Dynamically adaptive, Sir Tipene O’Regan

Painted Histories: Early Maori figurative painting
Roger Neich,
Auckland University Press, $79.95

In the late 1960s I slept for the first time in the meeting house Te-Poho-o-Hinekura at Te Kuha near Lake Waikaremoana. I was astonished by the faded blue and orange colours on the painted poupou of this old and hospitable house. Until then traditional Maori decoration was confined to a dull red monochrome. Over the next few days and nights I became increasingly captivated as I explored the designs and discussed them with the kaumatua. I was appalled to hear from them that it was their intention to burn this old house down and build a fine new fully carved wharenui on their marae. Their enthusiasm terrified me. Over the next 12 months I exerted every ounce of persuasion in me on John Rangihau and other noted Tuhoe leaders, exhorting them to persuade the kaumatua of Te Kuha that the house should be restored. Eventually that is what happened.

It is an extraordinary coincidence that this was also the first house featuring figurative paintings that Roger Neich encountered. It was the same house that inspired him to begin his monumental studies on Maori figurative paintings and the use of paint in Maori art. In the last two decades Neich has become the pre-eminent authority on buildings featuring Maori painted forms and, particularly, figurative paintings. He has been trusted implicitly by a huge diversity of Maori elders and communities and he has been entrusted with much. In this copious work, a book by a pre-eminent scholar for other scholars, he has assembled his studies in an orderly and accessible way. It is a substantial achievement.

I have some difficulty with the language of those who study art. There is a range of descriptive and analytic words that defeat me unless I’m armed with a comprehensive dictionary – and even then I am not sure what some of the terms mean. What is important, however, my own literary capacities aside, is that we have an easily comprehended and orderly exposition of that extraordinary explosion of Maori creativity that took place in the latter nineteenth century accompanying the access to new materials and especially paint.

There has always been a tendency by scholarly analysts to regard any shift from a pre-1840 form in Maori custom and expression, and especially art, as decadence or degeneracy. I have always been suspicious of this view and Neich gives further grounds for that suspicion. The tendency to regard change in art as decay or decline from what are presumed to be “traditional” norms is one which is rife in the page of scholarly analysis to which Maori cultural expression has been subjected. This decay or degeneracy is not uncommonly seen as a symbol of cultural crisis and social disruption which accompanies various misfortunes or changes which are presumed to be negative within a society and its culture. The notion that a culture might be responding dynamically to the historical change which it is undergoing and that the art of that culture might be going through a similar dynamic shift, tends to view its associated art as at the least, neutral and at the best, positively reflective.

In my studies of Maori and Polynesian pre-history and even more in my reading on the culture-contact phase of New Zealand history I have always been enormously impressed with the dynamically adaptive capacity of Polynesian and, later, Maori culture. In my view this characteristic is a continuing one. I see the extraordinary flowering of Maori art in our own generation as a reflection of the same age-old processes. I am unimpressed with the use of the term “traditional” when applied to any art. Maori art to me only has definition in the measure to which it reflects and continues in new and evolving forms the cultural tradition from which it draws its identity. The Neich analysis does not attempt to deal with the contemporary flowering and neither does he consider the wonderful restoration of these great national taonga – the wharenui which are planted throughout our landscape. That is not the task he has set himself. He has recorded the painted houses, he has studied with great care the paintings themselves and he has set out to provide us with an analytic frame within which they can be properly considered. They can now be accorded the status in this country’s artistic tradition which they have thus far failed to achieve. In doing so he has effectively put paid to the doom and gloom of the “decadence and degeneracy” theorists whose influence has been all too pervasive.

Neich identifies three important streams in the evolution of figurative painting. The first evolved from the traditional tuhi kowhaiwhai, the second is the emulation of carved figures and motifs in paint, and the third has recourse to borrowings from naturalistic European art forms. He shows how all of these, together in many cases with full sculptured carvings, are to be found in the artistic composition of individual houses. He emphasises the inter-related use of these three forms in the composition of house design.

In doing so he gives us a useful analysis of the wharenui or Maori meeting house itself. He describes the enormous expansion of large tribal houses and the dynamic evolution of the wharenui concept in a period of significant change charged with all the intensity of political and religious realignment that was taking place. The dramatic expansion of major Maori buildings and the associated opportunity for artistic evolution that have been taking place in the latter part of this century, bear plain witness for the period that he is primarily concerned with. We are ourselves surrounded by a similar phenomenon.

His view of the role of the wharenui as a “pre-eminent symbolic vehicle for the expression of the people’s view of themselves and their place in their new world” is quite stimulating when compared with the role that the meeting house plays in contemporary Maori culture. The evolution of the “vehicle” which he so carefully narrates is intimately related to the evolution of the painted arts which he describes. It is a clear analysis and one which has not thus far been attempted in comparable depth. Above all, he offers us an intelligent approach to the way the “tradition” is continually transformed rather than being simply and crudely replaced.

Perhaps the great importance of such a lavishly detailed and carefully referenced work is that it will provide other scholars and lesser commentators with a primary reference document against which to test their own accounts. I doubt, following the publication of Neich’s work, that the casual categorisation of “Maori folk art” will ever be quite the same again. Neich is not merely defensive of his area of interest. He does not proclaim in an aggressive way the virtue or worth of the art which he has studied. He simply describes, analyses, carefully references and illustrates his subjects. The quality of high scholarship is defence itself. He does not need to assert. The value of the artistic tradition itself self-evidently proclaims its own worth.

It is instructive as a guide to the status of the work of Roger Neich that there is a foreword by one of the most important figures in modern Maori art, Cliff Whiting. Whiting does not lend his name readily to the work of others. That he has done so with Neich is an indication of the standing and the authority of the author. Painted Histories is a profound analysis of a neglected and sidelined area of the Maori cultural tradition. It describes a substantial body of art that should be regarded as taonga no less than the fully carved and detailed work which has tended to feature in our museums and galleries. In its revelation of these taonga the book is a taonga in itself.


Sir Tipene O’Regan is Ngai Tahu.


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Posted in Art, History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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