Valuing immigrants

by Listener Archive / 31 December, 2005
Ans Westra's photographs raise many challenges.

In the 1950s, Maori, then mainly a rural people, began their great migration into the Pakeha cities. Ans Westra, 21 years old when she arrived from Holland in 1957, photographed it.

Perhaps we all saw the Maori in the 1950s, but Westra "saw" them in a sensitive and perceptive way. Like all new immigrants, she was struck by the practices and customs of her new country. She commented, "Everything I saw on the Maori at that point was superficial, and mostly just for the tourism market - there seemed to be a whole culture out there that people were quite unaware of." Even when later her attention turned to other moments of the day - street scenes, crowd scenes, workers, public protests - as like as not there is a mix of Maori and Pakeha in the picture. She has deposited over 100,000 of her images in the Alexander Turnbull Library,

Because of unfamiliarity, immigrants sometimes unintentionally transgress social conventions. However, these often change. Westra did that in 1964 when her school bulletin photo-essay Washday at the Pa was withdrawn from classrooms by the Minister of Education. (They were guillotined - the censors had the grace not to burn them.)

The primary complaint came from the Maori Women's Welfare League, who thought the images of a poor Maori family in a dilapidated house were not "typical" of contemporary Maori and would have a detrimental effect on race relations. (Of course, they didn't when the book was republished by Caxton Press.) One could accuse the league of political correctness, but it was like your mum tidying the house before the arrival of richer visitors. What was overlooked was the aroha shining, something that snobby visitors also miss.

I recently revisited the touring exhibition Handboek: Ans Westra, Photographs. Many of the pictures in the exhibition are iconic, and the rest seem familiar. But they were not when she took them. Her images made the unfamiliar commonplace. (The exhibition's book won a 2005 Montana Book Award.)

The exhibition got me thinking about migration. The evidence about its economic benefits and costs is equivocal. Any proponent, or opponent, can present a convincing case based on anecdote, casual statistics and bad economics as to why we should, or should not, increase the numbers coming into the country. But is that the point? Should we judge everything in narrow economic terms?

Westra's lifetime income has been substantially below the national average - we have not been generous to our artists. Suppose the immigration official who let her in those 50 years ago had told her to go back because she would lower GDP per capita. What a terrible mistake. Income does not measure a person's value to society.

Adding to our life experiences is surely the real value of immigrants. They change the way we see the world, the way we engage with the world and the way we cele-brate our world. It is a particular issue for a small country like ours, where it is so easy to become insular and complacent, as we were about the Maori in the 1950s; it is so easy to stagnate while the world moves on. That stagnation misses exciting opportunities, as we had when the Maori came to town. Fortunately, guides like Westra alerted us to the possibilities.

How many of your friends are migrants or children of migrants? Almost a fifth of us were born overseas. What have they brought to New Zealand, and to you? Think of the difference of the life you lead from the pudding culture of the 50s when Westra (and the exhibition curator and book's editor, Luit Bieringa) arrived. How much of it has been imported from overseas and blended into our distinct way of life? Don't think about the economic riches - that is not a Christmas thing. Think about the richness of the life we lead.

Handboek: Ans Westra, Photographs will visit Dunedin (February 18-May 15, 2006), Leiden, Netherlands (August-September 2006) and Christchurch (March 3-June 17, 2007). Or you can read the book. A documentary of her work will be shown on TV1 in 2006, too.

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