25 May 2022

Brazilian champions Māori world view to design students globally

People & Culture

Being introduced to the natural world through the lens of Māori beliefs was a moment of real awakening for Brazilian landscape photographer Marcos Mortensen Steagall.

So transformative was the experience, that the former international student is determined that design leaders globally learn from AUT’s success embracing Māori knowledge in tertiary design studies.  

Marcos came from Sao Paulo to study for his PhD in Design at AUT in 2015. He always felt that Aotearoa was “calling” him and was drawn to the concept of practice-led research, which allows students to be assessed by their creative work alongside a supportive piece of writing. 

“This means that your practice is your contribution to knowledge,” he says. “I was fascinated by the idea.” 

Practice-led research has been around for many years but is still not widely used. AUT, now considered a world-leader in its implementation, developed the approach under education “disruptor” Professor Welby Ings, who believes thinking outside the box can be the key to success for many learners. 

Embracing the natural world from a Māori perspective 

While Marcos enjoyed the early months focusing on his photography, it was an introduction to respected Māori scholars Professor Hinematau McNeill and Professor Robert Pouwhare late in his first year which really rocked his world.  

“They shared their love and knowledge and introduced me to Māori views of the natural world. Their way of thinking and seeing the world completely resonated with me. I understood how ignorant I was in terms of expecting to be able to explain the world through a Western perspective. I learned from them that there is so much beyond it that we cannot see.” 

“I learned how the world can be seen from an indigenous perspective, and I felt really bad that my own culture has more than 300 indigenous tribes and we never learn anything about them.” 

He says he became really connected with Māori epistemology (theory of knowledge) and committed to understand and incorporate Māori elements in a substantial part of his thesis. “I try my best to captivate the complex Māori concept of mauri (life force or essence) in my work.” 

Incorporating the Māori view of the natural world in practice-led research is attracting and retaining students who might not otherwise thrive in a university environment, Marcos says.  

At AUT’s Manukau campus, the majority of students are Māori and Pasifika. “These students have natural storytelling talents, and they love graphic design, photography, street art, and all forms of contra-culture expression (outside mainstream media).  

Māori and Pasifika students feel sense of belonging 

“They feel a sense of belonging to the university with this approach. ”Last year saw the biggest increase in the number of students continuing from undergraduate to postgraduate study in Communication Design, using the practice-led approach.  

Driven to promote this diversity of thought and boost the status of indigenous cultures and language elsewhere, Marcos is using his connections in Brazil to share Aotearoa’s success with South America and beyond.  

A former colleague, Professor Sérgio Nesteriuk Gallo, is now head of a postgraduate programme in Art and Design at Anhembi Morumbi University (UAM) in Sao Paulo where students are increasingly using practice-led methodologies. “We agreed when I left for New Zealand that the knowledge I gained in practice-led research we would share and promote in Brazil,” Marcos says.  

“We promised we would create an event every year to build a body of knowledge about practice-led research into the future. I know that many people, especially those from an indigenous background in Latin America are keen to take up this form of research.” 

The first symposium was held in 2016 and attracted 10 exhibitors. Last year’s online symposium drew in 400 submissions from 13 universities around the world. 

Planning is underway to take 10 of the most influential Māori practice-led researchers to Brazil for this year’s conference in December, called LINK2022 Moana Crossing, where they will run a series of workshops and launch a special edition of the journal incorporating original manuscripts from the Māori scholars and from collaborative partnerships with non-Māori practitioners. 

Aotearoa New Zealand leading the way 

“We have at least half the leading scholars in this field,” Marcos says. “Sharing this knowledge will hopefully influence the approach of those who teach elsewhere in the world.” 

The new model of undertaking research and presenting knowledge must be more considerate of alternative approaches. “Māori traditions can enhance our understanding of research, practice, and the intricate connection with te taiao (the environment).” 

He says he is committed to elevating the practice-led approach connected to Māori and first-nation knowledge, “taking our thinking to the world and giving a voice to indigenous cultures elsewhere”. 

Piha at Sunset by Marcos Steagall

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