Culture and Society Professor and Director of Te Ipukarea Tania Ka'ai was in London recently, as part of a 10-person delegation representing Aotearoa, for the opening of the Oceania exhibition. Hosted at the prestigious Royal Academy in London, the exhibition marks the 250th anniversary of both Captain Cook's voyage to the Pacific, and the Academy itself.
The exhibition brings together historic art and artefacts from across Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia from museums and private collections around the globe, spanning 500 years of cultural heritage.
"I received the call from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade a while ago," Tania recalls. "The organisers saw the value of my knowledge of Te Ao Māori (the Māori world). Other attributes came into play as well, including my Pacific heritage and my academic position at AUT."
As part of the New Zealand delegation, Tania's role was to help lead the procession and participate in the cultural blessing of exhibits prior to the official opening ceremony.
"On the Monday, the delegation and I were joined by a procession of around 300-400 people including performers from several Pacific nations," Tania explains. "There was a real fusion of karakia, chants and singing from across the Pacific as the crowd followed us from Green Park, down Piccadilly and into the grounds of the Royal Academy. The performers and general public stayed and performed outside the Royal Academy in the courtyard while a smaller delegation went inside to do the blessing - It was an incredibly powerful experience."
The following day saw the official opening of the exhibition, attended by Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Sussex (Meghan Markle), in her first solo Royal engagement. As part of a group that included the Associate Minister of Pacific Peoples and Arts, Culture and Heritage, Hon Carmel Sepuloni, as well as Pacific artists and Academy representatives, Tania had a chance to meet the Duchess one-on-one.
"I was the last in line for our group, and ended up having a long conversation with the Duchess about how the exhibition brings the Pacific together, and how she was looking forward to her upcoming trip to Aotearoa," Tania explained. "The paparazzi had been following her around the exhibition, and after she left I was mobbed by reporters wanting to know what we talked about."
That night Tania attended a private dinner hosted by the Royal Academy and was seated at the same table as Her Excellency the Honourable Titilupe Fanetupouvava’u Tuita Kaho, High Commissioner of the Kingdom of Tonga and her husband, John Puhiatau Pule, a Niuean artist, novelist and poet and other distinguished guests of the Royal Academy. Another highlight of the trip for Tania was when the New Zealand delegation joined the High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and former Governor-General Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae and his wife, Lady Janine, for a private dinner.
“It was a wonderful experience," Tania said. "I was proud of the opportunity to serve my community and my country.”
The Oceania Exhibition is on display at the Royal Academy in London for three months before heading to Paris. New Zealand and other Pacific Island citizens in London can attend the exhibition for free if they present their passport.