Andrew Paul Wood – 1 September, 2015
This is no encyclopaedic overview or survey; rather it's an idiosyncratic gathering of agendas, resentments and hobbyhorses that often fails to gel into an organic narrative. That said, it would be remiss to throw the baby out with the bathwater - there is much substance here. It's a deeply flawed book, but far from useless in consideration of artists Pānoho approves of - yet that is not necessarily an accurate guide to where Māori art is going.
Māori Art: History, Architecture, Landscape & Theory
Text by Dr. Rangihīroa Pānoho,
Photographs by Mark Bentley Adams and Haruhiko Sameshima
Hardcover, 352 pp, 300 illustrations
Published by David Bateman, 2015
It’s been 23 years since the Headlands exhibition when Rangihīroa Pānoho infamously slammed Gordon Walters’ use of koru and pitau. He may have had a point, but it wasn’t one well delivered - not least as Walters then was a revered old man of 73 years (he died three years later) - earning Pānoho the continued ire of much of the New Zealand art world.
That outspokenness and a similar viewpoint characterises Pānoho’s epic tome Māori Art: History, Architecture, Landscape and Theory (Bateman 2015). Diplomacy is not Pānoho’s strong suit (nor mine), and from the outset he leaves no room for doubt for the reader that his is the final word and no debate will be broached. In the introduction he lays down his credentials with Homeric braggadocio: his 1988 MA thesis on artist Paratene Matchitt and his 2001 PhD thesis “the first to be completed by a Māori specifically in this discipline Toi Tāhuhu (Māori Art History)”. The ground is staked.
Quite frankly I’m just delighted to have a book on contemporary Māori art by a Māori academic. The field has been dominated of late by the very Pākehā Damian Skinner, and while that is not to cast aspersions on Skinner’s laudable abilities and perceptiveness, it does sit strangely in twenty-first century Aotearoa.
The coffee table format of the book suggests that the publishers didn’t really know what they were getting into. It doesn’t suit the text which is dense, reading more like a thesis, though more literary than pedagogic exercise, not least because it presumably draws heavily on the above mentioned theses and two decades of ruminating. Pānoho offers the winding, inconstant river (linear) as a structural simile for his magnum opus, which sits rather uncomfortably with his other analogy, the scraped and rewritten palimpsest (planar), one that rejects traditional art history as “a linear record of styles endlessly challenging and replacing each other”.
This would be why, puzzlingly, the book begins with the anthropological vagaries of the Polynesian migration from China to the Pacific and a most peculiar interpretation of Western art-historical process, and then leaps acrobatically from Lapita sherds to estimable northern ceramicists Manos Nathan and Colleen Waata Urlich. Conversely he compares pounamu hei matau with Chinese Hongshan jade carving, while Theo Schoon’s revival of that stylistic affinity among Māori carvers is ignored. One assumes Schoon is a dangerous point of Pākehā contagion, despite his positive moves to reinvigorate Māori visual culture. Pānoho would far rather acknowledge a distant and tenuous cultural connection with Asia than the far more immediate European/Anglo-Celtic one at home.
By this cherrypicking and jumping about, Pānoho signals that he is creating some kind of Foucaldian genealogy, in an attempt to tidy up a number of weaknesses (such as the undisguised, nepotistic apple-polishing of the iwi of northern and central Tai Tokerau). However, given the general tenor of the text, this might have attributed too much influence to the Pākehā. There is an unfortunate tendency among Pākehā critics, art historians and curators to pay too much attention to how contemporary Māori artists fit into Western/Anglo-Euro-American paradigms and not enough to their intrinsic Māoritanga. Pānoho seeks to redress this by excluding those non-Māori currents in the belief that something made by a Māori artist is by its very nature ineluctably Māori - not belonging to both - rather too forcefully. What Pānoho ignores for expediency, but Hana O’Regan explores in detail in her Ko Tahu, Ko Au : Kāi Tahu Tribal Identity (2000), is that the experience of being tangata whenua is highly variable and individual, but no less valid.
