Māori Art: History, architecture, landscape and theory by Rangīhiroa Panoho (Bateman, 2015), 352 pp., $89.99
Māori Art: History, architecture, landscape and theory is, as the book’s convoluted subtitle might suggest, a somewhat lumpy assemblage: an idiosyncratic if entertaining gathering of themes and examples lashed together raft-like in support of its aim, which is to construct a Māori-centric art history. A book long in the gestation – it was originally commissioned in 1993 – and then, it seems, almost as long in finding a sympathetic publisher, it has an undeniably epic quality, a grandeur of conception, supported by high production values. It’s a solid, substantial volume.
Misleadingly promoted as a guide to Māori art in the twenty-first century, it is in fact far more bitingly polemical than that bland encomium implies, for it asserts that Māori art should be based on traditional allegories and the narrative of an ever-reinvented perpeptual present – the cosmological constant that is Māoritanga forever and forever. Consequently, certain Māori artists are singled out and extolled for their adherence to historical tradition, for remaking or recycling art that represents a consistent Māori world view; while other artists are castigated for displaying insufficient Māoriness, for failing for example to clearly acknowledge iwi protocols or establish an honest connection with heritage.
It’s a book of episodes built around a set of metaphors based on Māori identity: encircled by awa (rivers), bounded by maunga (mountains), traversed by waka (vessels) carrying iwi (the tribe). Panoho worries away at these identity markers as if they are worry beads, or a credo for which his text is sacerdotal proof, just as his images offer ocular proof of the authentic. The book in fact is greatly enriched by the high standard of the generously large images, which are mostly black and white photographs by Mark Adams and colour photographs by Haruhiko Sameshima, who were Panoho’s travelling companions during the early stages of field trips: the investigations and explorations of the predominantly North Island locales, visiting marae. The illustrations are bolstered by maps, historical archive photographs and some of the author’s paintings, one of which provides the cover image.
Panoho’s expostion is undeniably passionate, while often also dense, like regenerated bush you might get lost in if your attention flagged. The book’s ten chapters consist of accumulations of personal anecdotes, assorted reminiscences and diary-like entries, along with artist critiques, art historical comparisons and anthropological evidence. It’s a book which probes at bicultural juxtapositions and cross-cultural meeting points, the nagging edges where cultural clashes occur, before returning to the high ground of charismatic objects, customary art practice and principled artists.
In fact, it’s a deliberately contentious book with Panoho as tamaiti wāwāhi taha: a breaker of calabashes, a deliberate challenger of norms, an enfant terrible, the art historian as iconoclast. Rejecting orthodoxies, the author points out the ‘enormous variability within Māori communities regarding choices for expressing themselves and beautifying their spaces’, while we should also reject simplistic readings of colonialism as simply being about the oppressiveness of British imperialism and of the Christian Church. Instead, Panoho affirms the dynamism and richness of colonial-era Māori art. For example, the millennial Ringatū Movement-inspired art on marae at that time existed as ‘a flow, more open and porous to global influence, and bristling with participatory responses to technologies, architectural fashion, design, innovation and Western art histories’. Furthermore, stating that ‘salvage paradigms can suffer from over-protectionism’, he goes on to consider the contemporary dominance of centralising bureaucratic bodies – such as Toi Māori Aotearoa and Te Waka Toi – in ‘authenticating’ contemporary Māori art. Added to this, he is wary of the cultural neo-colonialism whereby international exhibitions of Māori art are ‘assimilated [into] a cosmopolitan rhetoric’. He refines his excoriation of this global repositioning of Māori art by pointing to the cynicism and opportunism of the free market, which he sees as allied to those urban communities of interest whose self-referential and supposedly sophisticated evaluations of good taste set the agenda for evaluation of Māori art as commodity reduced to an empty spectacle.
This is a sweeping attack and less convincing than his promotion of a pragmatic alternative: an art growing out of specific tribal and community-based needs and centred on tangata whenua, on ‘unbroken ancestral legacy’ and whakapapa.
The book begins lyrically enough with a poetic celebration of the granular particularity of the author’s home turf, which is that of the central Tai Tokerau iwi in Northland, but it then rapidly becomes a saga of contestations, of exemplary topographies traumatised and transformed and lamented over by the author’s rhetorical flourishes. These verbal flourishes resemble those of an orator, one who stabs a finger at a map to indicate marginalised ‘wastelands’, or uses a laser pointer to trace long-buried landscape contours, or whose kōrero (speech) retails, for example, the brazen theft of a tribal ancestral figure carving by the duplicitous Andreas Reishek in 1879, a sculptural item that ended up in a museum in Vienna.
