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how we remember ‘colonial legacy’ : the Marmaduke George Nixon obelisk, Great South Road, Ōtāhuhu

Nixon obelisk, Great South Rd, Tāmaki Makaurau. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

‘Photographer Bruce Connew: NZ’s colonial memorials’. Excerpt from Kim Hill Interview with Connew, Saturday Morning, 11.40 am on 19 December 2020

…K.H              Let’s just talk about one of the pictures we have up on our web page. It is part of a gravestone to Marmaduke George Nixon who commanded colonial defence force cavalry. Interesting reference to Nixon in an essay within your book by the historian/curator Dr Rangihīroa Panoho, who says that New Zealand should not try to sanitize this unflattering history. Don’t remove that Ōtāhuhu memorial to Colonel Nixon, for example, how else will we learn? Do you share that view, presumably?

B.C      Yes, I do share that view but it was interesting when I came up with the idea for this project I wanted someone to write an essay. The very first person I thought about was Rangihīroa and contacted him and he agreed. But what I wanted to do, maybe this is the Pākehā boy from Panmure, I wanted to photograph separately [my emphasis]. I didn’t want him to see what I was photographing. I didn’t want him to discuss what I was photographing…

K.H      So his essay is not a commentary on your photos

B.C      Absolutely. So [that was] what I wanted, although at times he has found it a little bit awkward. He has written beautifully. It will make you cry. But…I didn’t want to see it until it was bound in the book. Two things there. One, I didn’t want it to influence me in the way I responded to what I found because I was on a mission to find what was out there and what it might mean. I wanted him to write without me trying to influence him. It had to be completely his. I was determined and I didn’t read it until the book was bound and I was completely blown away. [I] could see that we crossed over in places – Māori/Pākehā – quite different cultures but we brought similar ideas together.

K.H      And it’s a really timely book because we seem to have reached some peak colonisation talk in this last year. People, and this is around the world not only in New Zealand, have this prescient view. To you it feels like this was the continuation of your career.

B.C      It’s the way it worked out. It was the next thing. There was discussion as the [Civil War] monuments started to come down in the US…whether the monuments here should be pulled down or turned away and that is what Rangi is referring to in his text. There are two things out at Ōtāhuhu. There is the 8 metre tall monument. He was a very popular army man at the time. New Zealand loved him. But he was also part of the militia which went out and killed people. There is also a gravestone in front of that monument and that is where that photograph is from – Grafton Gully. He is one of the few who was disinterred and the remains put out at Ōtāhuhu. He was involved in a pretty bad moment in the war.     

This small blog is a belated response to a portion of the above RNZ interview which I just played back. The reference point to the conversation is the section of my essay below and of course to the contentious and ongoing debate as to whether George Marmaduke Nixon’s Monument should be removed from its current Ōtāhuhu location (despite the Auckland Council’s response in 2017). I refer to Nixon directly in my essay and this is picked up on in Kim Hill’s commentary. However, my reasons for wanting these kinds of monuments to stay in position isn’t just the point I make about reminding future New Zealanders about our dodgy colonial past. In the very first paragraph of the 2nd section of the essay I lay out my understanding of whakapapa and the way that history is layered. Yes, I am quoting Orwell but it is really just because he describes it so well. History is a palimpsest. I believe, and I tested this theory to a large degree in my book MAORI ART, that the best kind of palimpsest is the one that shows all its layers – the accretion of the good, the bad and the ugly. That is our mixed up past and to try and hide it away in a museum or a library or in our pronouncements about people’s behaviour is a very poor legacy we leave unresolved for future generations. Kim Hill noted that an Ōtāhuhu resident, who saw herself as educated, felt the monument should be removed. Her reasoning was that we wouldn’t want a statue of Hitler in our midst. Everyone should be allowed to express their opinion but I do wonder whether the Auckland resident considered Germany’s Erinnerungskultur and the Nazi predicament that continues to haunt leaders and common people alike even to this day. See, for example, one commentator’s view of Chancellor Angela Merkles legacy as a leader.

All German post-war chancellors have been committed to a “culture of remembrance” (Erinnerungskultur) that remembers the Holocaust and its victims and accepts the responsibility to transmit knowledge of the crimes to younger generations. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s constant and consistent commitment to furthering a culture of remembrance has stood out.

Grappling with such a serious legacy is still there. Burying a monument, judged by a particular generation to be politically incorrect, in museum storage or perhaps on display or, worse, erasing the public memory of the momument (or possibly destroying it) does not help the public view, interpret or understand why it was once valorised by earlier generations of the same public. Seeing and engaging, rather than imagining, the physical remains of our ‘colonial’ legacy may very well help us better understand it.

Panoho, part of essay for Connew’s ‘A Vocabulary’

E KŌRERO ANA KEI ROTO I TE KORE ‘SPEAKING INTO THE VOID’, the 2nd section of an essay written for Bruce Connew’s ‘A Vocabulary’, Vapour Momenta Press, 2021

There must be a way then to speak into the complex layers of this past where family and tribal members are both loyalist and ‘rebels’ and where leaders serve very different tribal and Crown agendas at the same time. Perhaps an adaption of the British novelist George Orwell’s palimpsest might be useful here. In his historical allegory Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell said, 'All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and re-inscribed exactly as often as was necessary' Rather than the authoritarian erasure Orwell describes the printer’s palimpsest might prove more utilitarian. Here the past might be thought of as not so much erased but as rendered translucent. Each layer of time builds on the previous and collectively it allows a peering-through process to take place.
                                                 Panoho in Connew 2021: 31