Visiting Auckland Art Gallery’s exhibition of contemporary Māori art is like being invited to a wānanga in cosmology and culture, writes Kennedy Warne.
Hiding in plain sight in Tāmaki Makaurau right now is the largest exhibition of contemporary Māori art ever assembled at the Auckland Art Gallery. Toi Tū Toi Ora gathers 300 artworks from more than 100 artists and displays them across three floors of the gallery.
Even that isn’t enough space to contain this stunning review of Māori art. Some works are on display around the streets of Britomart, and in a provocative twist, others are displayed in one of the gallery’s spaces devoted to traditional European painting — a kind of reverse artistic colonisation.
The exhibition, which opened last December and closes May 9, was five years in the making, and is the magnum opus of curator Nigel Borell. What makes the exhibition special — exceptionally so — is that it breathes with the hau of its subject matter.
Rather than present the work of the past 70 years of Māori art chronologically, Borell has grouped the works to tell the stories of cosmology, colonial history, politics and culture. Linear chronology makes no sense in a Māori understanding of time, anyway. Much more potent is to see how generations of artists (sometimes within the same family) address the same themes in their own cultural context.
The intergenerational perspective also aligns with the centrality of whakapapa. A quote from tohunga raranga Toi te Rito Maihi expresses this reality. Weaving, she says, is her link with the tīpuna. “After all, it’s to them I owe the richness of my life.”
Visiting the exhibition is like being invited to a wānanga on Māori worldview. At the entrance stands a sentinel work by Fred Graham, one of the first generation of contemporary Māori artists who emerged in the 1950s. In his carving, the children of Rangi and Papa sleep in their parents’ embrace. A kōtuku stands above, wings spread, about to take flight.
Thus oriented to the central narrative of Māori cosmology, you plunge into darkness: into te kore, the void.
Here, in the great nothingness, works by Peter Robinson play with the binary notation of zeros and ones, nothing and something, absence and presence. Put one and zero together and it looks like the name Io, the supreme holder of knowledge. You’re in the void, but it’s not devoid of meaning. This womblike space is a realm from which something emerges.
From the womb of the void, the visitor steps into night, te pō: the dark night, the great night, the long night, the deep night. The night is black, but not empty. There is a sense of movement, the stirring of being, the restless indications of life.
Out of the darkness of night comes the spark of creativity, and there is much beauty in the gallery devoted to this dark place. Maureen Lander’s woven muka apron is bathed in blue light that evokes moonlight on a waterfall. A painted work by Toi Te Rito Maihi explores the mystery of black on black, te kore turning into te pō. A work in folded metal by Israel Birch contemplates starlight on ocean waves as Kupe and other navigators made their epic journeys to Aotearoa.
An adjoining room is devoted to Lisa Reihana’s Ihi, the separation of Ranginui and Papatūānuku interpreted by two dancers, brilliantly filmed and displayed on a double-sided video screen. Visitors sit mesmerised by the performance of this seminal story.
This early part of the exhibition experience is steeped in mythology. But the creation stories are treated with such seriousness and dignity that the effect is to eradicate any thought that these myths are mere fictions.
The renowned scholar Maori Marsden made this point when he wrote that myth and legend in the Māori cultural context are neither fables embodying primitive faith in the supernatural, nor fireside stories of ancient times. They are deliberate constructs used to encapsulate a view of the world, of ultimate reality and the relationship between the universe and humanity. They encode the human experience, as well as the story of the universe.
After journeying in the darkness of te kore and te pō, the visitor emerges — explodes — into the world of light.
One of the first works they encounter is Robyn Kahukiwa’s vivid rendering of the female deity Hinetītama, daughter of Tāne, mother of humanity, who becomes transformed into the keeper of the underworld, the one who welcomes the children of Tāne when their earthly life is ended. Pulsating with colour, Hine is adorned with symbols representing Tāne, Māui, the spiral cosmos and the female essence.
While facing and being faced by this work of artistic brilliance, I was joined by a young man wearing a T-shirt with the line: You can’t teach heart. “Your shirt says it all,” I remarked. There are things that can’t be conveyed by academic teaching, but can be by art. This exhibition speaks in the language of the heart.
From the foundations of cosmology the visitor moves upwards to the gallery’s next level, the realm of humankind and our relationships with each other, with nature and with land. All of those relationships involve struggle and conflict. Many of the artworks here express the agony of skewed and damaged relationships. They provoke and incite.