One of Rangīhiroa Panoho’s central conceits or narrational motifs is that of a palimpsest: a sense of histories of place as layered one on top of the other, with the Māori cultural concept of ‘Te Hana’ or ‘the Radiance’ deployed to suggest how each buried layer has grown organically out of the layer immediately beneath it. So beneath it all is the luminosity or immanence of Te Hana, a glow-worm or spectral glimmer suffusing the whole and unifying it. This is a syncretic view of Māori art, one acknowledging or asserting a spiritual, even mystical, connectedness to the ‘overlapping layers of tribal geography and ancestral legacy’.
Panoho’s large tome is at heart a quest, a journey through Māori art in search of its essence, if not its essentialism, binding post-modernism, modernism and the traditional as a serviceable doctrinal catechism might. Only Panoho mostly rejects these labels, asserting instead a continuum whereby Māori artists show and have always shown an energetic resourcefulness in incorporating ‘the new’, with all its attendant aesthetic imperatives, following on from first contact with Pākehā and after.
It’s a tricky and even phantasmal argument to sustain and, threading his thematic way through the museological labyrinth of Māori artefacts which might have Michael Parekowhai’s black bull of a Minotaur at its centre, breeding hybridity, Panoho resembles a Quixotic provocateur who baulks at his own argument’s implications and retreats from the panoptic mythical to the regionally specific. In the end, his book as an art history resembles a collection of disparate essays on selected artists placed in a context, linked by recurring motifs.
The book then is a form of curation carefully weighted, extolling, for example, public sculpture such as as Fred Graham’s ‘Kaitiaki’ (2004) in the Auckland Domain. This metallic black hawk-shaped ‘guardian’ serves as a place-marking emblem to ‘resurrect an historical landscape’.
By contrast, he is scathing about Lisa Reihana’s ‘Digital Marae’ work of 2001, a series of digitally manipulated photographs of a cast of ‘characters’, stating: ‘I find the same uneasiness with accepting known celebrities or stakeholders in the guise of Arthurian or classical legend in [early Victorian photographer] Margaret Cameron’s work as I do envisaging [Reihana’s] local Māori identities in hip gear as demi-gods.’ One feels somehow that Panoho lost this curiously reductive argument some time ago, rather as an unwary critic might lose his way in the uncanny valley where artists make discombobulating artworks that the multicultural multitudes welcome.
Likewise, ‘the black ops’ of Shane Cotton and ‘the intellectual puns’ of Michael Parekowhai pander to the aforementioned urbane community of taste that Panoho rejects as a cultural arbiter.
The case for Ralph Hotere as a Māori essentialist artist requires all of Panoho’s Jesuitical-like ingenuity. Hotere, this writer argues, plausibly, was ‘an artist who sustained a lifelong practice involving a portable and transportable language of indigenous motifs, values and ideas’. Furthermore, he is the epitome of the Māori artist as voyager and wanderer. Hotere ‘is a master at abstractly suggesting his iwitanga (tribalism) while never overly reflecting on its presence’. Having reclaimed Hotere for his pantheon, Panoho finds further niches for the chosen few who include Shona Rapira Davies and Taika Waititi, and then with the gravity of a tohunga intones: ‘In Māori thinking Hawaiki is a complete identification with the journey itself, not precisely where that journey begins.’ This then is a journey into the mystical.
Far more effective as polemic is his account of a road trip or series of road trips in the early 1990s around the North Island to search out contemporary art in Māori meeting houses: art that has the power of a visual epiphany. As Panoho tells us: ‘It is only by being in these landscapes that the power of their narratives actually is emitted.’ Here, there is a sustained elegiac tone recalling the verdant rainforested topography of the past with its spirits and gods, the absence captured in Mark Adam’s sombre photographs: barren-looking hills, depopulated riverbanks and the glassy calm of the water; while at the end of the road await the resplendent visions of marae interiors, caught in the colour flare of Haruhiko Sameshima’s photographs.
In particular, Panoho’s account zeroes in on the murals of Cliff Whiting and Paratene Matchitt, created by them at the beginning of the Māori Renaissance in 1973 and 1974 at Kauaetangohia Marae at Cape Runaway, seeing in them not just the legacies of the Clarence Beeby–Gordon Tovey era but also that of the Apirana Ngata–Pineāmine Taiapa school of carving and beyond that the radiance – the pulse, the energy, the flow – of Rikirangi Te Kooti’s Ringatū Movement, welling up from Te Puna, the pure spring, the fountainhead, of Māori vitalism.
DAVID EGGLETON is the editor of Landfall Review Online.