The blinds drawn, Hamish Keith

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

One April morning in 1920 the Maori King Te Rata, his kaumatua, a greeting party and 1000 or so Waikato, gathered on the platform at Ngaruawahia railway station in the hope of a royal visit. Fat chance. The royal train, carrying Edward Prince of Wales to an Arawa song and dance party at Rotorua, hurtled past with the blinds drawn. It is not recorded whether or not the royal personage was a party to this mana bashing, but it was repeated by his relatives in 1927 and 1935.

The bicultural experience of most non-Maori New Zealanders and more than a few Maori is not unlike that of the travellers on that train: the drawn blinds concealing reality, the cultural destination one officially sanctioned according to a political agenda. In the real story, Arawa were “good” Maori and thus could be rewarded with cultural visibility, while Tainui were not “good” and therefore out of the cultural equation.

Arawa and Tainui alike were victims of this cruel process, the symbols of their culture coerced to serve the political ends of a government, who had no use for it other than as an instrument of its own fragile legitimacy.

Then, as now, an officially defined native culture was a very useful thing, but it would not serve its political purpose if it were alive and kicking, a challenge to the present and open to the future. It would only do the job if it defined the people to whom it belonged as locked in some heroic, frozen past.

The implications of this are not just a matter for academic or historical speculation. The process is one which operates as rigorously on the contemporary culture as it did in the first decades of this century. It may be more subtle, but it is just as pernicious.

Roger Neich’s Painted Histories surveys and reveals a powerful fragment of Maori art, marginalised from some perceived “mainstream”, concealed, ignored or misinterpreted for more than a century. Given the kind of cultural debate we should be having, it could hardly be a more timely book.

This is a thorough, but not, discursive work. Neich has applied his considerable scholarship to the relatively narrow limits set by the subject; the Maori figurative painting which flourished for some 40 or 50 years from the 1870s. He puts this work into an historic context, that of the older traditions of kowhaiwhai and mentions, although barely, its evolution into the twentieth century. Beyond that he sticks closely to his knitting.

Painted Histories raises so many of the issues central to our contemporary cultures that it seems its subject has insisted on a larger context. This is not to suggest that in some mysterious way Neich has allowed his subject to lead him by the nose into a greater and more critical debate. He canvasses in his introduction, although cautiously, most of the issues involved.

For example, that vexed question of interpretation.

The reality of our ordinary reading of any particular work of art will usually be a variable mixture of what we know about its author’s intentions and what we construct from our own experience of the work. That amiable and common sense convenience, however, is not safely available to those who would further interpret the work to a larger audience; they are obliged to declare their position.

There are those who believe that since the original intention of the artist or patron is for a legion of reasons beyond our reach, it is tip to the current auditor or audience to construct their own valid reading. At the other extreme, is the view that the purpose and meaning of the work is inevitably locked into the original intention and until we can unlock that, we have no hope of anything other than a purely aesthetic response to it.

Personally I subscribe to the latter view, although less fiercely now than I once did. It has always seemed to me, that to discard the artist’s intention was to reduce the work to some meaningless sensation and that to replace that intention with one of our own was to co-opt it to some purpose it never had; exactly the intention of those who, for political purposes, declare some manifestations of a colonised culture valid and others beyond the pale.

The dilemma is sharpened when it is applied to this early Maori figurative painting. Until Painted Histories it has only been connotations of naiveté and cuteness that description applies. Unintentionally or not, the notion that this particular art was crude or untutored places the eight-to-five meeting house it decorated into the bottom end of some imagined artistic hierarchy.

Neich soundly rejects this view and although he points out that first-hand accounts of the intention of these early artists do not exist, despite their relative closeness in time, knowledge of the underlying cosmology and of the changing social conditions of Maori in the nineteenth century is available.

Those social and ideological changes almost certainly led directly to the art of the nineteenth and early twentieth century meeting houses Painted Histories surveys. One of the most important of these changes is neatly summarised by Cliff Whiting in his foreword.

The traditional paint colours of red, back and white have a powerful significance in the Maori cosmology, red, for example being the spilt blood of Papatuanuku and Ranginui, so their use was conditioned by ritual and sacred knowledge. As is carving, since the chips cut away from the form carry in them the power of the negative matrix to the image. Neither the new paint colours brought by the Europeans, nor painting itself, carried the same burden of tapu. This relative freedom from sacred proscription offered a kind of licence to innovate and experiment.

