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Pānoho’s ‘Māori Art’

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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.

David Bateman Ltd

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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This Discussion has 6 comments.


Chloe Geoghegan, 8:46 a.m. 2 September, 2015

Hi Andrew, could you elaborate more on why "What We Do in the Shadows" should have been included/considered/argued for?

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Andrew Paul Wood, 10:23 a.m. 2 September, 2015

Because I find it enormously strange to talk about someone's work without registering the diversity of it to give it context, and the imposition of a hierarchy of taste categories is reductive and annoying. The artist described and his broader motivations cease to be recognisable.

Who is to say that "Boy" is more culturally significant or "Shadows" less critically important within an increasingly catholic scope of creativity? In fact it's pretty characteristic of Pahoho's book that anything remotely suggestive of artistic humour has been ruthlessly purged.

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Dan Munn, 11:27 a.m. 2 September, 2015

I took Panoho's Contemporary Maori and Pacific art paper. He was a really idiosyncratic tutor and I wrote about him in a piece on Kate Newby in the new issue of Le Roy Magazine, out this week. I look forward to reading his book which has been twenty years in the making.

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Rangihiroa Panoho, 8:59 p.m. 3 September, 2015

What does one say about Andrew Wood’s mixed up collection of odd thoughts and ravings about ‘Māori Art’. Passionate, yes. Informed and intelligent, helping New Zealand’s intellectual climate become more sophisticated as this site promises? I think not. This latest offering by Wood is nothing more than a chaotic, incoherent series of personal attacks. It is not a review. The key problem his effort suffers from is the same one demonstrated years ago when he misquoted my ‘apparent’ views in a Listener article concerning Ralph Hotere. His emotive talk here of presumed vendettas against people is pure nonsense. The only recurring vengeful voice is sadly that of Wood. His misquoting and not properly checking what I actually said begs the same response then (and now).

Arohamai but things don’t appear to have improved much since I challenged his writing a number of years back. So here we go again. He is still conjuring up what I and others are purportedly saying. There is very little evidence here of actually openly or carefully reading and considering the text – in this case - the book itself. Indeed most importantly Wood’s ramblings lack the balance that Māori Art, if properly read, works very hard to bring to an art scene where there are extremes in controlled opinion, patronage and preference. There is no space here to describe (since he does not) my central river metaphor that accepts that there is both descent from our ancestral matapuna and a tidal mouth that accepts global change. ‘Maori Art’ is an adventurous look at the ebb and flow of a river caught between these two forces.

Wood misses the point that art historian Anthony Byrt makes in his recent Metro review, that the book is a, ‘rare thing: an ambitious, risky work driven by a deep urge to shift a stultifying conversation. New Zealand art history is in a timid place, rarefied place. In that silence, Panoho has laid down a major challenge.’ I accept the idea of wero but from where I am standing Wood’s ‘challenge’ feels empty and fundamentally flawed. The weakness has primarily to do with his simply not accurately listening to what it is I have said or more properly what it is I have actually written.

This leads to all sorts of confusions regarding his contending what he thinks I am saying and even at times, apparently, what it is I am thinking (ditto back to the Hotere article and the misquoting dilemma). Increasingly his attempt at reviewing ‘Māori Art’ becomes someone else’s ‘Māori Art’ endlessly re-written patched together pubically with bits and pieces of what others have told him. I petition the reader to ignore the hōhā and instead go directly to the source. None of the hype being generated here has anything much to do with what ‘Maori Art’ is about or what it actually says. The best way to understand and appreciate ‘Māori Art’ is to buy the book and find out for yourself.

For the full response see the publishers facebook site

 In reply

Andrew Paul Wood, 9:50 p.m. 3 September, 2015

Well that was rather a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing and while I'm sure it intimidates the undergrads with the magical mystery tour, and given the inevitable subjectivity of art, might we hope for something a little more substantial such as a point? At least I trust you have had adequate catharsis, mana retained.

Yes, yes, I get it, you're far too complicated to explain yourself properly, at many points in your book and certainly here - that may be part of the problem, but to talk of "an adventurous look at the ebb and flow of a river caught between these two forces" and not really do that (hence my point about the rather startling absence of hip hop culture, despite it being the most influential force on global and Maori culture in the last 30 years) doesn't make your case here.

The Byrt review, I might add, reinforces a number of my points and includes the following little gem: "The art and the curators aren't really the problems here; Panoho is at his weakest when grappling with contemporary 'internationalist' art" - I certainly concur with him there, and to give due he does say it's "more than a succession of insider spats...". However were anyone in doubt about "vendettas" they need only read your response here for the flavour.

If I am in any confusion about the content of your book, sir, it perhaps has more to do with your deliberate obscurantism than my ability to read. Enlightenment is, after all, the point of books. I think you might find it illuminating to talk to some of the artists mentioned about their practices - you might learn something about the complexity of their actual intentions, not least that there is more to the country than the Kaipara.

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Rangihiroa Panoho, 10:31 p.m. 3 September, 2015


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