Hero photograph
Hikoi arrives at Parliament, 22nd March 2011
Photo by Lance Andrewes

Don't worry, be happy

Lesley Brook —

Ed Hanfling reviews a controversial 1995 artwork that remains challenging today.

In 1995, artist Diane Prince (Ngati Whātua, Ngā Puhi) placed a New Zealand flag, stencilled with the words ‘please walk on me’, on the floor of the Auckland Art Gallery. This was part of an installation artwork Flagging the Future: Te Kiritangata – The Last Palisade. Like other activists the artist was seeking to puncture the illusion of bicultural harmony in Aotearoa New Zealand. She was using the friction which her art generated to draw attention to the ongoing social injustice resulting from colonialism.

Dunedin School of Art lecturer Ed Hanfling sees Diane Prince as an example of someone who confronts the cultural norm that we should put the past behind us and be happy. We tend to whitewash over things that we really should be unhappy about. Pretending that everything is fine preserves inequalities and disadvantages, while being unhappy about social injustice can be important and constructive. If people are stubbornly unhappy, it may be worth finding out why.

The New Zealand flag still generates debate and galvanises protest. And contemporary Māori artists like Diane Prince continue to express their concerns in their work, maintaining the state of unhappiness as an ongoing reminder of the need for change. They challenge us not to be satisfied with the present but to interrogate the past in order to shape the future. 

Ka mua, ka muri 
(‘walking backwards into the future') 
Māori whakatauki (proverb)