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Mana modernism

Deidre Brown on the second season of <EM>Te Ao Hou</EM> | <EM>Modern Maori Art</EM>


<P data-associrn="1131895"></P> <P>Most of the works in <EM>Te Ao Hou</EM> | <EM>Modern M&#257;ori Art</EM> were produced in the mid1960s &#8211; a time of social and political challenges and change in many countries, including Aotearoa New Zealand. The world anticipated by these artists was one where all cultures would meet and meld. In such a space, the M&#257;ori painter Selwyn Wilson could respectfully refer to Pablo Picasso as ‘our old koroua [male elder]’. And with these few words he brought the world of European abstraction full circle, back into the indigenous world where it had first found inspiration, and into te ao hou, the new world of M&#257;ori modernism.</P> <P>In their time, the art works produced by M&#257;ori and New Zealand P&#257;keh&#257; modernists of the 1960s sat comfortably together as a single genre, though their collective journey was far from easy. Both groups of artists found it difficult to court the attentions of metropolitan art galleries. M&#257;ori artists could only find exhibition space in regional or museum spaces. Furthermore, their modernism, and training in the conceptual traditions of European art, made their work almost inaccessible to other M&#257;ori.</P> <P>Some P&#257;keh&#257; artists also struggled to identify how far was ‘too far’ when it came to bringing M&#257;ori imagery into the modern world. M&#257;ori iconography was, for most P&#257;keh&#257;, something experienced solely through tourism, and not the basis for ‘high’ cultural activity. Gordon Walters, a P&#257;keh&#257; working with ‘modernised’ M&#257;ori imagery, was reluctant to show his early primitivist works in public out of fear of how they would be received. He would also later suggest that fellow artist and Dutch émigré Theo Schoon had over-immersed himself in M&#257;ori art, practising it rather than merely referencing its forms.</P> <P data-associrn="614593"></P> <P>Yet around the world modernism was the visual language of a new age. Modernist artists saw their work as illuminating a cultural and artistic landscape that needed to be brought out of the shadows of the past. This idea of emerging into a new and promising era is captured by the title of Paratene Matchitt’s painting <EM>Whiti te ra</EM> (1962). It evokes the story of Te Rauparaha, paramount chief of Ng&#257;ti Toa, rising triumphantly from his refuge like the sun out of the darkness.</P> <P data-associrn="40185"></P> <P><STRONG>M&#257;ori meet modernism</STRONG></P> <P>M&#257;ori artists who engaged with modernism were art educators and students trained in city institutions. Here, they engaged in fertile creative relationships with P&#257;keh&#257; artists. Buster Black and Colin McCahon, for example, mutually developed an interest in darkened landscapes, as seen in <EM>Mountain 1</EM> (Black, 1963-4) and <EM>Black landscape</EM> (McCahon, 1965). While the initial inspiration of these artists took place in urban settings, the testing and development of ideas often occurred in rural (predominantly Northland) schools and contexts. Such was the case with the art of Ralph Hotere, K&#257;terina Mataira, Muru Walters, Selwyn Wilson, and Arnold Wilson, who were all Department of Education art educators.</P> <P>P&#257;keh&#257; artists at the time also revelled in the relaxation of social boundaries that had, before the 1960s, inhibited meaningful engagement between cultures, which resulted in new forms of artistic expression. In much the same way that their early 19th-century ancestors had exchanged iron for t&#333;tara wood on the beaches, P&#257;keh&#257; and M&#257;ori artists traded their cultural knowledge in studios: Picasso for k&#333;whaiwhai, Henry Moore for rock paintings. Artists from both groups used their new acquisitions in unexpected and startling ways.