One especially moving work is Shona Rapira-Davies’ Ngā Mōrehu, a group of life-sized female clay figures performing a karanga, calling upon the ancestors to clear a path for people in the cultural present. These women carry both aspirations and demonisations in words inscribed on their bodies. A young girl faces the women, with puzzlement and pain on her face, and perhaps awe at the resilience and authority she is seeing in her elders.
The effect of this work on visitors was clear. As I watched, a young woman wearing a moko kauae stood next to the clay kuia and raised her arm with theirs, a shared moment of solidarity.
Another artist who invites visitors to confront a history of prejudice is Michael Parekowhai. His installation Poorman, Beggarman, Thief consists of three life-size mannequins of a young Māori man dressed in bow tie and suit and polished black shoes, wearing a nametag that reads: “Hello, my name is Hori.”
The mannequins have been placed around the exhibition space. Two of them face paintings, as if contemplating their aesthetic merits. Another is next to a balustrade, as if wanting to engage with gallery patrons. The title of the work refers to paths a young Māori man might be expected to take. What is he doing here, so spiffily dressed?
The impact of a figure at life-size is unmistakeable. When I passed the first mannequin, I did a double take. Was it a mannequin, or a performance artist standing entirely motionless? Either way, the effect was disturbing.
“Hōri,” a transliteration of George, is Parekowhai’s father’s name, but also a derogatory term for Māori common in the last century. I remember the caricature of Hōri and his half-gallon jar from when I was a child. I cringe at the memory. Now here is Hōri in the gallery, a figure of Pākehā mockery in a different guise, a different time, forcing the viewer to confront the casual racism of comedy.
The loss of connection to whenua is an important theme in this part of the exhibition, portrayed with wit in Rangituhia Hollis’s depiction of sharks swimming in the skies above South Auckland. The sharks are icons of Ngāti Porou, whose signature whakataukī is well known: Don’t die like an octopus, die like a shark.
The sharks in Hollis’s work no longer swim around East Cape, but are doomed to travel the skies of Auckland, like polar bears pacing in the zoo, like their homesick human brethren, cut off from homeland and marae and living in the wilderness in the urban diaspora.
The loneliness of disconnection is powerfully portrayed in one of the earliest works in the exhibition: a 1956 carving by Arnold Manaaki Wilson entitled He Tangata, He Tangata. Wilson has carved a lichen-encrusted tōtara fencepost into an approximate human form, but the belly of the form is a void. You see through it to a white wall. Where body should be, there is emptiness.
The placement of the work is also telling. It stands next to a clutch of European paintings showing angels and moments of spiritual visitation. For Wilson’s figure, there is no such enlightenment. An explanatory panel quotes the famous whakataukī from which the work derives its name: If the heart of the flax plant is pulled out, where will the kōmako sing?
Here, not just the heart, but the entire viscera has been pulled out. Where the European paintings depict connection to the divine, in Wilson’s figure there is only despair.
On an adjacent wall, next to a venerable European oil painting of a posed family group exuding prosperity and contentment (with still more angels hovering around), Peter Robinson’s arresting canvas exclaims to the viewer: “Boy am I scared eh!” The Māori and European works juxtaposed in this gallery aren’t so much having a dialogue as an altercation. Robinson’s work from this period, according to an explanatory panel, “confronts head-on issues of colonial history, racism, prejudice and identities”.
Art confronts, and perhaps it can also reconcile. That was the hope Selwyn Muru expressed in 1979, when he exhibited 37 works that arose from his visit to Parihaka — two of which are in the exhibition. “The marae is a great leveller,” he commented. “Hopefully the gallery will be one too.”
One of the 50 names of Tāne is Tāne Whakapiripiri — Tāne who draws people together. Ironically, before the exhibition was even open, curator Nigel Borell resigned from the gallery, citing power-sharing differences with the institution’s director in curating the exhibition. Auckland’s loss will be Whangārei’s gain: Borell has been appointed to curate a new dedicated Māori art space that’s being developed within the Hundertwasser building, scheduled to open at the end of 2021.
Nigel Borell’s departure notwithstanding, I hope Toi Tū Toi Ora draws a large audience in its final days, opening eyes and hearts in this wānanga of the arts.
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