Culturally inappropriate, Hamish Keith

Gauguin and Maori Art
Bronwen Nicholson, with contributions by Roger Blackley, Jonathan Mane‑Wheoki, Roger Neich, Richard Wolfe
Godwit (with Auckland City Art Gallery), $29.95, ISBN 0 908877692

This is a small book, 80 pages in all, which is entirely appropriate since its subject is equally diminutive. Indeed, had it been strictly confined to the limits suggested by the title, the whole work could well have been over in a paragraph or two.

It would have to draw a very long bow to sustain much more than a brief essay on Paul Gauguin’s use of four carved bowls, a carved box, a figure from a canoe prow and a gateway figure ‑ as great a work of art as that last might be.

In 1895 Paul Gauguin, on his second and final journey to Polynesia, endured a frustrating 10‑day stopover in Auckland. The artist’s New Zealand visit was hardly the stuff from which great cultural insights can be fashioned. It is only just the stuff from which art historical footnotes can be gleaned. But, that said, it is our own, it happened here and if it fans to any to make something of it falls to us. Nicholson and her collaborators have made the most of the opportunity and produced as a result a readable, mostly articulate and enjoyable moment in our cultural history. There, is of course, a big reservation lurking in that mostly, which I will return to later.

As well, the main essay is a useful account of Gauguin’s sojourn in this half of the world. In their contributions Roger Blackley and Richard Wolfe richly evoke the ambience of the end‑of‑century cultural institutions in Auckland.

Gauguin visited the Auckland City Gallery. That much we know from his signature in its visitors book. From a small number of sketches, four pages in all, and the use of the Pukaki gateway figure from its collection in the c1897 painting The Idol, it is deduced that the artist also visited the Auckland Museum and Institute. Sadly, but one hopes the regret is temporary, the whereabouts of the Auckland sketchbook is currently unknown.

Wolfe raises some interesting questions about the sources of the sketches and reproduces a photograph by Josiah Martin of all four carved covered bowls and box that Gauguin drew, all with the same physical relationship to the viewer as those in the drawings. This could be explained, as the text hints, by the simple fact of Martin photographing the same display that Gauguin drew, but this would suggest that artist anchored himself in the one place to draw all five objects, just as the photographer’s static equipment obliged him to do. It is a fact that Gauguin drew details of the house Tama‑Te‑Kapua at Ohinemutu from a photograph and that no sketches have survived (or were made) of the Pukaki figure.

Not that it much matters whether or not the artist drew from the reality or from Martin’s photographs, the objects indisputably found their way into his ‘Paintings and in more than one as active rather than passive icons, contributing directly to the meaning of the work, I think that a real qualification, since it seems difficult, although admittedly not impossible, to place much iconic significance to the appearance of the carved bowls in the various floral still lives. To do so, would be to suggest that the painter believed that the meaning of the carved symbols could be open to interpretation by his audience. Again not impossible, but at least unlikely.

In a larger context these speculations might seem small ‑ trivial even ‑ but they are intriguing from our point of view and there are all too few genuine chances to look at the art of others from our own peculiar perspective. They would be richer, of course, if the works which are their object were readily accessible to us.

Putting a New Zealand spin on Gauguin might seem simply a symptom of cultural insecurity, but the connection ‑ tiny as it might be ‑ is genuine enough. It can also provide an opportunity to mourn missed connections. Imagine, if you will, if H.E. Partridge the Queen street tobacconist had popped across the road after work for a quick one at the Albert Hotel and run into the French artist. We might have had a collection of Maori portraits by Paul Gauguin rather than Gottfried Lindauer and an entirely better class of cultural appropriations to complain about.

The bogey of cultural appropriation lurks about this book, like the ghost of Banquo at the feast, disturbing the conscience of all and sending Jonathon Mane‑Wheoki into a positive froth of indignant indecision. Even Richard Brettell in his foreword feels obliged to nod in the spectre’s direction, by reminding us ‑ as if we need reminding ‑ that Gauguin was “unable to ask permission” of Maori to borrow from their art. Not speaking Maori and having a poor grasp of English, the hapless Frenchman was no doubt unable to find his way to the office of Inter‑Cultural Perniissions.

In this book the whole business runs the full gamut from the simply silly to the outrageous. Into the latter category falls the truly appalling suggestion of Mane‑Wheoki that the absence of any of Gauguin’s works in New Zealand collections “is probably just as well for they might otherwise attract interest as targets of Maori protest against the dominant pakeha power and incur damage or destruction”. Is there anywhere the slightest evidence that such might be the case? It certainly could not be found in the attacks on Victorian statues of politicians directly involved in the land wars and subsequent confiscations. They were not subject to attack for the academically invented crime of cultural appropriation but for the fact of the events and personages they monumentalised.

