Gender roles not always so defined – and divisive

A wonderful part of working in a museum is the big-picture focus on culture: whether it’s looking at how a culture changes over time, or thinking about the similarities and differences between cultures in New Zealand and around the world. What I love about this is the reflect it leads to on my own culture, particularly in realising how many aspects of daily life, that seem immutable, are actually in flux.

Take gender, for example. From the way clothes are marketed and presented in shops, it’s clear that general Western society recognises two genders: one that can wear dresses, and one that most certainly should not.

And yet, looking in the museum collection, there’s a portrait painted in 1830 of a little English boy named William James Patterson, wearing a dress. The actual dress is also held in the collection. It’s a very cute wee number with blue-and-white striped fabric, puffed sleeves and a belt around the waist. You might find something similar in a store today, but it certainly wouldn’t be marketed as something for boys. In fact, parents who dared to publically dress their son in this would likely face confusion at best, criticism and vitriol at worst.

This illustrates how our standards of masculinity and femininity change over time. A more enduring part of the Western understanding of gender, however, is the binary model. In this model there are only two body types, fixed to two distinct gender identities. This has been considered an unquestionable fact of nature for centuries, despite the often extensive measures taken to enforce it.

For example an Evening Post newspaper of 1932 features the headline “Dressed as a woman: young man arrested – to be medically examined.” The person concerned was arrested in Auckland and charged with being an “idle and disorderly person,” due to dressing in a manner that transgressed the social rules of gender. Of course, if the binary model was a simple fact of nature, everyone would happily be in accordance and there would be no need for such arrests.

In New Zealand today, you won’t be arrested for your choices of masculine or feminine appearance, but unfortunately there is still the risk of violence from members of the public. Just last month, Blenheim man Kent Morgan was assaulted and called a homophobic insult for simply wearing a pink shirt while walking home from work. This violence can be experienced by anyone – Morgan happens to be cisgender and married to a woman – but it is most often directed at those who are gender diverse (particularly those who express themselves in a feminine way).

Tomorrow is Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual day held to memorialise those who have been attacked or murdered as a result of transphobia. I hope there’ll soon be no need for such a day, when people are free to exist and express themselves fully without fear of retribution.

Violence enforcing the gender binary model also comes in the guise of medicine, with cosmetic surgeries still routinely performed on intersex babies in New Zealand, and internationally. These operations are carried out to enable well-intended doctors and parents to fit babies in either the ‘male’ or ‘female’ box. Medically unnecessary, these operations have been shown to be incredibly harmful to the wellbeing of intersex people throughout their lives.

Last month the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the NZ government to protect intersex children by upholding their bodily integrity. The option of surgery is to be made available to the child only when they reach the age of 16 and can give informed consent. These protections cannot be introduced soon enough, as part of a wider movement to ensure those who, in any way, transcend the binary gender model are treated with the same respect and dignity as anyone else.

Jessica Mio – Art Curator, MTG Hawke’s Bay

Published in Hawke’s Bay Today Saturday 19 November 2016





A Glimpse of India

Last night we opened our newest display space, the Heynes Gallery, which was converted from an old office next to the Octagon. This was something we’d wanted to do for a long time and was made possible by a generous bequest from Mr Leslie George Heynes. As a small gallery space, it’s ideal for showing smaller items from our collection, such as jewellery, as well as concise collections that we hold from cultures around the world.

Our opening exhibition A Glimpse of India provided an opportunity to bring our collection of Indian items out from storage. The display spreads across the new Heynes Gallery and throughout the Octagon. These objects were originally bought as tourist souvenirs by individual collectors during the time of British rule – providing a colonial view of life in India. These range from miniature paintings and figurines, through to textiles and ceramics.

To complement this exhibition, contemporary artist Tiffany Singh was invited to create an art installation in the adjacent Chambers Gallery. Tiffany collaborated with local artist, Jo Blogg, to create Indra’s Bow. This artwork focuses on the spirituality of Diwali: the Hindu festival of lights, utilising the rainbow as inspiration. Diwali signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. Glass vessels filled with spices and other materials were used to create a rainbow arc hanging from the gallery ceiling.

An intricate mandala covering the entire floor sits underneath, made up of plain and coloured rice, along with beeswax figures and forms. In creating this mandala, the pattern was first marked out on the floor and then each different colour of rice was carefully poured and laid in place. Rice is a ritual offering to the goddess Lakshmi, often associated with Diwali, and provides a strong connection to women and fertility. Indra’s Bow is a masterpiece of meticulous planning, design and execution, creating a stunning and immersive artwork.

Outside the museum another work by Tiffany, The Colours of Light, continues the rainbow motif. Celebrating the spectral colours of light, hundreds of colourful ribbons hang from wires strung across the forecourt. Tied to the ribbons are handmade bells providing gentle music as the ribbons are caught in the breeze. The bells were made in Kutch, a district of Gujarat in India, and their rich tone reflects the mastery of the maker. This component of the work reflects Tiffany’s interest in fair trade and supporting artisan communities. We’re pleased that engaging Tiffany has contributed to this worthwhile endeavour. As is the case with the permanent public artwork Pin Wall, having art on the outside of the building not only adds colour and life, but also invites the community to engage with the museum both without and within.

There’s a not-to-be-missed opportunity to hear from Tiffany today at 11am. She’ll be talking about her art practice, her interest in fair trade and social justice, along with the inspiration for the two artworks at the museum.

Together with A Glimpse of India these two art installations provide a richness of colour, scent and sound throughout the building.

Rosebuds in hanging glass vessels, forming part of Indra’s Bow

Rosebuds in hanging glass vessels, forming part of Indra’s Bow . Photographer David Frost.


Laura Vodanovich – Director, MTG Hawke’s Bay

Published in Hawke’s Bay Today Saturday 29 October 2016

  • Lecturer Duncan Campbell talk on the History of China, Saturday 5 November 10:30am at MTG. Free event.
  • Guided tour of Osmanthus Gardens, Cornwall Park, Hastings, with lecturer Duncan Campbell, Saturday 5 November 2:30pm. Free event but numbers are limited – please book through MTG.
  • Saturday 5 November, FAWC! Master Class series, Tickets available through eventfinda. $10 per session