Himalayas, including India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. My heart sank seeing these objects and seeing words such as “gifted”. I tried to imagine the communities that had had their lands, resources and cultural objects taken and what they must have felt in that moment. While trying to be critical of how this collection had formed I looked across the room and started to notice a number of families who belonged to these places—perhaps they were just visiting the city or maybe they lived in London and were encountering ancestors and the objects that they used or were sacred to them. The delight I saw in their faces as they were able to see themselves and their ancestors inside these vitrines softened my initial scepticism. I started to then think about my own position as belonging to both the colonised and the coloniser, how do I locate myself in this context and what do I share with these people looking at these objects. The more I wondered the more I realised the ways in which communities are never static, and are always in motion. Whether that be as a Whatsapp group chat, a knitting club, a group of artists sharing an exhibition space or a family looking at textiles from the different parts of the world they or their ancestors had come from. The idea of community is both material and immaterial. It is illusive to describe, and has been disrupted by violent colonial forces, kept apart by time zones, or stretched across oceans through migration both by choice and force. We were sometimes also collected and studied as anomalies or curiosities that sat outside of dominant hegemonies that governed the rights for some of us to exist as human, and not property. The Regional Assembly knotted together all of these complex, challenging and at times confronting contradictions. We were all existing in the current forms of our societies, however clunky, and simultaneously aware of our need to belong and find people to share these worlds with. This was never going to be a linear conversation. What struck me by the end was that although there are always difficulties we have to negotiate communities from the parts of who we are as humans, even when we seek opacity or resist forms of subjugation or classification. Ultimately the desire to belong, to share and to be a part of a network of people is something we all hold.

Hana Pera Aoake (Ngaati Mahuta, Ngaati Hinerangi, Waikato/Tainui, ) is an artist, writer, curator and independent researcher from Aotearoa. In 2020 they published a book of selected writing called A bathful of Kawakawa and hot water (Compound Press). Hana primarily co-organise Kei te pai press with Morgan Godfery. Currently they are undertaking a curatorial residency at the Delphina foundation with Metroland studios in London. Hana is also apart of a Digital Fellowship programme with Creative Australia and Creative New Zealand. In 2021-22 Hana was a participating artist in Regional Arts Australia’s inaugural Regional Assembly.

[1] bell hooks, All about love: New Visions. Harper Collins: New York, NY, 2000, pg. 14

[2] Ibid, pg. 82.

[3] These questions were posed by members of Regional Assembly

[4] bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. Routledge: London, UK, 2003, pg. 36.

[5] How we hold: Rehearsals for Art and Social Change. Jemma Egan, Layla Gatens, Elizabeth Graham, Amal Khalaf and Alex Thorp. (eds). Serpentine Galleries: London, United Kingdom, 2023, pg. 15.

[6] Again these were questions that were shared by members ofRegional Assembly .

[7] bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, pg. 163.

This was also adapted from one of the participants.

[8] Ibid, pg. 163.

[9] Adapted from something spoken during Regional Assembly.

[10] bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, pg. 78.

[11] bell hooks, All about love: New Visions, pg. 140.

[12] bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, pg. 12.

[13] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Heart. New York, NY: Continuum, pg. 45.