Championing indigenous art histories, Stella Ramage

Colonial Gothic to Māori Renaissance: Essays in Memory of Jonathan Mane-Wheoki
Conal McCarthy and Mark Stocker (eds)
Victoria University Press, $80.00,
ISBN 9781776561094

The Gedenkschrift – essays by colleagues collected in posthumous commemoration of an esteemed academic – is an uncommon genre in Aotearoa New Zealand. Partly, this is due to its logistical demands: contributors must produce new work that chimes with the honouree’s research interests within a Goldilocks time-frame, when loss is fresh but not too raw. Museologist Conal McCarthy and curator Mark Stocker, with the help of a small army, have achieved this feat, launching a substantial book within three years of the death of renowned art historian, curator and public speaker, Jonathan Mane-Wheoki. 

The book is large, handsomely laid out and generously illustrated. But I wonder how bookshops have approached its display. The front cover has no text whatsoever, only a geometric pattern in shades of mauve. It turns out that this shows the visual component (there is a sound-track, too) of a multi-media “portrait” of Mane-Wheoki by artist Shannon Novak. Despite this piece of cleverness, the cover’s inscrutability seems at odds with Mane-Wheoki’s signature characteristic, his eloquence.

Besides timing, the commemorative volume may also have a problem with its intended audience: close colleagues, friends and family will naturally cherish their copy, in memoriam, but will not the wider world turn to the deceased’s own writings rather than those of his or her admirers? In this case, however, Mane-Wheoki had, by academic standards, few lengthy publications. As Anna-Marie White points out in her chapter “Decolonising Art Histories” (of which more below), Mane-Wheoki was an orator rather than a book author: his “preferred scholarly format”, she writes, “surely was the 30-minute lecture or 3000-word essay.” Disappointingly, only two such papers by Mane-Wheoki are included here. Why only two? White explains that these were “rare examples of completed work that was unpublished in his lifetime”.

Most of the multitudinous lecture notes, keynote speeches and conference papers that White has heroically compiled from the Mane-Wheoki archive are, she says, only loosely drafted, much annotated, unreferenced, and often dwindle into bullet-points. From the podium, he would simply wing it, engaging the audience in typically brilliant form. So, the notes are not publishable as they stand. But why, I wonder, did the editors insist on that other restriction, that work included in this volume must be previously unpublished? It would surely have been possible to gain permission to reprint one or two of Mane-Wheoki’s chapter contributions, journal articles or exhibition catalogue essays. White further states that the two papers published here for the first time were “also chosen to represent the diversity of style and subject characteristic of his career”. Diverse they certainly are: one traces the history of a collection of 19th-century liturgical items now held in Dunedin; the other addresses debates in contemporary Māori art after the Headlands exhibition and its notorious catalogue of 1992. Nevertheless, two topics do not do justice to the scope of Mane-Wheoki’s output. A future project, perhaps?

To be fair, the intention is to celebrate Mane-Wheoki’s far-reaching influence rather than merely showcase his own writing. A moving introduction by McCarthy surveys a career that rode the wild decades during which art history ceased to be a single Eurocentric grand narrative and became plural. Contemporary art became globalised as indigenous artists in Aotearoa, Australia, the Pacific, Africa and North America defied Western dominance. McCarthy’s extended obituary is not a hagiography: Mane-Wheoki spread himself too thin, perhaps, refusing to limit his interests, trying to juggle too many balls, but McCarthy, in uncharacteristically acerbic mode, sees this commitment as “a laudable trait, in contrast to today’s narrow and often selfish academic careerism”.

The main essay chapters of the book are structured around Mane-Wheoki’s varied research interests, with separate sections on “Victorian Art and Architectural Heritage”; “New Zealand Art and Art History”; and “Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Art”. The standard of the contributions is high, but so varied in subject matter that one wonders who, other than an editor (or a dutiful reviewer), would read them all. Then again, there is pleasure in finding oneself drawn, through good writing, into a topic which one might not otherwise have sought out. Such was the case, for me, with architectural historian Ian Lochhead’s contribution to the “Victorian Art and Architectural Heritage” section: the tale of a surprisingly peripatetic Lyttelton church, whose various reincarnations poignantly knit together past and present.

In this section, also, Stocker’s piece on Thomas Benjamin Kennington is an exercise in one of art history’s tricky issues – how to overcome what Stocker terms “presentist vision” by revealing the context of artworks that may strike modern eyes as offensive. In so doing, he rehabilitates an embarrassing Victorian-era painting banished to Te Papa’s basements, and revitalises its creator, who had the misfortune to have “lived to become unfashionable”. As Curator Historical International Art at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Stocker has a delightful authorial voice, erudite but warmly accessible.

