Terrence Handscomb – 31 August, 2015
Despite its technical mastery, the incredibly ambitious iPOVi betrays contradictions that become clear following a close reading of the publication. Given the provocative theme of imperial appropriation, Reihana's proud “ethics of ‘making' (as opposed to taking) …” (iPOV 8) has upended in unexpected ways, betraying a subtle duplicity. The representation of colonizer and the predominantly Polynesian indigènes at first seems satirical and cogent, but under a close reading of the interview and what her carefully chosen essayists say of her - and what she has to say of herself - it appears annoyingly fallible.
A comparative reading of Māori Art: History, Architecture, Landscape, and Theory by Dr. Rangihioa Panoho and Lisa Reihana: In Pursuit of Venus, edited by Rhana Devenport.
Māori Art: History, Architecture, Landscape, and Theory, Dr Rangihioa Panoho, Auckland: David Bateman Ltd., 2015. ISBN 978-1-86953-867-5. Referred to below as “MA.”
Lisa Reihana: In Pursuit of Venus, ed. Rhana Devenport, Auckland: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2015, published on the occasion of the exhibition Lisa Reihana: in Pursuit of Venus (infected), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2 May - 30 August 2015. ISBN 978-0-86463-301-9. In keeping with the convention established in the publication, I will often refer to the publication as “iPOV” and the exhibition as “iPOVi.”
Proposition: Colin McCahon was a better Māori painter than Ralph Hotere.
The sentence of course is not a proposition; it was a bad-taste joke overheard soon after the major survey exhibition Ralph Hotere: Black Light opened at Te Papa in October 2001. In a propositional sense the quip is patently false: McCahon had and has no whākapapa. Whether good or bad, racist or non-racist, jokes need to be neither true nor false to be effective. The weight of their effectiveness, especially racially motivated ones, often rides on the back of an insult and the strategic use of an ambiguity, which in this case is the adjectival placement of the term “Māori.”
Clearly, the joke’s utility lies in its provocation but its point is simple: Ralph Hotere’s painting, was for a certain period, unequivocally influenced by Colin McCahon, and it in turn influenced an generation of Māori painters who followed. Whether propositionally true or false, depending on how one stereotypes difference, the provocation nevertheless belies a deep racial, cultural, philosophical and intellectual schism that continues to rive apart indigenous and non-indigenous readings of Māori art.
Ironically and unexpectedly, it is with Māori Art: History, Architecture, Landscape, and Theory that the notoriously inquisitional Māori art historian Dr. Rangihioa Panoho does much to allay the ignorance which drives much non-Māori feeling about Māori art. When it comes to Māori art in its relation to the predominantly Pākeha New Zealand art machine, Pahoho’s criticism never takes prisoners and his visual casuistry does not tolerate outsiders. This dates from his infamous takedown of Gordon Walters (amongst others) in his Headlands catalogue essay “Maori: at the Centre, on the Margins Centre.”(1) Māori Art: History, Architecture, Landscape, and Theory is an extremely well crafted, serious text, which given the tone of Panoho’s previous writings, is written with a surprisingly dispassionate and rational tone. Writing for New Zealand Listener, Nigel Borell described the book as “a labour of love.” (2)
Often voicing his disapproval of the extent that reward-based materialism and commercial efficacies have in many instances subsumed contemporary Māori art, Panoho nevertheless articulates the philosophical, deeply spiritual, and mythological character of Māori art. He lucidly points out the substantial differences between the way Māori and western cultures see and value Māori art. He does so with one simple intervention: he clearly names them.
On the other hand, the always politically savvy Lisa Reihana, whose exceptional new installation in Pursuit of Venus (infected) with its audience-seducing monumentalism, infectious theatricality, and fashionably satirical anti-imperialist tone, does little to diminish, let alone resolve the question of racial difference. Moreover, any such resolution is not her mandate, nor is it in her interest for it to be so. In other words, the conceptual cogency of iPOVi requires that racial tension between indigènes and colonising alterities be maintained.