Even within the bounds of the proscribed and sacred, innovation and experimentation is apparent. The ascendency of the wharenui over the waka throughout the nineteenth century seems example enough of the impact of substantial social and technological change on the ideology of the culture.

In fact the reality of Maori art in the past two centuries is not that of a beleaguered, threatened and thus stultified “tradition”, but rather a radical art of evolution and change.

In the face of this, Sir Apirana Ngata’s exhortation to hold fast to the culture can be read in a more sinister light than it generally is. Hold fast to what culture? Certainly not that of these painted histories or the millennial movements to which most of them belong. Not, either, a culture of new visions and a renovated cosmology, but one more often clinging grimly to the prescribed forms of the past, endlessly repeated and endlessly debased.

The forms which comprise this “official” canon are not always truly representative of the past. It is instructive to look, as Neich does in Painted Histories, at the traditions of kowhaiwhai itself in that light. It is not a tradition only of rigidly applied, geometric repeating patterns, but also of freely applied design without symmetry. Real eye-to-hand stuff, like the heke in the house Te Hau-Ki-Turanga in the Museum of New Zealand or on the various canoe paddles collected by Cook and others in the eighteenth century.

Yet one historic phase of kowhaiwhai, where repeating abstract patterns seem to have prevailed, is presented to us now, reinforced with the tyranny of pattern books and weaving patterns, as the tradition. The same is true of one carving style – often debased by a century and a half’s demands of the tourist market – which is offered as the canon. Both forms, in carving and kowhaiwhai, are seemingly frozen in a moment of historic time and closed to the future.

Neich separates the early figurative painting from the kowhaiwhai traditions for the purposes of his study, but makes it clear that any fracture between them is more apparent than real – the product of an ignorance more than any cultural truth. It seems in fact that the “new” figurative painting reinforced and reinvigorated the existing tradition and carried it alive into the twentieth century.

As a Pakeha observer of it, it seems to me that one of the great inhibitions of contemporary Maori art and artists is this burden of a declared tradition. For the painters particularly, the problem created by this, and by the fact that the real tradition in which they work has been so far concealed from most curators and critics, has been immense.

If, for example, like Ralph Hotere and Selwyn Muru, they employ words in their painting, they are immediately defined as influenced by Colin McCahon. Of course, to some extent they are, but not in the use of words; something which has been a component of Maori radical and millenial art since early in the last century and which continues into this, in the painted banners of the Ratana Church. And a painter like Shane Cotton is not some post-modern textural sport, but an artist richly and firmly exploiting a cultural tradition to which he belongs and which in turn recognises him.

Just as critics in their ignorance have labelled early Maori figurative painting as “folk art” and therefore sidelined it, so, too, they have mistaken the substance of contemporary Maori painting for something it was not and pushed it downwards in some general contemporary hierarchy. But as Suzanne Langer has pointed out about art forms in general, we can really begin to understand how they are the same only by first understanding how they are different.

In our own bicultural experience, we can only understand the overlaps – and there are many – by having a firm grip on the nature and intentions of the two separate traditions and their evolution into the present. A shared experience is simply not possible if, on the one hand, Maori art is defined as some rigid, historic canon untouched by the present and, on the other, Pakeha art is seen as nothing singular in itself but only the product of some amorphous internationalism.

There is no getting away from that bogeyman of intention. So long as contemporary Maori art was defined by critics and curators as having non-Maori intentions it could hardly help being defined as inept. It is only a decade since one curator explained the absence of Maori artists from a general theme exhibition on the grounds that they “did not rate”. In the same way shoddy and repetitive carving is nurtured as “traditional” while anything innovative – even if it innovates by returning to older and popularly forgotten traditions – is spurned as a dangerous challenge to the mana of the ancestors.

It is little wonder that there is among some Maori something of a siege mentality that sees cultural overlaps in one direction as wicked appropriations and as a strengthening influence in the other. There is ample reason, for example, to debate usefully how Gordon Walters employed the kowhaiwhai traditions in his painting, but none of real value in arguing about whether he was or was not entitled to use it. It existed in his world, before his eye, it was an experience there to be shared, just as the early Maori figurative painters used all the useful and stimulating experiences that came their way.

In both cultures, those who draw lines and boundaries which prescribe and condition how art will be made, deny reality. Instead of nurturing our cultures and opening them to a shared future, they jam them in the killing bottle.

There is no shared experience to be had on that royal train.


Hamish Keith is an Auckland writer and cultural odd-job man.


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