Terrence Handscomb – 19 April, 2020
Recently a member of Toi Māori Aotearoa announced to me over lunch that Pākehā “just do not ‘get'” the fluid and non-binary relationship between wairua and atua that Māori enjoy—the intermingling relationship between Māori, their ancestors, gods and spirits and the representations that mark their existence. There are times when the representation may become the thing that is being represented.
EyeContact Essay #37
This is a parable of two worlds: te ao Māori and, what David Hall presumptively called “te ao Pākehā.” (1) This is the two-world distinction that drives New Zealand’s bicultural narratives. However, when this distinction is applied to New Zealand art it is not entirely clear how that distinction should be understood.
Naming the coloniser, a distinction first made by Māori, endured throughout the history of colonisation. The two-world distinction—let’s follow Hall’s lead and presume there is one—has subsequently become the principle social, cultural and political tool for redressing lasting social justice imbalances. In another way, the two-world distinction enforces the idea that there are two sides to New Zealand’s colonisation story because it emphasises the historical propensity of Pākehā to occlude Māori as an unwanted political, social and economic consequence of colonisation.
From a Pākehā art perspective at least, the white European part of the two-world distinction extends beyond New Zealand’s geographical borders and cultural boundaries. We like to think that New Zealand art is properly included in a much larger international art community, a narrative our arts elites are keen to emphasise. This is because much of the way Pākehā see and evaluate art is determined by engagements with the sort of art that is seen on the biennale circuit, appears reproduced online and is discussed in the international art journals.
But the two-world distinction in New Zealand art also means that Māori are ideologically untethered to Pākehā aesthetic values and visual biases. It also signals that Māori are independent and free to develop aesthetic, social and communal models of making, seeing and evaluating art that shows no obeisance to Pākehā aesthetics, their visual biases and reliance on the bourgeois art market to give Māori art meaning. The way Māori art is evaluated could well be retooled as a decolonising critique of the Pākehā gaze—to dredge up Lacan’s notorious noun. Here an older feminist critique of the male gaze, in which male desire determines how men reductively disempower women, is infused with the power and privilege of a self-serving patriarchy.
The male gaze was aggressively ‘deconstructed’ by second-wave feminists in the seventies and eighties with a mix of sexualised misandry and taunting takedowns of the phallus, the master signifier of absence often portrayed in mocking effigy of the male membrum virile. Recall the hilarious but equally scathing painting Considering Theory (1981) by expat New Zealand artist Alexis Hunter (1948-2014) (2). The anger, resentment and wit of women reclaiming their own personal power and collective identity, can be matched by any decolonising critique of the Pākehā gaze—a gaze that is already precoded with the privileges, biases and visual vocabularies of a coloniser.
The monocular gaze that is deeply rooted in the values of Western art holds together an edifice of art, privilege, power and money that is ready to be burned to the ground. That is, if the novel coronavirus and its runaway tramcar killing machine COVID-19 doesn’t first crash and blow apart everything as we know it. Yet the materials, practices, tools, technologies, exhibiting milieu and art training of many Māori artists are virtually indistinguishable from that of their Pākehā contemporaries, for the common materialities of these artists are the legacy of two thousand years of European cultural and technological evolution.
The same dynastic culture that thoroughly colonised Māori in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and, amongst other cultural travesties, wrought linguistic genocide on a whole people. Yet at one time Māori bought muskets because they recognised their utility in ongoing intertribal conflicts, being quite capable of adapting to new technologies and using them for their own ends. But when it comes to contemporary art the adoption of Pākehā materials and processes by Māori, the distinction between tradition and adoption becomes unclear.
Despite their common materialities, there are of course major divergencies between Māori and Pākehā art. These lie in the unique iconographies, belief systems, “the seen and unseen worlds of Māori knowledge” (3) and the widespread identitarian impulse of contemporary Māori art, all of which are virtually absent from Pākehā art, with the notable exception of Theo Schoon and (possibly) Gordon Walters.
Pākehā artists’ use of indigenous motifs remains unsanctioned and offensive in the judgement of many Māori. This particular intersection of Māori and Pākehā worlds, one ostensibly forced by Pākehā, is notoriously challenged in the art-historical writings and critical essays of Rangihīroa Panoho, for example, and more recently by the indigenous-cultural-ownership activism staged at City Gallery, Wellington, whereby a loud and impassioned protest by Māori activists forced unexpected, and perhaps unwanted, attention on the exhibition Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand Art (27 July-17 November 2019).