Te Papa is also centre stage in the final entry in the “New Zealand Art and Art History” section. Here, senior curator Sarah Farrar considers Mane-Wheoki’s radical rethink of the national museum’s art strategy on becoming its Director of Art and Visual Culture in the early 2000s. The new staging, Toi Te Papa: Art of the Nation, which opened in 2004, was, Farrar writes, “the first serious attempt to tell an integrated ‘bicultural’ history of art in New Zealand from beginnings to the present day in a collection exhibition … .” But Farrar does not shy from addressing the difficulties and frictions raised by this innovation: is not the display of ancient Māori taonga alongside contemporary art in a Pākehā gallery context just another manifestation of the colonising impulse? Farrar provides fascinating insights into the political and practical challenges faced by curators of public institutions, and gives context to the subsequent iteration – Ngā Toi – of Te Papa’s approach to displaying the nation’s collection. It will be interesting to witness the results of the current total revision.

The following section is headed “Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Art”, but its separation from “New Zealand Art and Art History” seems to perpetuate the racial separatism that Mane-Wheoki deplored, especially since four of the five essays here concern Māori rather than other indigenous identities. Hence illuminating resonances are missed. For instance, in the “New Zealand” [read Pākehā] section, Lara Strongman provides an excellent essay about Tony Fomison’s and Philip Clairmont’s radical politics of “aesthetic resistance” between 1968 and 1971 in Christchurch. Over in the Māori corner, Chloe Cull cites Fomison and Clairmont as “significant influences” on young Emily Karaka’s Neo-Expressionism during the political activism of the 1970s and 1980s. A different section heading – “Art and Politics in Aotearoa” perhaps? – could have accommodated Strongman’s and Cull’s essays together, as well as Linda Tyler’s piece on the New Zealand International Exhibition and, indeed, Mane-Wheoki’s own “Issues in Contemporary Māori Art”.

Karen Stevenson’s contribution to this section, “Crossing Borders – Extending the Canon”, is the only one that considers how Mane-Wheoki’s championing of indigenous art histories has played out beyond these shores. She analyses the shift in perception over the last quarter century by focusing on three institutions – the Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, the Tjibaou Cultural Centre in New Caledonia and the Kaohsing Museum of Fine Arts in Taiwan – each of which, in different ways since their launch in the 1990s, has created ground-breaking forums for the fostering of Pacific art. She also considers in more detail the work of three contemporary Pacific artists who have thrived in these environments.

Other than McCarthy’s introduction and Farrar’s chapter, the subject matter of the essays so far mentioned has referenced Mane-Wheoki, if at all, only as an affectionate nod of influence or inspiration. This is fine in the tradition of the memorial volume, but I want now to return to what surely must be the most significant contribution to an in-depth academic study of the man himself and his place in Aotearoa’s art history: White’s essay “Decolonising Art Histories: Jonathan Mane-Wheoki and Contemporary Māori Art”, together with its corollary, her rigorous Annotated Bibliography, compiled from the Mane-Wheoki papers held at Te Papa Archives. I was awed by White’s description of the evolution of her contribution. Initially envisaging a conventional literature review describing Mane-Wheoki’s contribution to contemporary Māori art history, she quickly realised that oration as well as publication must be included. White then dived into his massive archive of lecture scripts and public addresses, and found herself wrestling with the multi-headed hydra of Mane-Wheoki’s spoken content, which refused easy categorisation of subject matter. Some of “the most revealing information about his politics and agenda,” White writes, “was discovered in scripts on other subjects delivered to unlikely (and probably unsuspecting) audiences.” Only a relatively small proportion of his output, she found, directly concerned contemporary Māori art, but he consistently deployed his “dazzling oratorical skills” to inject a Māori inflection into talks on many different topics around the world. White describes the “permeable” nature of Mane-Wheoki’s bi-cultural career: invitations to speak on issues of indigeneity and decolonisation arose from his continued participation in staider Eurocentric academic forums: “interestingly”, White adds drily, “the opportunities did not flow in the opposite direction.”

The bibliography must have been a mammoth undertaking. Drafts of talks and assorted unpublished material have been divided into sections indicating the nature of the forum (conferences and symposiums; public lectures and exhibition openings; university lectures and teaching resources; essays and articles). I’m unconvinced of the value of these artificial divisions: surely the method adopted by Mane-Wheoki himself in his cv to group work by subject matter (Architectural History, Heritage, Culture and Museums, etc.) would have made more sense. The decision, moreover, to list these unpublished documents in alphabetical order of completely arbitrary “titles”, rather than in chronological order, means that, for instance, an “AICCM” opening address in 2006 is listed ahead of an “Australia ICOMOS” address in 1992. Actual publications – mostly journal articles, book chapters and shorter pieces – are listed separately. Again, the dogged collation of this material into alphabetical order rather than year of publication is unhelpful. Given the Herculean task of its compilation, however, it seems churlish to complain. White’s work has blazed a trail, enabling “future scholars to engage with [Mane-Wheoki’s] archive”; they will certainly bless her for it.

Stella Ramage is a Wellington-based writer and reviewer.

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