Māori exhibition centre stage at Dubai Expo

By Will Trafford

Since 1851 world expos have been the platform to showcase regional innovation shaping the world and this week in the United Arab Emirates Māori are centre stage.

191 nations received a blank canvas in the form of a pavillion to show their country's best technological and cultural attributes to an estimated 25 Million guests. On entering the Aotearoa Pavilion the sound of karanga, karakia and poi fills the whare, an invitation to the rest of the world to see Māori culture. 

Sustainable industry, aquaculture and agriculture is Aotearoa's core message, government partnering with Whanganui iwi to pitch it with a kaitiakitanga lens.

“We are pleased to be here to be able to provide the story,” said Sheena Maru, chairperson for the Ngā Tāngata Tiaki o Whanganui Trust.

The New Zealand commissioner for the Dubai Expo, Clayton Kimpton, said a Māori worldview was an important part of the kaupapa, mirroring trends at home for closer Te Tiriti partnership and co-governance. “When we announced our participation in this expo a decision was made to ensure Māori values were at the centre."

Above: Aotearoa's uniquely Te Ao Māori pavilion at the Dubai World Expo

The legal personhood granted to the Whanganui awa in 2017 is central to the exhibition, organizers say it communicates the advantages of treating the natural world as a living breathing entity, instead of a resource to be exploited.

Water in the desert

“The story of Te Awa Tupua that's about ensuring innate values of Māori are here on the world stage. Things have become a commodity, things have become a throwaway and we don't want that. We've never been taught that,” Maru said.

A rhythmic boom symbolising the mauri of a digital reincarnation of Whanganui awa entices attendees into the pavilion where massive digital displays leave visitors feeling immersed in the strength and beauty of the river. Guests are confronted by a more than three-tonne toka (boulder) shipped in from Mount Tongariro shrouded by 12-metre curtains of water signalling the head of the awa.

Maru says the treatment of Wai as a taonga is a shared value between Māori and Emirati locals, given water scarcity in the region. The display serves as a teaching experience for non-local visitors.

“We're encouraging everyone to put themselves inside their rivers, their mountains, their forests and really think about what that means and what we are doing in those spaces. It's like you're going into your own ancestor and you can have that water wash over you.”

Beyond the pavilion itself, this week Aotearoa leads Te Aratini a convention championing indigenous trade and culture, hosted by the Iwi Chairs Forum and New Zealand Māori Tourism. Organizers say the goal is to reestablish pre-colonial trade routes and share strategies for restoring language and tikanga and delivering legal redress for indigenous communities across the globe.

Aotearoa's presence at Expo 2020 comes with a more than $62 Million price tag but Kimpton says after almost 2 years of being isolated from the world due to Covid, a statement that Aotearoa remains open for business is more crucial now, than ever.

“Over the past five weeks, we've had more than 220,000 people through our pavilion. A place like this is about our story to the world and after the first five weeks it's been incredibly successful,” Kimpton said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta will tour Te Aratini and the Aotearoa Pavilion on Wednesday local time as part of her first international tour aimed at enhancing trade and geopolitical alliances in South-east Asia, the Middle East and North America.

On Friday Mahuta will depart Dubai for Qatar before meeting Canadian foreign minister Mélanie Joly in Ottawa. The last stop on her tour is a visit to Washington D.C. for bilateral talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.