When it comes to cultural politics, Reihana is no fool, and in the (edited) interview that is the dominant text of the lush Phil Kelly designed exhibition publication Lisa Reihana: in Pursuit of Venus (iPOV 4-19)), she appears forceful and extremely articulate: “I challenge stereotypes that developed in those [colonial] times and since, and the gaze of imperialism is turned back on itself with a speculative twist …” Despite its technical mastery, the incredibly ambitious iPOVi betrays contradictions that become clear following a close reading of the publication. Given the provocative theme of imperialist appropriation, Reihana’s proud “ethics of ‘making’ (as opposed to taking) …” (iPOV 8) becomes upended in unexpected ways, betraying a subtle duplicity. The representation of coloniser and the predominantly Polynesian indigènes at first seems satirical and cogent, but under a close reading of the text and what her carefully chosen essayists say of her - and what she has to say of herself - it becomes annoyingly fallible.
Times change. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, entire peoples have become colonised by an insidious new imperialism: stateless globalisation, the borderless fluidity of capital, the upward flow of wealth and the Balkanisation of privilege. With money comes power, and the traditional sites of imperial privilege have either been occupied by the once disenfranchised, or they have become defective and new ones have risen in their place.
India born, Oxford educated postcolonial theorist, Homi Bhabha (b. 1949), who is indebted to the Orientalist Edward Said’s views on imperial domination, characterises indigenous postcolonial identity with four pithy neologisms: hybridity, mimicry, difference, and ambivalence. However, iPOVi inadvertently introjects at least three of the four when it doubly disenfranchises the already disenfranchised.
In other words, by replicating the historical Pasifika indigènes in the twenty-first century in service of a somewhat self-serving art work, it is through subtle cultural appropriation (albeit with plausible deniability, ‘deference’ and ‘ever respectful’ care (iPOV 54)), iPOVi betrays a reversal of power that replicates the very historical postcolonial conditions of power and appropriation that it seeks to condemn, while seemingly unaware that sites of socioeconomic privilege - from which entire cultures appropriate others - continue to shift. As Bhabha cleverly observes, when released of their imperial shackles, the once-colonised mimic and extend against others (typically their traditional foes) the very conditions that once bound them. Senegal born writer and filmmaker Ousame Sembène (b. 1923) in his hilarious postcolonial lampoon Xala (book 1973 - film 1975, 123 min) mocks the political rise and material prosperity of a privileged indigenous elite following Senegal’s independence from France in 1960.
In a relatively recent reversal of economic privilege, a largely Pasifika diaspora, which, under current NZ law are without the same constitutional rights and legislative resources of Māori, are increasingly occupying the politically voiceless socioeconomic base-class that was once occupied by indigenous New Zealanders. It is with a sense of deep sorrow and despair, that Pasifika artist Kalisolaite ‘Uhila brilliantly engages in his plight-of-the-homeless performance Mo’ui tukuhausia - first performed in 2012 at Te Tuhi and reprised in the 2014 Walters Prize exhibition. The widening jurisprudential and economic disparity between Māori and New Zealand Pasifika is increasingly causing social and political resentment of Māori by Pasifika, and a burgeoning class war seems inevitable.
Interestingly, this is a condition which Māori architecture historian Deidre Brown, in her iPOV essay “Pushing the Boat Out: Lisa Reihana on the World Scene,” acknowledges but then essentially glosses over with the erroneous, but morally charged and difficult-to-contest argument from the kinship of shared origins and the plight of mutually disenfranchised: ‘Reihana finds, and knows, her place as Māori alongside other Pacific artists.’ (iPOV, 54)
Lacking the serious authoritative power of Māori Art, and like many publications that accompany major solo exhibitions, iPOV is essentially a vanity piece whose efficacy, amongst other things, is to make both the artist and the commissioning institution look good. Any hint of Reihana’s self-promoting approach to art making and the less-evident conceptual duplicity she needs to win over a large Pākehā audience, has been cosmetically avoided.
In his compelling criticism within MA of Reihana’s 2001 installation Digital Mārae (digital photographs on aluminium, leather and DVD, collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki) Panoho objects to the way the work cynically endorses, amongst other things, the collecting institution’s own ill-informed idea of museum-based mārae and Reihana’s “extremely selective” self-aggrandising way of making art.