The resulting picture is only slightly more accurate than Wystan Curnow’s blindspot regarding the local and indigenous in New Zealand art. Being Māori in postcolonial Aotearoa exists at a messy rhizomatic intersection of tikanga, whakapapa, iwi/hāpu, physical appearance, language and cultural expression, and not necessarily all at the same time. Māori visual culture hasn’t existed in a vacuum since the mid-nineteenth century and throwing a cordon sanitare around it results in glaring anomalies. Ralph Hotere, for example, is too juicy a plum for Pānoho to ignore, and yet at the same time Hotere never in his life positioned himself as a ‘Māori artist’ and saw his inspiration in European modernism, famously saying “I am Māori by birth and upbringing. As far as my works are concerned this is coincidental”. Thus Hotere has to be quarantined to his own chapter by himself, and a certain amount of Jesuitical casuistry applied, so that the cake might be both had and eaten. Would Hotere recognise himself?
Pānoho clearly has a vendetta against establishment Pākehā curators positioning artists with whakapapa in a broader artistic conversation; artists like Jacqueline Fraser, Peter Robinson, Michael Parekowhai, Fiona Pardington, Lisa Reihana (something that the artists, themselves with varying degrees of relationship with their tikanga and whakapapa, have not excluded). This is perhaps why Artspace’s 1990 group show of contemporary Māori artists Choice! (curated by George Hubbard, himself Māori) goes unmentioned - damnatio memoriae - for rejecting ethnocentric and tribal constraints, even as Pānoho scolds Ranginui Walker for being overly conservative. This is definitely a debate worth having as vigorously and objectively as possible, contrary to what Pānoho is about in this case. Likewise no mention of Christchurch Art Gallery’s Hiko! New Energies in Māori Art (1999) or City Gallery, Wellington’s Techno Māori: Māori Art in the Digital Age (2001).
In general I think Robert Jahnke has offered a far more balanced analysis of the nature of contemporary Māori art elsewhere, acknowledging that it occupies a tūrangawaewae in the pae between Māori and Pākehā worldviews; utu in its sense of maintaining cosmic equilibrium through reciprocity. Back in the 1990s of Headlands and Choice!, Māori Art would have been ground-breaking and vitalising, but in 2015 many of the arguments seem more like a coelacanth out of water. Curiously Auckland Art Gallery’s intergenerational Purangiaho: Seeing Clearly (2001), curated by Ngahiraka Mason, gets no mention either, despite being more traditional in focus.
At the other end we find no street art, no acknowledgement of the influence of hip hop culture. One suspects this is because the driving motif of the book is the Māori relationship with the landscape, which for many young urban Māori is not always central or obvious. Kelcy Taratoa (Ngāi Te Rangi), Nathan Pohio (Kāi Tahu), and Wayne Youle (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whakaeke) contribute to a litany of notably absent younger artists. No Reuben Patterson (Ngāti Rangitihi, Ngāi Tūhoe). No Kylie Tiuka (Ngāi Tūhoe). No Darryn George (Ngāpuhi). Very surprisingly given her references to tukutuku, no Peata Larkin (Ngāti Tūhourangi, Ngāti Tūwharetoa). Shockingly no Lonnie Hutchinson (Kāi Tahu, Samoan). For a book that claims on its back cover that it shows “How to read Māori art in the 21st century” it certainly doesn’t spend a lot of time there.
Even within a single creative practitioner’s oeuvre there is a substantial amount of editing to fit a specific ethnocentric exceptionalism. Taika Waititi’s 2004 short film Two Cars, One Night and the 2010 feature Boy get discussion because they are arguably stories anchored in a certain kind of marginalised Māori experience, but no mention of his 2014 What We Do in the Shadows with Jemaine Clement, presumably because it’s a commercial comedy and speaks to a mixed audience.
Parekowhai’s Bronze Marquettes (1993, Jim and Mary Barr Collection) are discussed with brief reference to Duchamp and an eloquent reading as the tools of colonisation, but Pānoho fails to recognise them as bronze versions of a variation of plastic pick-up sticks. He dismisses them for having insufficient gravitas compared with Matchitt’s painting of Te Kooti’s white horse at Te Whatianga, writing, “I am not sure whether one gains the same kind of response with Parekowhai’s tiny versions of the tools and weapons used to colonize [sic] Māori in Aotearoa”. It doesn’t seem to cross Pānoho’s mind that Parekowhai’s intentions might be somewhere else entirely.