</P> <P data-associrn="36575"></P> <P>Theo Schoon’s k&#333;whaiwhai-derived, untitled ink-on-paper works from about 1963, some of which are on show in <EM>Te Ao Hou</EM>, would have been on the cutting edge of international op (optical) art &#8211; a term not even coined until 1965 &#8211; with their complementary use of positive and negative space. These works demonstrate a nuanced understanding of complex k&#333;whaiwhai compositions that could have only come from close observation of historic examples. Schoon, who was fascinated by indigenous crafts, extended the art beyond its normal narrow format on rafters and paddles to become more dense and intricate. We might wonder whether this development was inspired by the Indonesian batik with which he would have been familiar from his early life and career in Java.</P> <P data-associrn="1425181"></P> <P>Other boundaries were more difficult to breach. Where are the women in this exhibition? Mataira was part of this generation, as were Pauline Yearbury and Freda Rankin, among others. Yearbury, for example, was one of a number of tertiary-trained M&#257;ori artists who found their calling as modernists while working in arts education in 1950s and 60s Northland. The influence of European modernism is clearly apparent in her paintings and wood panels of ancestors, such as <EM>Papa-tu-a-nuku</EM> (undated). Yet these images capture intimate moments that could only be genuinely expressed by someone with experience of being both M&#257;ori and female.</P> <P>Unfortunately, the work of female M&#257;ori modernists has not been collected by galleries and patrons to the same extent as their male contemporaries, and is consequentially harder to access beyond histories of art. Their contribution is yet to be properly recognised through representation in exhibitions.</P> <P data-associrn="1084676"></P> <P><STRONG>Spirituality in modern M&#257;ori art</STRONG></P> <P>The artist’s search for spiritual enlightenment, an important 1960s rite of passage and journey towards personal development, is evident in the work of the <EM>Te Ao Hou</EM> | <EM>Modern M&#257;ori Art</EM> artists. McCahon and Hotere each found their own way to address Christianity in modernism. For McCahon, it was locating biblical narratives and signs in New Zealand and M&#257;ori contexts. <EM>Koru 1, 2, 3</EM> (1965) refers to the Holy Trinity. For Hotere, it was an acknowledgement of Catholicism through symbolism. His use of the cross in <EM>Black painting</EM> (1968) and <EM>Red on black</EM> (1969) marked a transition from figurative to highly abstract expressions of Christ’s suffering.</P> <P data-associrn="413284"></P> <P>In 1965, Arnold Wilson, always an innovator, took the bold step of illustrating Rua Kenana, the early 20th-century Ng&#257;i T&#363;hoe spiritual leader, as <EM>Mihaia te tuatahi</EM> (The first messiah). It’s a pared-down sculpture that owes as much (at least) to Moore and Constantin Brâncusi as it does to tiki carvings. Rua used the Bible and M&#257;ori prophecy to empower his people in the face of colonial oppression, and here Wilson shows him as a prophet of modernity.</P> <P>In the next decade, McCahon celebrated the passive resistance of Rua and other M&#257;ori prophet leaders, such as Te Ua Haumene of the Pai M&#257;rire movement, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu K&#257;kahi of Parihaka, and Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki of the Ringatu Church. These are some of his most celebrated and controversial works, the outcomes of an intense creative exploration of modernist and M&#257;ori compositional techniques.</P> <P>A huge ‘T’ in the centre panel of McCahon’s&nbsp; <EM>Parihaka triptych</EM> (1972), historically a place reserved for the crucifixion, represents Te Whiti, Tohu, and Taranaki mountain. Everything around this symbol supports their status as M&#257;ori prophet leaders in the biblical sense. McCahon’s&nbsp; <EM>Urewera mural</EM> (1975) places Ng&#257;i T&#363;hoe tribal whakapapa (genealogy) and Te Kooti and Rua’s names against the mountainous landscape of the Urewera region. The painting demonstrates the inseparability of land, people, and spirituality. Indeed, both works boldly take on M&#257;ori and Christian spiritual iconography in words and images.</P> <P data-associrn="568243"></P> <P>Later M&#257;ori painters such as Selwyn Muru, Kura Te Waru Rewiri, and Shane Cotton, and the photographer Natalie Robertson, have continued to illustrate M&#257;ori prophets as the negotiators between the ancestral and contemporary realms of M&#257;ori life.