There are other significant differences between Māori and Pākehā that have bearing on the way in which Māori art is seen. These include the spiritual, cosmological, epistemological and ontological divergencies of Māori belief and Pākehā philosophical thinking. These divergencies hold hefty consequences for how Māori and Pākehā evaluate and give meaning to art. Herein lies a critical impasse: many Pākehā are not willing to, or are incapable of, giving away the art-critical voice that has become an integral force in the global reach of contemporary art.
Yet te ao Māori has reclaimed its cultural mana and now carries the power to enforce a sort of authoritative storytelling and representationalism that is unique to Māori culture. This is further strengthened by the insistence that Māori art will not be properly understood by Pākehā unless some key elements of Pākehā thinking are allayed: namely the Pākehā propensity to see the world in binary oppositional terms. Māori enjoy a fluid non-binary relationship between object and representation, and this is key to understanding Māori art.
Recently a member of Toi Māori Aotearoa announced to me over lunch that Pākehā “just do not ‘get’” the fluid and non-binary relationship between wairua and atua that Māori enjoy—the intermingling relationship between Māori, their ancestors, gods and spirits and the representations that mark their existence. There are times when the representation may become the thing that is being represented.
Of course this comment (it was really an accusation) embedded a not-so-subtle form of reverse racism. Yet like much racism it also expressed an element of truth which should not be ignored, especially if it is delivered in the form of a gleeful taunt.
For Māori, the relationship between material and non-material entities is inclusive and not static and oppositional as it is for Pākehā. The underlying assumption of this way of thinking about Pākehā lies presumably in the sort of Cartesian scepticism that has driven Western thought throughout the modern period. Starting from a ground of supreme skepticism in which he was certain of nothing, French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) arrived at the only conclusion he could: I think therefore I existed. The consequence of which meant that the dual separation of body and mind is indelible.
But the philosophical world is not bound by Cartesian dualism and the Western psyche has been corrupted by scientism and haunted by an ontology of being that is necessarily empty, as some French philosophers contend. How does the secular Pākehā for whom there are no gods, no ancestors who live past death, and no minor deities with whom to commune, approach Māori art practices that are intrinsically bound to atua?
There is the expectation held by many Māori that when it comes to Pākehā evaluating Māori art, the authority of indigenous fiat must be respected and above all adhered to. In other words, what Māori tell Pākehā about Māori art, about what it means and what it represents, is determinate. But for those Pākehā bought up on a staunch intellectual diet of post-modern skepticism, and for whom the idea that any state of representation is wholly corruptible, then that intersection of worlds will be empty.
In her major audio installation Ōtairongo, wāhine Māori artist Maree Sheehan uses what she calls “advanced digital technology to interpret and represent the identity of wāhine Māori through audio-portraiture, experienced within the realm of Hineraukatauri” (4). Hineraukatauri is the Māori atua of sound and music. Sheehan’s “… use of immersive binaural sound-capture technologies,” which when heard in the enclosed darkness of a number of tall fabric tent-like structures—a bag moth cocoon personifying Hineraukatauri —it is there, within the deep embrace of the goddess that “… our aural perception is elevated in ways that renegotiate how … wāhine Māori might be interpreted and represented.” (5)
The extrinsic messaging of the show is sincere and somewhat persuasive, but like much intentional messaging, of the sort that often accompanies emerging Māori art, it is authoritarian, didactic and prescriptive. This inevitably signals to art heretics that the message has exceeded the art.
In a cultural context that is bigger than the land-of-the-long-white-cloud, bigger than te ao Māori, bigger than anything understood by artistically landlocked Pākehā, the critical art world doesn’t easily tolerate unfamiliar prescriptivism and many emerging Māori artists have a lot of work to do if the distance between making and saying is not skilfully closed. This is no problem for established Māori artists like Lisa Reihana, Michael Parekowhai and Shane Cotton, for while the content of their work can be racially didactic (especially Reihana and Cotton), their success lies in the fact that the materiality of their practice is totally bourgeois; these shrewd artists have learned to press just the right buttons and with just the right pressure to engage a broad audience and garner wide-spread success.
But Ōtairongo presses all the best buttons for direct racial confrontation and it presses them hard. At times Sheehan’s work speaks in the direct voice of Māori political activism, and it does so with a force that is difficult to ignore. Ōtairongo garners the immense verbal weight of Māori oral tradition, Sheehan cleverly mixing an insurgent cry with the softer narrative voice of wāhine Māori storytelling.
The considerable achievement of Sheehan’s installation lies in the oral integrity of its subjects. The binaural audio structure of the work—a term which when Sheehan uses overstates the ordinary technical achievements of the work, because any kid with Logic Pro and a good mic could achieve the same layering effects—emphasises the political oratory of these powerful women in ways that are mesmerising and daunting, especially to male Pākehā who can summon up the tolerance to properly engage.
Clever artists manipulate such contingencies to the extent that they have learned to effectively manipulate. They quickly learn that mainstream success involves abandoning the dated avant-garde fetish of tyrannising their audience, instead learning to chaperone the viewer through the work by providing just enough visual clues for engagement.
It helps that mainstream art audiences are filled with those eager to feel good about themselves and they turn to art to realise this. Such audiences have few expectations and willingly gravitate to any artwork which promises their release from the boredom of life or a respite from the chaos that surrounds them.
Be not mistaken, Ōtairongo does not entrap its Pākehā audience with easy seduction. The aural component of this work is exceptional, Ōtairongo being a fine work that responsibly and effectively caries the mana and respect of a people and of women. Yet the listener and the viewer (the two here are the same) do not need to feel that they must be enclosed in the gestational cocoon of Hineraukatauri for the voices of Sheehan’s three protagonist wahine to be carried, heard, understood and accepted.
The materials and application of Sheehan’s installation—the cocoons—though are unconvincing and, like much contemporary Māori art, are over-burdened with extrinsic meaning. Sheehan’s choice of fabrics, colour, surface markings, representational form and construction, bear all the signs of being driven by an overconfident conceptual ego that belies the deeper silence-of-process that characterises mature talent. Few emerging artists realise that everything is written in the mark and the making, which always speaks truth no matter how unintentional and unwanted that truth may be.
But herein lies an art-political ransom for Pākehā: any critical evaluation of Māori art that is not deferential to what Māori say about themselves, no matter how unconvincingly and arbitrarily conceived narratives may seem to outsiders, such criticism inevitably runs the risk of being deemed insensitive, disrespectful, colonising, churlish or even racist. More so if the criticism is uncomfortably critical.
The upshot of this is that much unremarkable Māori art gets a free ticket to ride. For me, the work of (ex-policeman) Māori artist Darcy Nicholas springs to mind. When contemporary Māori art is ordinary—at least by Pākehā reckoning—but if the tribal stature of the artist is strong, then the deference and mana of the artist’s tribal standing can be summoned and conflated with the power and mana that is natural to great art. This alone can elevate unexceptional contemporary work, sidestep weaknesses within the message, and push Māori art to the point where it is beyond critical evaluation by Pākehā.
The success of Māori artists Reihana, Parekowhai, Cotton and the earlier work of Peter Robinson, have been achieved in art forms that are materially indistinguishable from their Pākehā contemporaries. For this reason, their work carries enough visual DNA already coded into its materials, application and technologies to garner widespread Pākehā acceptance.
Yet Ōtairongo is unlike the work of Reihana and Cotton who cleverly package their decolonising anger in ways that give Pākehā plenty of latitude to avoid discomfort and escape into the aesthetic properties. The sonic guts of Ōtairongo spits quietly in your face. It can be angry and at the same time tell stories of the domestic health of whānau and the love for tamariki and mokopuna. It is refreshing to engage with a contemporary Māori work of art that is without the unbearable posturing of Sheehan’s more successful Māori contemporaries.
Ōtairongo is more incendiary, and therefore a lot more convincing, than the anti-colonial messaging of Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015-2017), for example, which is disappointingly sanitised and not amplified by its monumentalism and visual seduction.
The wāhine o Ōtairongo are powerful women and Sheehan’s work not only celebrates this irrefutable truth, it also emphasises that these women are real, women whose words have not been neutered by the canonising force of Pākehā historicity.
Spoken in te reo Māori and in the vulgate that is quickly becoming the new New Zealand English—English language heavily punctuated with Māori terms and expressions—they tell stories of wahine Māori who stand on firm moral ground. These are stories that come not from the sovereign sites of power occupied only by men, but are narratives that emerge from the depth of the social body. The resolve of Sheehan’s protagonists may indeed give life to stories whose power and truth are summoned from the gestational womb of Hineraukatauri, but one thing becomes patently clear: anger is not a bug of human life but a feature. (6)
The colonisation of Aotearoa by a dynastic imperial force has inflicted considerable cultural, social and economic destruction on Māori. Understandably, this has given rise to the indignation and anger of a proud and wilful people. The political drive to redress past and current grievances is energised and active. Political public protest is an effective device to draw attention to, and garner support for, any issue needing redress. The effectiveness of the recent Ihumātao land protests has effectively demonstrated this.
In a wider context, the theatre of victim anger easily garners an audience because it is attractive to believe that the victims of injustice are always right and that their righteous displeasure and suffering is always justifiable. Yet like many wilful people, Māori are quite capable of being racist. These days it is injudicious to even suggest that the victims of social injustice may themselves be to blame, or have in some way contributed to their own condition. The untamable power of social shaming is so widespread that insinuation may be all that is needed to ruin a career. Besides, earnest Pākehā with a natural tendency towards moral fatigue will be reluctant to face down angry social justice warriors.
There is therefore a general canniness among Pākehā cultural elite to acquiesce to all things Māori because it serves their professional self-interests to do so. This is especially true of New Zealand’s public sector. Yet the way in which some Pākehā conduct themselves under the social force of bicultural expectation, can be comical, especially when contrasted with the oratory credibility of wāhine o Ōtairongo.
In Auckland, the wit and social intelligence needed to display the signifiers of class and cultural authority without theatrical excess, is effectively absent. Few of our self-styled cultural mouthpieces understand, and even fewer have mastered, the nuanced skills of virtue signalling needed to lift the complex social theatre that is New Zealand biculturalism above the pantomime it too easily becomes.
Credulity clings to Michael Parekowhai’s fabled red piano He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river (2011) with a simple mix of popular acceptance and bicultural fiat. Yet woven into the symbolic fabric of that red piano (in some lights it looks pink) runs the ludic threads of a method that is extremely interesting.
It turns out that He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river was carved by a Pākehā artisan commissioned by Parekowhai. If this is true, then it immediately begs the question: if Parekowhai’s work conceals a duplicity, then does it really matter?
The answer is not simple. Given that so much bicultural palaver has been made of Parekowhai’s work, and given that it is common in advanced arts cultures for artists to commission others to make their work, the distinction between Māori tradition, adaption and adoption remains clouded.
The first time I saw Parekowhai’s piano, it whispered: “Speak your worst of me, it makes no difference. The enormous cultural investment that has already been paid to and for me will protect me from critical attack. Who would dare speak against me? For to attack me is to attack all Māori. I have been elevated in the public discourse, so high have I risen, that I have been rendered untouchable.”
When the milestone exhibition Te Māori (1984-85) (7) opened at the New York Metropolitan Museum of art in 1984, te ao Māori spoke to the world and, for a moment at least, the world saw and heard. And when the art world bowed in homage before Māori, the mana of their gods and ancestors transcended their representations.
The carved meeting house Te Hau-ki-Tūranga was built in the early 1840s at Ōrākaiapu pā near Gisborne. The whare whakairo was once housed at the New Zealand Dominion Museum in Wellington, where I first saw it as a child, probably in the late 1950s. It spooked me then because I was too young, too white and too middle-class to fully understand the power and mana of whakairo Māori.
Te Hau-ki-Tūranga was carved with metal tools by the master carver Raharuhi Rukupō. It is widely considered to mark the zenith of the Tūranga style for which the carver is most celebrated. In 1998 Te Hau-ki-Tūranga was moved from the old National Museum building to Te Papa where it is currently displayed. The whare whakairo was returned to Rongowhakaata iwi near Gasbourne as part of their Treaty of Waitangi settlement. The iwi maintains ownership of the sacred building.
Arapata Hakiwai (a chief executive officer and kaihautū at Te Papa), who is also of Rongowhakaata descent, says he regularly visits Te Hau-ki-Tūranga at the museum: “I greet my ancestors and say, you know, ‘continue to look after us’ and to say…’we have our people working here and they’re working with you’ …”, such is the power and mana of whakairo.
The depth of mystery and mana of Te Hau-ki-Turanga is risibly absent from He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river, although both sit in state at Te Papa. Yet the lacquer surface of the piano sits so thick with irony that it overlays Parekowhai’s project with unexpected meaning.
It is mistaken to look for wairua and mystery in that piano and expect its carving to match the artistic mastery of Raharuhi Rukupō. At a time when academics race to write convincing decolonisation narratives for Māori, He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river becomes a clever bicultural shapeshifter.
As much as Parekowhai’s piano has been elevated to stratospheric heights of cultural credulity by the enormous sum that Te Papa paid for it, we should not overlook how cleverly, albeit unwittingly, Parekowhai’s work speaks the saccharine words of heresy when it asks: do contemporary Māori artists need to explicitly honour wairua and tradition when they make art?
One peculiarity of New Zealand biculturalism is its labile relationship with uncomfortable historical facts. Parekowhai’s piano embeds a cunning bait and switch duplicity, which if it is properly engaged with, could send our bicultural messaging agents into a spin.