Indeed, there is altogether too much ‘Māori think this or kaupapa says that’ that has nothing to do with the reality of dozens of different iwi and hāpu, the responsive, adaptable nature of tikanga and kaupapa, and the thoughts and experiences of individual tangata whenua, often in a global context. The 1995 exhibition Cultural Safety which went to Germany, is on the one hand criticised by Pānoho as having been selected by curator Greg Burke for a “uniquely German sensibility”: “…these mostly younger artists were chosen because their art fitted into a perceived sense of what was popular internationally in the art world.” Yet “there is an unusual sense of theatre about Cultural Safety as the only distinguishing feature was its Māoriness”. Apparently this isn’t a problem when he notes Fraser doing more or less the same thing for her installation for the 2001 Venice Biennale. The fact that Fraser’s work has been mostly about aspirational pop culture for the last decade seems to have been overlooked.
It’s this persistently petulant tone which spoils the achievement the book could have been. Robert Leonard gets similar treatment for (apparently) supporting with the examples of Peter Robinson and others the “idea of Māori art freed from the burdensome flow of Māori history and genealogy.” Robinson grew up in the extremely Pākehā South Island town of Ashburton and has frequently played with his ambivalent relationship to his Māori whakapapa and Pākehā heritage (the percentage paintings, the swastika-aeroplanes). Having spoken to and interviewed Robinson at length, I can say Leonard’s understanding of Robinson is probably more accurate than Pānoho’s. Indeed many of the artists mentioned that I know seem barely recognisable in Pānoho’s projected interpretations.
That said, Māori Art is a beautifully produced book, lavishly illustrated with photographs by two superlative artists, Mark Adams and Haruhiko Sameshima. Many parts of Pānoho’s text are highly useful and illuminating. For example, the chapter on Sir Āpirana Ngata’s legislated revival of Māori culture through the Māori Arts and Craft Act 1926 is essential reading, highlighting Ngata’s promotion of a Ngāti Porou-inflected classicism that deliberately repressed the Ringatū and Rātana imagery rediscovered and embraced by a younger generation of artists.
Strangely though Chris Heaphy (Kāi Tahu) who makes much use of this suppressed imagery in his paintings, isn’t to be found in the book. Which leads me to the observation that Kāi Tahu doesn’t even appear in the index, though South Island and Te Wai Pounamu do. Even given the book’s obsessive focus on Northland, this is bizarre. Is it because of Kāi Tahu’s historical enthusiasm for intermarriage that they’re perceived as just too white? And yet Kāi Tahu artists like Fiona Pardington and Peter Robinson are enshrined in the book, carved off from their iwi, though Kāi Tahu gets mentioned in passing in relation to Fraser. Wairau Bar gets an extensive mention as a source of artefacts, but no sign of “Moa Hunter” rock art. The South Island mainly exists as an historical, dubious entity and a source of pounamu, but not much more.
While Pānoho quotes the great carver Pineamine Taiapa who, when he eventually came around to modernists like Matchitt, said “the world is full of art, there is room in it for everyone”, it’s not a stance that the misleadingly titled Māori Art holds to. This is no encyclopaedic overview or survey; rather it’s an idiosyncratic gathering of agendas, resentments and hobbyhorses that often fails to gel into an organic narrative. That said, it would be remiss to throw the baby out with the bathwater - there is much substance here. It’s a deeply flawed book, but far from useless in consideration of artists Pānoho approves of - yet that is not necessarily an accurate guide to where Māori art is going.
E te tangata tinihanga, matua kapea e koe te kurupae i tou kanohi; katahi koe ka marama ki te kape i te otaota i roto i te kanohi o tou teina. (Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. - Matthew: 7:5, from the revised standard Te Paipera Tapu Bible, in Maori, King James Version.)
Andrew Paul Wood
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