Carmen: An exotic New Zealander is an exhibition that has recently opened at the national museum, Te Papa. To describe it as an “exhibition” is a bit of a stretch actually as it is only one case featuring five collection objects that were gifted to the museum by Carmen herself. As a bit of background, Carmen was born Trevor Rupe in small-town New Zealand in 1936. Carmen moved to Sydney, Australia in the late 195o’s and became Australia’s first Māori drag performer. Throughout her life, Carmen spent a lot of time between Australia and New Zealand before her death at the age of 75 in Sydney in 2011. Widely-regarded as a pioneer within the LGBTQ community for her activism and outspoken call for rights for the community she represented, her flamboyant personality was reflected in her vibrant outfits. It is with some disappointment then, that the story of this amazing woman is restricted to a small cabinet.
What is also disappointing is that this exhibition, in all its colourful extravagance is at the end of a hallway that appears to be under construction, giving it the impression of an afterthought and indeed I did think, is this it? In terms of interpretation, very little information is given about the objects as this doesn’t appear to be known, but they did still beg the questions of “where would these have been worn?”, “how would she have acquired them or did she even make them herself?”.
In terms of the objects themselves, their appearance is ostentatious in their isolation but they come alive when viewing videos of Carmen in performance. There is a great documentary about Carmen here which provides further insights into how pivotal clothing and makeup were in forming her identity from a young age.
This was my favourite of the objects featured: a lei, splendid in its glittery, bejewelled, Hei tiki glory. Hei tiki are pendants that are made in the form of the first man and are considered to be one of the most prized possessions of Māori. Her Māori heritage appeared to be of importance to Carmen and I like that she appropriated a traditional form into her outfits. Again, this is another example of Carmen being a trailblazer as this traditional form reproduced in contemporary materials like bakelite and plastic would become commonplace from the early 2000s.
As a final example of how she was a true revolutionary thinker, Carmen ran for Mayor in the New Zealand capital city, Wellington in 1977. She campaigned for hotel bars to be open till midnight or even 2am, the drinking age to be lowered to 18, prostitution to be made legal, decriminalisation of abortion and homosexual acts, sex education in schools for 14-year-olds, and nudity on some beaches – all of these acts are now legal. There is a curatorial wink in the placement of the exhibition as it is opposite an exhibition showcasing the contraception collection donated to Te Papa by reproductive rights advocate Dame Margaret Sparrow. Carmen was a dedicated campaigner for sexual rights and she regularly lent her image to health initiatives including to a 2004 safe sex campaign from the New Zealand AIDS Foundation.
Though the size of the exhibition is disappointing, the fact that we have Carmen’s objects on display is an example of how lucky we are to have initiatives in New Zealand like those Carmen campaigned for in 1977. The placement of the exhibition is also in proximity to both the contraception exhibition mentioned above and the entrance to Te Papa’s Pasifika exhibition featuring material examples of how Pacific (and by association, Māori) culture has adapted to life in New Zealand. It seems fitting then that a feature fit for Carmen would happen at the crossroads of two exhibitions featuring aspects of New Zealand society over which she had positive influence.
A note on my column title: Kōrero Kākahu translates very literally from Māori to English as “talk of clothing” but can also be read as the stories gleaned from clothing or the stories that clothing holds. Future columns, particularly those that cover Māori content, may delve into this meaning a little deeper.