If Mane‑Wheoki’s dangerous speculation has any basis in fact, then why pick on the non‑represented Paul Gauguin, when the work of any number of major indigenous artists could serve equally well as objects of Maori political rage. Mane‑Wheoki himself identifies and rounds up the usual suspects ‑ Gordon Waiters and Colin McCahon prominent among them. He describes the latter’s 1945 portrait of his Maori neighbour Harriet Simeon as “primitivist” and evidence of the artist’s admiration of Gauguin. This, in this particular context is simply self-serving. Nowhere that I have discovered was McCahon’s admiration of Gauguin based on his incorporation of Polynesian motifs or people, but on the French painter’s exhortation to artists to “paint as children” ‑ an innocence of eye. I confess that I once wrote of this painting as having “vague echoes of Gauguin”, but this is hardly enough to tar McCahon with a Gauguin brush. McCahon’s interest in this particular subject was twofold ‑ she had rescued his 2‑year-old son from drowning and she had, seemed to represent to the artist what he later described as “the whole Maori tragedy”. (He regretted the work had failed its subject.)

Much of the rehearsal of complaints about the cultural pillaging of our various artistic ancestors seems fruitless to say the least. There are in the collection of the Auckland Museum a small group of carved whalebone ancestor figures from Tonga, which might serve as a perfect metaphor for the process. Most of them are damaged to some degree or another and although the tale maybe apocryphal, it is said that these figures were taken out and given a beating when christianity arrived for not passing on this particular piece of good religious news earlier.

As fraught as it is, for the health of our New Zealand cultures this whole debate about ‘cultural appropriation” needs to be exposed for the dangerous, narrowing, self-serving sham that it is. If the concept of biculturalism is to have any useful meaning at all, surely it will be in the shared experience of Maori and pakeha ‑ using both those descriptions as being those of living, evolving cultures. Only a cultural bigot could deny that much of the vigour and richness of the contemporary manifestations of those cultures is in the contributions they have made to each other. The fact that there is a lively and vigorous cross‑cultural exchange going on is one of the healthiest aspects of our life now and an enormous promise for the future. Happily it is the kind of dynamic that defies bigotry and the smallness of soul that bigotry defines.

The sad thing about Mane‑Wheoki’s brief essay is that he, too, sees and describes much that is positive and profitable in these exchanges. But he all too easily slips into a pointless and bitter rhetoric that does little to advance any useful debate. Of course the interpretation of any work of art will in the end be subjective, but to describe the transformed Pukaki figure in Gauguin’s 1899 painting The Idol as “looming darkly and leeringly over nude Polynesian women, objectified as the sexual Other, oblivious to its presence” is straining to make an entirely extraneous point. There are equally compelling readings of this enigmatic work, which suggest an entirely different and more positive relationship. And one wonders if the rhetorical question, ‘by what right had this French bohemian dragged Maori imagery into a primitivist mythology and iconography of his own imagining” is even worth asking, let alone attempting to answer. It would seem odd that Mane‑Wheoki, a university lecturer in art history, would not know that the entire history of art sets the precedent his question seeks. That being the case the question can be turned against any culture evolving in contact, including his own.

It also seems more than a bit odd to give Paul Gauguin a whacking for employing in his work five objects which were specifically carved for presentation or sale to pakeha or which were commissioned by pakeha. What were they supposed to do once they had them? Similarly it stretches a point to include the carved doorway of the artist’s house in the catalogue of his Maori borrowings, when some elements of that particular work date from before his New Zealand visit and there are even more compelling contenders for the source. Not least among these are the decorated pleasure garden gates and entranceways of metropolitan France or the contemporary fad for Chinese or Japanese decorations.

Most galling of all, are some of Mane‑Wheoki’s reading of the Te Maori exhibition. in particular, his claim that in the wake of that venture ‑pakeha were now exposed ‑ either because of ignorance and prejudice or ci‑iltural insecurity and lack of sophistication ‑ as unable to perceive in Maori art the qualities that were glaringly obvious to the international art world.” simply cannot be sustained by the facts. Te Maori was conceived, negotiated and put in train by pakeha arts administrators ‑ myself initially ‑ motivated by exactly that realisation and response to taonga maori that he so arrogantly denies them and, one might add, pre‑eminent in those initial negotiations was the insistence that the American museums involved recognise that these were taonga Maori and a part of a living culture. Perhaps more significantly, the battle to have some institutional recognition for the cultural achievements of pakeha was contemporaneous with that for Maori and, like that for Maori, continues still.

More generously, Mane‑Wheoki concludes that for all the vilification of those artists, who have earlier than the mainstream expressed the shared experience that should be celebrated in our cultures, they may well have paved the way for a more genuinely bicultural society. Sadly this will not be a process advanced by an entirely negative debate hung on an only marginally relevant hook.

Hamish Keith is an art critic and writer.

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Posted in Art, Maori, Non-fiction and Review
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