Peter Ireland – 3 June, 2011
Maiden Aotearoa, therefore, signals a Great Leap Forward, if not actually a miraculous event: contemporary photography by four Maori women artists. This modest – but terrific – show could be a more accurate signifier of what’s been happening here over the past forty years than, say, the much heralded re-opening of the Auckland Art Gallery later in a few months’ time.
Vicky Thomas, Sarah Hudson, Suzanne Tamaki and Aimee Ratana
curated by Reuben Friend
21 May - 26 June 2011
It’s exactly forty years since the Auckland Art Gallery mounted a survey exhibition called New Zealand Young Contemporaries, a show comprising the work of artists across the usual art media, including the then very contemporary medium of video. Looking back, it was an interesting time-piece, but perhaps its most startling aspect now is that it featured not a single Maori artist. There were few contemporary Maori artists to draw on then - and the few that were seemed embarrassingly more Nuhaka than New York - and, besides, it wasn’t all that long since an authority such as Hirini Moko Mead had declared there could be no such thing as “contemporary Maori art”.
In 1971 contemporary Maori artists were rare enough - even rarer than women artists - and Maori photographers virtually unheard of. There were pioneers such as John Miller, of course, but in those days the labels had them down as “documentary photographers”, not “contemporary Maori artists”. Maiden Aotearoa, therefore, signals a Great Leap Forward, if not actually a miraculous event: contemporary photography by four Maori women artists. This modest - but terrific - show could be a more accurate signifier of what’s been happening here over the past forty years than, say, the much heralded re-opening of the Auckland Art Gallery later in a few months’ time.
These four sisters are doing some very sassy, stylish and challenging stuff. It’s wahine-toa (women of strength) with attitude. Aimee Ratana leads off with a re-showing of work first seen in Whakatane in 2008 and now, enterprisingly, part of the Museum’s collection there. It’s a series of 26 works, collectively titled Toku Tuhoetanga, including several of her own images but most of them sourced from the Whakatane Museum’s collections of historical imagery relating to Tuhoe’s struggle to retain their land and identity. There’s a strong sense that these appropriated images are hers too, of course. To emphasise their historical connection they’ve all been framed in faux, oval, oak-like frames, and clustered as in many wharenui. It’s a sobering and telling visual survey of a long trail of broken promises, injustice, frustration and anger that’s far from ended.
Suzanne Tamaki’s perhaps best known as a fibre/textile artist, but her contribution to Maiden Aotearoa consists of two very large photographic images (1.5M x 1M), taken by Norman Heke. (Mervyn Williams made Gordon Walters’ prints, so don’t complain about authorship and authenticy.) Each 2011 image shows the same Maori woman with a moko kauae (chin tattoo) dressed up in very elaborate historical garb, standing in an anonymous studio situation. The one on the left, For God, For Queen, For Country is an operatic image of colonized Maori woman - wearing a long “Maori-fied” Union Jack dress, a New Zealand flag draped around her neck, a decorated top hat on her head. Her accessories are lacy-frilled gloves and an elaborate pearl necklace. She stands proudly, gazing directly at the viewer. The one on the right, For Maori, For Sure, shows her hatless but wearing the same dress, the flag now held in her left hand, falling to the floor. In her right hand she holds a pair of scissors, mere-like. The necklace has gone, replaced by a pounamu toki (wedge-shaped pendant). The stance and gaze remain the same. She is still colonized but has taken control. You better watch those scissors, bro.
This long description does no credit to the impact of these two photographs, which tend to dominate the gallery, rather like the pair of royal portraits in the ballroom of Government House. Maybe that’s what this wahine-toa had in mind? There’s no need for any thrones in front of these photographs.
Maiden Aotearoa’s most overt reference to the concept of wahine-toa are Vicky Thomas’s two works: one a five-part sequence - Miss Appropriate of 2004 - and the other a dauntingly powerful self-portrait. The sexy sequence cocks a snook at the 19th century tradition of the Maori Belle’s static, head and shoulders pose. Thomas’s wahine is viewed from the waist down, the lower torso sporting a vivid red under-skirt beneath a very mobile piupiu, the agile feet clad in black patent-leather stiletto heels. This belle’s ringin!
But, before seduction has a chance to kick in, you’re confronted by her Self Portrait #3. More than double life-sized, this head and naked shoulders image depicts the subject with chin slightly raised, the traditional response of the powerless to a police mugshot, the stare similarly challenging, emphasized by eye-shadow a kind of bruised blue. The accessories start with silver “bangle” earrings (another outsider signature), a pounamu ring, then - the piece de resistance - a hand-held black revolver resting on her upper chest. The message is, unmistakably, Don’t fuck with me, mister. These sisters aren’t gonna take no more shit.