From her point of view, and always careful to blend the two discourses that will assure her the best politico-cultural cache - indigenousness with a woman’s voice - Reihana declares that,”Digital Mārae is about female ancestral figures and their stories … Digital Mārae references my family mārae, which has blue Formica walls and no carvings of the wharenui …” (quoted in MA 90). Elaborating further, she says: “I created a ‘generic wharenui‘ because as an urban Māori, it can be problematic to use ancestral figures. My strategy is one of quiet subversion.” (ibid.)
Panoho, however, is not buying any of it:
[T]he lines of identity appear blurred here. Whakapapa ‘genealogy’ involves the connection and identification of the individual with all living forms and with the spiritual forces that are associated with areas of nature. Reihana looks at Ranginui (featuring the actor Rangimoana Taylor) the Sky Father who is, in fact, an ancestor … This kind of reoccurring anomaly in Reihana’s work shows how confusing her preference for documenting her own circle of living connections is in relation to timeless cosmological content.
Her sacred space inhabited by images of friends and family dressed up as gods and cult fashion figures is unsettling. … The role playing enthralls some commentators. I find the same uneasiness with accepting known celebrities or stake holders in the guise of Arthurian or classical legend in [Victorian era photographer] Margaret Cameron’s work as I do envisioning local Māori identities in hip gear as demigods [spelling corrected]. (ibid. 90)
In a short discussion of the work of Māori artist Te Waru Rewiri, Panoho summons the Orwellian image of palimpsest or the erasure of a sacred text (or political text in Orwell’s case) so that another one can be written in its place. Panoho quotes Te Waru Rewiri:
As a Māori artist, I try to embrace the tapū nature of being Māori … in order to resurrect or reconstruct or redefine what it is that we had. This allows a kind of decolonization of self to take place … My belief is that we have got to get through a whole lot of colonial imprinting on our memories. (MA 46)
Panoho furthermore observes: “… Te Waru Rewiri clearly is describing a kind of erasure of recent ‘colonial’ layers in a personal search for a sacred kaupapa that needs resurrection.” (ibid 47)
Secular western thought has an awkward and disquieting relationship with the ontological Real. This hastens the psychological preference to understand Māori art in purely formal, material and aesthetic terms. When it comes to understanding Māori art, of the sort that engages with “sacred kaupapa,” we tend to get spooked.
On the other hand, iPOVi has it sussed. Pākehā audiences seem to prefer the simple, direct, dramaturgical mechanisms (i.e. everyone gets it) and the familiarity of context that massive displays of visual technology provides. All of which gives plenty of room for culturally illiterate poco-honkies to exorcise the colonial ghosts of past error.
Because cultural ignorance is a major factor in non-indigenous materialist approaches to Māori art, the inestimably important, deeply informative Māori Art does much to educate. However, if the veracity of contemporary Māori art is to be critically ratified in a cultural climate that on both sides, continues to harbour suspicion and still-raw feelings about NZ’s colonial history, then the critical engagement of Māori art by non-indigenous New Zealanders must be permitted to advance from possibly combative positions into uncharted territory.
As Alain Badiou has made patently clear, difference must be incorporated into something other than itself if it is to be properly understood. The familiar way of understanding racial difference through mutual stereotyping is insidious, but its attempted eradication through the authoritarian forces of political correctness is both duplicitous and ultimately ineffective.
Whereas Dr. Rangihiroa Panoho can, with impunity it seems, sceptically question the representational integrity of Reihana’s work - i.e. its Māoriness - what non-indigenous New Zealander could ever penetrate the bubble of cultural conceit that she has enclosed around her work, and question where this has taken her? To do so would first require running the gauntlet of racial outrage or cries of cultural insensitivity, or confronting the incautious fury of those against ‘sexism’, usually a significant anti-progressive Pākehā force that does not know how to go forward.
That is, one hopes, until now.
(1) Rangihiroa Panoho, “Maori: at the Centre, on the Margins Centre,” in Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art, ed. Robert Leonard et al. (Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art Ltd., 1992), 122-134.
(2) Nigel Borell, “A sense of place,” The New Zealand Listener, July 25-31, 2015, 52