Sport 28: Autumn 2002
For some days prior to the premier of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the City Gallery Wellington, where I work, had been renamed City Gallery Middle Earth as part of the civic embrace which, in the best tradition of the Hemi Baxter bear-hug, clenched itself around the Lord of the Rings project. The City Council also renamed the library and other civic buildings, the daily email newsletter to staff became the ‘Middle Earth Bulletin’, and the Evening Post bore on its masthead Middle Earth Post for most of the week.
The City Gallery Wellington had undergone a name change a few years earlier on account of the biculturalism which was sweeping through New Zealand society at the time: Te Whare Toi had been added to the English name. In contrast, the recent—and far more pervasive, albeit temporary—renaming of the gallery highlighted a less predictable direction—or possibly just a detour—on the part of the evolving National Identity.
These two exercises in cultural tagging—City Gallery Middle Earth and Te Whare Toi—and the ‘cultures’ they embody came together on the night in question, directly in front of the Embassy Theatre just page 99 after the Prime Minister had galloped along the red carpet. A spirited Maori party moved along the promenade in a flurry of taiaha and extended tongues, heading towards the Embassy where a ten metre tall figure loomed above the cinema entrance. Offering a Middle Earthern version of the Maori challenge, the mallet-wielding monster above the entranceway appeared to be a cross between King Kong, Alien and a giant slug. Beneath the impervious gaze of this god-awful creature, the Maori group proceeded briskly into the building where corks were already popping and excitement mounting.
Anyone watching television the previous night could have been forgiven for thinking that the cultural affairs of the nation were already in a state of subtle realignment. From behind an amorphous mass of white beard, the face of a dark-skinned Father Christmas appeared on an end-of-year television special hosted by Havoc and Newsboy. By the end of that programme, the beard had been peeled off and our erstwhile Santa turned out to be the Tuhoe land rights activist Tame Iti—quite possibly the first ever Santa with full-face moko. (The last time I had seen Tame Iti was at the City Gallery Wellington, where he had been flat on the gallery floor writing the names of contested land claim sites onto golf balls that were glued to the linoleum as part of his installation, Kohuru Tangata, a contribution to the ‘Parihaka’ exhibition.) Not surprisingly, before the programme was over Tame made a point of saying something about reclaiming what the Government had stolen from Maori, underlining his status as a sort of anti-Santa, intent on getting ‘gifts’ back over the festive season rather than handing them out.