Te Papa’s current ponderous and confused E Tu Ake: standing strong exhibition has, as one of its fourteen themes, the notion of mana wahine, represented largely by two early ‘70s paintings by Robyn Kahukiwa. The Museum’s publicity for the show - destined for Paris later this year - emphasises a “vibrant”, living culture. How much more vibrant it might have been had this work of Thomas’s been included: it’s as worthy as Kahukiwa’s but has the added advantage of style and wit, something more likely to engage Parisians in their perception of what a cultural vibrancy might actually mean here, now in Aotearoa.
Hudson’s two 2010 works reference 19th century photography too, the “Maori Belle” postcard tradition more specifically. Her - and the curator’s - thesis pretty much is: these sisters did take shit. He writes in the brochure: “Sarah Hudson was motivated to investigate historic representations of the ‘Maori maiden’ after finding antique postcards featuring members of her own whanau (family). For Hudson the anonymity of the sitter was the most damaging and chilling aspect of these images. Neglecting to record the subject’s personal details, the early colonial photographer often re-labelled the sitter with romanticised, ethnographic [?] titles such as Maori Beauty, Maori Princess or Maori Girl. In this way real people were reduced to aesthetic objects - nameless commodities created for the viewing pleasure of the Western, and presumably male, gaze.” These assertions appear in slightly different form in a folder adjacent to the show: “Inauthentic and incomplete, such images can be viewed as another form of colonial plunder where the photographer has robbed the sitter of her identity and commodified her image for Western consumption.” (Both artist and curator complain about anonymity, but oddly in these circumstances, the brochure essay is unsigned and the origin of the folder’s contents unidentified. Hello?)
The basic distinction between an ideological stance and historical study is that the latter relies much more on actual evidence. But a few facts stirred together with compelling beliefs is a powerful brew, and one that more rigorously-derived facts can have a hard time countering.
Firstly, it was common enough practice that most 19th century colonial portraitists identified all their sitters with a reference number rather than naming them. Applying the names was left up to the sitters since that was more naturally their business. Of the relative few that remain, there are some extant registers, such as W F Crawford’s in Gisborne, where the names are listed alongside the numbers, but that appears to be fairly unusual. Even a punctilious practitioner such as Frank Denton in Whanganui relied on a numbering system for basic studio identification. Of course, the studio invoicing system had the names and addresses, but very little of this material survived for more than a few useful years. Commercial photographers were businessmen not archivists.
Secondly - again Denton can be cited here - although some photographers had a commercial line in what now may be considered a form of racial stereotyping, there is no evidence whatever that any of their subjects were forced into the studios, compelled to don the frequently inappropriate studio props, or be anything other than largely compliant in the process. Any assumption that Maori weren’t aware of the exact nature of the transaction must raise questions more serious than the implications of any alleged “colonial plunder”. Consider a modern equivalent: it’s not uncommon for fashion scouts, agents and fashion photographers to approach attractive young women - and men - in the street on the basis of their fashionable looks and deportment - a kind of stereotyping, if you insist - and sign them up for work. It’s rare for their names to appear in subsequent advertisements but it’s doubtful whether they spend their evenings crying into their dinners fretting about being “reduced to aesthetic objects” or “nameless commodities”.
Thirdly, the matter of this late reference to that ‘80s chestnut, “the male gaze”. The force of this notion is predicated on two very historically questionable assumptions: that there is no such thing as “the female gaze”, and that any attraction to human physical beauty must necessarily be voyeurism. Any unpacking of the past involving a puritanical nannyism may bring comfort to artists and curators but isn’t going to get the rest of us very far in understanding the complex historical interactions involved.
Fourthly, use of the adjective “inauthentic” is predicated on a firm notion of what’s “authentic”. Discussion of this inevitably becomes a battle-ground of competing ideologies. Any historian worthy of the name wisely steers clear of running around applying “authentic” and “inauthentic” labels to artifacts. Which label, for instance, applies to a mid-19th century korowai (cloak) with woollen thrums? Or, more pertinently, would a whanau rediscovering a connection with one of Frank Denton’s “Maori Belles” reject it on the grounds of “inauthenticity”? Yeah, right. History may often be foolish but sometimes it can be forgiving too.
What’s often overlooked in these ideologically-driven assertions is that, but for these evil colonial photographers taking their pictures, the subjects of them might otherwise have largely disappeared, even within the awesomely comprehensive system of whakapapa. Having witnessed the process of local hapu recognizing and reclaiming many subjects in the W H T Partington photographic collection acquired by the Whanganui Regional Museum in 2002 - Partington a common studio photographer with the usual box of tricks: korowai, assorted feathers, pounamu pendants etc., “inauthentic” as - it kindles an impression that, for all their real or alleged failings, these maligned colonial photographers left a repository of images without which we would all be much the poorer. That impression is called The Bigger Picture. Institutions such as the City Gallery need to be a little more rigorous in raising their sights so that this panorama becomes part of their project.
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