</P> <P>Rewiri’s use of the cross in conjunction with the symbols associated with the prophet leader Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana calls on McCahon’s modernism. However, as an artist from a succeeding generation to the modernists, she seeks to problematise rather than reconcile the two cultures and religious traditions. In ‘protest’ works like <EM>He tohu</EM> (The sign, 1991), the cross appears as a mark of error, the form of some M&#257;ori signatures on the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, and a representation of Christianity.</P> <P><STRONG>M&#257;ori modernism: the indigenous international style</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="424685"></P> <P>Did modernism offer New Zealand artists a means by which to claim a space in the international arts scene? Despite his concerns to the contrary, Walters’ koru-derived works were eventually well received in New Zealand. Yet the qualities that endeared them to local art audiences distanced them from international modernism. They spoke of a contemporary and not ‘primitive’ indigenous culture. As works of reductivist modernism they failed to meet international standards, remaining grounded in location, culture, and history because of their M&#257;ori associations. Later in his career, Walters would abandon M&#257;ori imagery in favour of purely geometrical abstraction.</P> <P>M&#257;ori artists working in the modernist genre could not walk away from their identity. Hotere spent three formative years studying and practising painting in Britain and France before returning to New Zealand in 1965. The consequential change in his style is clear when comparing the freedom of his figurative&nbsp; <EM>Still life</EM> (1959) to the disciplined geometry of his Untitled, <EM>Red square</EM> and <EM>Red on white</EM> works made six years later. Although Hotere wished to be appreciated as an artist, rather than a M&#257;ori artist, it is difficult to divorce his experiences as a child growing up in a M&#257;ori Catholic community from any interpretation of his internationally acclaimed ‘Black Paintings’ series.</P> <P>There is no doubt that Hotere and the large group of M&#257;ori artists who showed their work in the 1966 contemporary M&#257;ori painting and sculpture exhibitions in Hamilton and Christchurch saw themselves working in the modernist genre. Their conviction was necessary. Curators and art historians have actively created boundaries around Western fine art that deliberately exclude indigenous making and makers.</P> <P>The M&#257;ori modernists of the mid 1960s walked, and sometimes stumbled along, an increasingly fine line between having their work accepted as ‘modern’ by galleries and critics and having their practice accepted at all by the M&#257;ori community. They were integrationists, one philosophical step ahead of their European ‘koroua’, who had shown no concern about taking ideas from other cultures suffering under colonisation.</P> <P>But, by the mid 1960s, with radical civil rights action groups calling for self-determination, the flow of the two-way street of modernism that allowed M&#257;ori to practise ‘reverse-primitivism’ on one side, and P&#257;keh&#257;, such as Schoon, McCahon, and Walters, to lay claim to aspects of indigenous art on the other, would inevitably be disrupted.</P> <P><STRONG>The appropriation debate</STRONG></P> <P>In the late 1980s and early 1990s, art historians such as Ngahuia Te Awekotuku and Rangihiroa Panoho questioned the integrity of art by non-M&#257;ori that was derived from M&#257;ori culture. Initiatives such as the Waitangi Tribunal Claim 262 (lodged 1991) and the Mataatua Declaration (1993) defined M&#257;ori art as a cultural property under threat of misappropriation and deserving of protection under intellectual property law.</P> <P>Perhaps as a riposte, a number of senior and emerging M&#257;ori artists took to defending the contribution of Schoon, Walters, and McCahon. As makers, rather than historians or critics, they maintained that the modernists of both cultures had brought M&#257;ori art into the contemporary age through their manipulation of its formal qualities and their international precedents. They also acknowledged the groundwork these three P&#257;keh&#257; had laid for later M&#257;ori artists by bravely retaining historical content in their paintings and sculptures, often in the face of harsh criticism from other P&#257;keh&#257;.