In Western thought the idea that there are original things has been thoroughly interrogated by the French philosophers Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard and Gilles Deleuze, and amongst others, the German philosophers Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger. New Zealand art’s short-lived obsession with post-structuralist theory in the late nineteen-eighties (think of Richard Killeen’s fabled cutouts) momentarily contested the idea that any work of art could be original. To simplify this idea: in art, nothing is new.
This way of thinking very quickly piddled out, but the out-sourcing practices of artists like Donald Judd, Jeff Koons and Billy Apple® continue to call into question the art fetish of originality. Being successful means that artists can afford to pay others to manually craft their art, and even, is in the case with Warhol, to come up with ideas. While at Elam, and in the early part of his career, Parekowhai was a big fan of Koons. It is little wonder that He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river honours the art-making practices of that all-white artist.
The last time I saw Parekowhai’s red piano downstairs at City Gallery, Wellington, I had heard the backstory of its making. This fake whakairo has become more real than that which it copies—this is post-authentic whakairo. I was probably more surprised by the realisation that I was seeing contemporary Māori art through a postmodern lens.
In a different tenor, respected go-to art writer Justin Paton asks a parallel question of Parekowhai’s piano: “Is it a European instrument decorated with Māori carving, or a Māori carving that has engulfed a piece of European high culture,” But this provokes a further question: does the Māori commissioned, Pākehā ‘made’ He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river constitute an act of reverse colonisation? When a Māori artist commissions a Pākehā artisan to carve a work of contemporary Māori art—one that imitates the ancient art of whakairo—is the artist cleverly directing a Pākehā artisan to overwrite the indices of sovereignty and privilege that continue to bolster white European privilege, or do Parekowhai’s choices reflect a sort of artistic opportunism where the artist has looked to the sovereign culture to carve the piano, because no respected Māori carver would agree to do so? Parekowhai himself can best answer that question.
However not all contemporary art need fall under the intellectual rubric of Pākehā theoretical thinking. One wonders what Māori have to say about the Pākehā carving of He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river. What might be said, say, by the cultural sectarian Rangihiroa Panoho who has already reproved New Zealand’s most successful Māori artists for selling out and playing from both ends of the bicultural divide.
Even if the materiality of Parekowhai’s challenging work points to a practice ethic that is more opportunist, pragmatic and duplicitous than the wry artistic nous it pretends, the productive trace of any work of art is tagged the moment it enters the public domain, and the inescapable process of narrative spinning begins.
Parekowhai’s piano addresses a twenty-first century Pākehā audience by using all the narrative clues that are easily recognised and accepted. But if the success of He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river was less bourgeois, it could speak (without self-contradiction) of how colonisation has urbanised and fiscally disenfranchised a people.
In much the same way as lacquer sets hard on any surface, the will of a coloniser may befoul ancestral land and blood may harden red on the earth. But if that piano were able to play another tune—the song of Hineraukatauri, for example—it would first need to transcend the body that binds it and the artist’s ego trapped deep within its form. Then and only then could that pure song be heard in all possible worlds.
(1) David Hall, ‘Admit Nothing: Mapping Denial,’ Reading Room (2018) 08.18 68-85; 73. In a footnote Hall acknowledges: “The framework of ao, of ‘Worlds,’ is indebted to Anne Salmon, Tears of Rangi: Experiment Across Worlds (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2017).”
(2) See the online video in which curator Laura Castagnini and art historian Elizabeth Eastmond describe the life and art of Alexis Hunter: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/alexis-hunter-18289/alexis-hunter-making-history-tateshots
(3) Nigel Borell, Curator of Māori Art, Auckland Art Gallery on Maree Sheehan’s Artspace exhibition: “Ōtairongo by Maree Sheehan presents an exciting opportunity to rethink and reconsider the scope of contemporary Māori art. The artist’s sonic portraiture project allows for new readings and understandings about representation that highlights the seen and unseen worlds of Māori knowledge in new ways.” http://artspace-aotearoa.nz/exhibitions/otairongo, downloaded 19 March 2020.
(4) Maree Sheehan, Ōtairongo, Artspace Aotearoa, 7 March-16 May 2020.
(5) Quoted from publicity for Ōtairongo, Artspace Aotearoa http://artspace-aotearoa.nz/exhibitions/otairongo - downloaded 4 March 2020.
(6) Cf. “On Anger,” eds. Deborah Chasman and Joshua Cohen, (2020) Boston Review Forum 13 (45.1) p.7.
(7) Te Māori opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 1984. It later toured North America, visiting St. Louis, Chicago and San Francisco. The exhibition later toured New Zealand, visiting the four main centres.