Michelle Erai, assistant professor of gender studies at UCLA and co-founder of Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, held a discussion titled “If I Win, I Might Tattoo My Face — Mike Tyson as Maori Artifact.”
Erai’s discussion, which took place Monday in Emerson Suites, touched upon issues regarding violence against women and how Maori women, an indigenous group from New Zealand, have been impacted by colonialism. Her organization is an activist organization dedicated to ending violence against women.
Erai’s presentation was hosted by the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity as part of the CSCRE discussion series the “Suffocating Knowledge: Race, Power, Possibilities.”
Staff writer TinaMarie Craven spoke with Erai about her anti-violence activism and the book she is currently writing, titled “Civilizing Images: Violence and the Visual Interpellation of Maori Women.”
TinaMarie Craven: What inspired the title of your discussion?
Michelle Erai: Well, I actually got my general idea for it when I was sitting on my brother’s couch in New Zealand, and we were watching “The Hangover,” and it was the first time I saw it, and I saw the tattoo [on Mike Tyson], and I realized that I really wanted to make it the title of the discussion and how I wanted to … talk about how ironic it was that I wanted to critique this tattooing as a practice. So I decided to figure out what it was about. And so I started looking at the other kinds of values and agency in individuality. So I just started reading some critiques that talked about it, and I found some old images and sort of put them together to come up with an argument for why I think there is a certain authority for Mike Tyson to wear his tattoo.
TC: What is your book going to be about?
ME: In my dissertational research, I was trying to find colonial narratives of violence against Maori women, and I was looking at archives in New Zealand and Australia and London. While I was waiting for one of the materials I wanted to read to come up, I started looking through folders, finding images of Maori women that were just interesting, that I couldn’t quite explain, so I took copies of them … I realized they were more than a kind of an aside or an illustration of a kind of colonial technology that I was finding in the archival materials. I became really fascinated with them. This book is really about the way images have been used to produce what they’re calling today protection of a kind of native woman, and how images stipulated that information.
TC: How did you become an anti-violence activist?
ME: When I was a teenager I … got involved with a women’s shelter in New Zealand called Women’s Refuge. At the time it was a very small organization and it was one of the few bi-culture organizations, so it was a complete division between Maori and what Maori means and non-Maori and how to use the shelter. I ended up working with a construction of the different Maori tribes in my tribal area and also the North Island … I worked for a few weeks on a digital photography project, and I got them [members of the tribes] to think about colonization and the land they’re on and to think about violence and create images of what a life without violence looks like. It was a beautiful project that I just recreated with Native Americans in Los Angeles.
TC: You co-founded Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. How exactly did the group come about?
ME: Well the Color Violence Conference of 2000 was a conference of about 16 of us who had spoken at the conference, and at the end of the conference we realized that we had to talk about how to move forward. We realized we wanted to launch our own organization that was more about facilitating dialogue and critical thinking.