Colonial orientalism, Paula Morris

Galleries of Maoriland: Artists, Collectors and the Māori World, 1880–1910 
Roger Blackley
Auckland University Press, $75.00,
ISBN 9781869409357

The cover image of Roger Blackley’s impressive new book is a famous one: a tea break in Charles Goldie’s frame-stacked studio in 1901, Pātara Te Tuhi holding cup and saucer, his trousers and dusty boots visible below the sweep of his woven cloak. Both men seem deep in thought. Goldie – starched collar, shiny boots – was just 30, recently returned from studies in Paris; he’d seen a number of Gottfried Lindauer’s Māori portraits at the 1898–99 Auckland exhibition and begun his own rise to national fame.

His business model, as Blackley makes clear, was the opposite of Lindauer’s: the Bohemian artist painted hundreds of Māori, creating a bicultural practice that included “bicultural patronage”, as well as making money by replicating “celebrity subjects … for Pākehā collectors” like Henry Partridge and Walter Buller. Blackley characterises Lindauer’s approach in his work as “the heroic portrait mode”. Goldie, by contrast, cultivated a small coterie of mainly elderly Māori and paid them a daily rate as models. The painting for which Pātara was sitting on that day in 1901 was in Lindauer’s heroic tradition, depicting him as a rangatira of mana. But another 1901 painting of Pātara depicted the old man in his Pākehā clothes, vulnerable in sleep, lower lip damp. He was no longer Patara Te Tuhi, an Old Warrior. Now he was simply the model in a painting named A Hot Day, a work sold to the Christchurch civic collection and widely reproduced. The heroic was now the sentimental; the portrait was now, in one critic’s words, the “ethnograph”. 

Goldie’s embrace of the rhetoric of fading nobility and what Blackley calls “a form of colonial orientalism” revealed a disconnect with the Māori he painted: he was working the contemporary art market while they eyed posterity. Pātara, Blackley notes, was no naïve elderly rustic, nor really an “Old Warrior”. He was a skilled carver who had exhibited work himself; he was also the first Māori editor and printer of a Māori-language newspaper. Pātara had travelled to London in 1884 with King Tawhiao’s delegation and seen portraits in museums and country houses, not to mention the life-size replicas in Madame Tussaud’s. Many Māori had visited the Lindauer Art Gallery set up by Partridge to see what Āpirana Ngata called nga tangata nunui o era ra, the great men of other days. Rather than seeing himself as a “vanishing type”, Blackley contends, Pātara

more likely conceived of the portraits accumulating in Goldie’s studio as time-travellers – a means by which he and others who worked with talented artists such as Goldie could appear before audiences of the future, audiences that might conceivably include their own descendants.

The critics and gallerists of the future would be less kind to Goldie, denigrated for his work’s “sentimental cargo as much as the hyper-realist technique”. The “meanings of the works” of Lindauer and Goldie were fluid, depending “on whether you were a tourist, a settler, or a relative of the depicted chiefs”. Certainly, attendees of the 2016 Lindauer Māori Portraits exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery would have seen families clustering around paintings of tūpuna for group photos. The “noble lines” stretch into the future in a way that the artists did not choose – or need – to foresee. 

Colonial orientalism wasn’t confined to painters: sculptor Nelson Illingworth dashed across the Tasman to create a bronze pantheon of “historic racial types” before they could be “effaced by civilised life and European intermarriage”. He struck endless problems – from reluctant and tardy models to an absence of bronze foundries in the South Pacific – until in 1908 Illingworth finally secured Pātara Te Tuhi as a model for his plaster mould, boasting that he had to go “into the wilderness” to find him. (Pātara lived in Mangere.) Pātara’s family “fearlessly criticised the sculptor’s first rough sketch in clay”, but Illingworth wasn’t interested in realism. As an article in the New Zealand Herald called “A Sculptor’s Trails: The Unappreciative Maori” explained, the “object of the sculptor is to perpetuate an ancient Maori type, and if Te Tuhi’s features have departed at any point from the ancestral pattern, the sculptor will conform them in his model to the old ideal”.

Māori versus “Maoriland”: the word evoked in Blackley’s book title refers “as much to a period as a place”. The decades around the turn of the 20th century – the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras – in New Zealand formed a “late colonial” age in which “colonial art and museology essentialised ‘traditional’ Māori culture and used it to help forge a distinctive Pākehā identity”. (Although Blackley doesn’t specifically list this example, this is the context for the embrace of the haka by Pākehā rugby players, beginning with the 1905 Originals tour of Britain.) Maoriland is “effectively a code-word for the cultural colonisation of Aotearoa”, during which Māori history and culture were appropriated “as a unique decorative signifier for an inchoate settler identity”.

But Blackley is more interested in Māori agency than Pākehā identity, in “the nuances of colonial encounter and exchange”, and he is a determined, sensitive investigator of Māori participation and perspectives. He dissects the hypocrisy of Walter Buller, a “fully bilingual scholar and collector who deployed his linguistic prowess in opposition to Māori interests”, and thought nothing of pillaging wahi tapu or distributing taonga to the highest bidders across Europe. Blackley is kinder to James Cowan, another bilingual Pākehā who “used his proficiency in the language to give voice to Māori”, always “scrupulous in acknowledging his sources, or ‘human documents’”. Partridge commissioned Cowan to assemble the biographies for his collection of Lindauer portraits. In the 1930 publication of Pictures of Old New Zealand, Cowan included translated excerpts from the Lindauer Gallery visitor’s book, making Pictures “the first monograph on a New Zealand artist to take account of the bicultural reception of that artist’s work”. 

Blackley’s exploration of “the bicultural milieu that gave rise to the ethnological art tradition” of the Maoriland era – and his insistence on the necessity of critical attention – is unsurprisingly fluent, detailed and robust. Richly illustrated, constructed as a series of “rooms” in a gallery, and elegantly argued, his book challenges and informs, and achieves something the best historians manage: to make the past feel fresh, vivid, and still very much in play.

Paula Morris is an associate professor of English at the University of Auckland.

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Posted in Art, History, Non-fiction, Review
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