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In Spite of Everything

Author: Cam McCracken, Director
It’s been an interesting few weeks at The Dowse, to say the least. We have just opened 'In Spite of Ourselves: Approaching Documentary', an exhibition developed and toured by St Paul St. Gallery.

In the lead up to opening, the show was featured on the main Wellington daily newspaper, the Dominion Post. Talkback hostseditorial writers and some sections of the public have been up in arms about our decision to show a work, as part of the wider exhibition, which may only be viewed by women. A number of complaints about this have even been made to the Human Rights Commission.

The work by Qatari/US artist, Sophia Al-Maria, For Your Eyes Only (2007) documents female members of a family preparing for a wedding in a section of the house only available to women. We have agreed to respect the request of the artist, and the wishes and privacy women filmed and only share this footage with female audiences.

Opponents of our decision to show the work argue that we are ratepayer funded and as such shouldn’t be barring access to any part of our building on the basis of gender; or race, religion or age for that matter. After all, these principles are protected under the Human Rights Act 1993. We don’t think it’s quite as straight forward as all that however. There are numerous instances where people are prevented from activity based on age or gender. There are also examples of similar claims of discrimination in overseas jurisdictions where no real harm has been suffered. These tribunals have decided their purpose is to provide redress for those who have suffered loss or detriment as a result of being discriminated against, and that their processes should not be used to make a political point. They have ruled that filing such claims harms those with legitimate claims of discrimination.

Needless to say, we think that showing the work is important and outweighs any potential legal issue.

The wider exhibition is about, amongst other things, how we record and recount narratives and how we depict ourselves to others. The Al-Maria work gives our female audience an opportunity for a genuine, if light hearted, insight into a culture which is amost always portrayed negitively in western media. The artist has said “the less people know about Islam and Muslim women (particularly those who cover their faces) the more threatened they seem to feel… By giving female viewers a special look into the humorous, colourful and totally normal lives of the women they may be irrationally afraid to sit next to on a bus, I hope to poke a hole in the general assumptions about veiled women”. 

As a male, I have found the notion of the work fascinating and have had to confront my own issues about being prevented from seeing it. I’ve also enjoyed the experience of hearing about the work from a number of friends, colleagues and members of the public – each who have had a slightly different take on it.

As I mentioned earlier, we’ve had criticism that because public funding is involved we should not restrict men from seeing the work. Let’s be clear, it’s a philosophical issue – it has to be. The work cost the gallery something like $400 to stage, so shared amongst the 40,000 or so rate paying households in the city, that’s about one cent each. So it’s the principle that we are spending public money and denying some members of the public from viewing the work and I have to say, that on balance, I’m ok with this too. Public funding goes into all manner of areas which are exclusively for one group and not for others – they’re almost too numerous to mention – schooling, pensions, sports funding levels which are different depending on gender.

“Discrimination” is just about everywhere you care to look. Even at The Dowse we’ve long practiced the exact sort of discrimination which has caused this controversy. Muka Youth Prints visit galleries all over NZ, including the Dowse, and is only open to one section of our visitors – people between the ages of 5 and 18 – nobody else is allowed in. Far from being headline-grabbing news about age discrimination, everyone loves this concept.

If the first few days are anything to go by, our visitors also love In Spite of Ourselves and For Your Eyes Only. The outrage has seemingly disappeared as quickly as it erupted. Now we grapple with the problem of people wondering what all the fuss was about.

— Cam McCracken, Director

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