</P> <P data-associrn="1425190"></P> <P>In 1997, the sculptor Michael Parekowhai sought to bring the ‘appropriation’ debate to a literal end by reproducing Walters’ 1969 <EM>Kahukura</EM> painting of extruded koru motifs as a giant kitset model with an additional ‘full stop’ at its lower right edge. Parekowhai’s reappropriation of Walters’ appropriation, reduced to a set of pop-out parts, was nevertheless a commentary on the commodification of cultural symbols.</P> <P>Inevitable comparisons have also been made between Walters’ ‘koru’-inspired works and recent paintings by M&#257;ori artist Darryn George. Although the similarity is due to a coincidental convergence of interest in the effect of abstraction on M&#257;ori design, George has found that ‘Walters’ practice seemed to legitimise my practice. For many it has provided a scaffold upon which to view my work … I am in many ways indebted to his practice.’<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP></P> <P data-associrn="1326629"></P> <P><STRONG>An enduring legacy</STRONG></P> <P>George’s remark reveals the enduring legacy of the M&#257;ori and P&#257;keh&#257; modernists. They established a new relationship between international and indigenous art practices and validated modernist precedents in M&#257;ori art. Both are important steps forward for M&#257;ori artists. Respect for their contribution is apparent in their influence on, and the sampling of their work by, later artists, such as Shane Cotton, whose painting Reach (2012) acknowledges the aspirations inherent in Matchitt’s <EM>Whiti te ra</EM>. It has been a more circular journey for the P&#257;keh&#257; modernists. After initial concerns that they were too M&#257;ori in their art, they were later criticised for not being M&#257;ori at all, but their work is now recognised for its formal qualities.</P> <P>All of these artists provided a point of access for audiences to engage with M&#257;ori art and set the foundations for the next generation of conceptual M&#257;ori artists. Their practices initiated, albeit unintentionally, an ongoing debate about cultural appropriation and, in doing so, situated M&#257;ori art at the centre of M&#257;ori political activism and the movement towards indigenous self-determination.<BR></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>‘Darryn George in conversation with Deidre Brown’, in Darryn George, <EM>Darryn George</EM>, Mihi Publishers, Christchurch, 2010, pp. 106-7.</FONT></LI>
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Kura Te Waru Rewiri, He Tohu, 1991, Lithograph.,
Purchased 2010.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Paratene Matchitt, Whiti te ra, 1962, gouache on board,
Purchased 2003.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Buster Black, Mountain 1, 1963-1964, oil and sand on hardboard,
Purchased 1992 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Theo Schoon, Untitled, circa 1963, ink on paper,
Purchased 1988 with Special Projects in the Arts funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Pauline Kahurangi Yearbury and James Yearbury, &lt;EM&gt;Papa-tu-a-nuku&lt;/EM&gt;, Russell Museum/Te Whare Taonga o Kororareka

Pauline Kahurangi Yearbury and James Yearbury, Papa-tu-a-nuku, Russell Museum/Te Whare Taonga o Kororareka

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Colin McCahon, Koru, 1, 2, 3, 1965, PVA on hardboard,
Purchased 2011.
© Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Arnold Wilson, Mihaia te Tuatahi, 1965, wood (püriri),
Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Gordon Walters, Untitled, circa 1993, acrylic on canvas,
Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Michael Parekowhai, &lt;EM&gt;Kiss The Baby Goodbye&lt;/EM&gt;, 1994, powder coated steel, 3600 x 4600 mm, 3600 x 2200 mm, 3600 x 2200 mm, Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki C1994/1/540.1-2. Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

Michael Parekowhai, Kiss The Baby Goodbye, 1994, powder coated steel, 3600 x 4600 mm, 3600 x 2200 mm, 3600 x 2200 mm, Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki C1994/1/540.1-2. Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

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Shane Cotton, Reach, 2012, acrylic on canvas,
Purchased 2012.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz