Rangihīroa’s response to Adam Gifford’s New Zealand Herald article on ‘MĀORI ART’


‘Maori Art – An ever-changing river – New Zealand Herald

Saturday 4 July 2015

Newly arrived settlers travelling from Tāmaki to Port Albert in the early 1860s were at times in danger of getting lost in the voluminous mangroves and mud of vast Kaipara. I might feel inclined to offer Gifford the obligatory canoe pole to help haul him out but I find his words neither generous nor fair. A map was offered at the beginning of the book to help those readers struggling with direction. The chapter outline in MĀORI ART very clearly indicates how the book will unfold. A senior editor acknowledged that structure as working. Gifford has chosen to chart his own course so, I will go with his points largely in the (dis)order he, or perhaps the ‘community of taste’ behind him, makes. The muddled response, perhaps the various voices pulling at his ear, may account for the mixed bag of thoughts offered up. For those left even more confused I say, bypass the review, buy the book. If you still are confused and looking for more explanation read on. The following is an attempt to make sense of what was dished up last weekend. The plethora of unfounded and dismissive statements beg response.

(‘Having garnered academic credentials, he feels obliged to deliver the definitive text, the big book.’)

Firstly with regard to the idea that my degrees give me some presumptuous right to create a definitive Toi Tāhuhu ‘Māori art history’. What would Gifford and others in the community of taste prefer? A Māori less qualified with less or no degrees or no PhD? Someone sitting in a position in a gallery, a university or museum who better serves an institutional agenda? As Māori the best thing we can offer the world is to tell the story as we see it. I have never presumed to write a definitive text that kills other people’s stories. Big authoritative books, is apparently what other colleagues are interested in at the moment. That I feel this way can already be read in my own 2013 critique on the first book called MĀORI ART by Augustus Hamilton in 1898. As to this book, yes it has grown large but it also demonstrates a genuine heartfelt commitment to Māori art and it’s diverse communities. It will be others (not simply locals) who over a much longer timeframe, will assess the importance of MĀORI ART in the wider scheme of things. I, along with many others, gave everything we had to get this out. That energy deserves to be properly and respectfully recognised.

As for shying away from making the big calls in relation to Maori art and avoiding a discussion of Māori modernism – who are Gifford and his mates kidding? There are some institutions that get way too much self congratulatory praise, and even mention, in a book review here about ‘Māori Art’ not trotting out out their own average record with curating and funding costly projects on the topic. Lets put modernism and its various offshoots (i.e post-modernism…) in their place. MĀORI ART introduces a new expansive vision of 5-6,000 years of history. Māori are simply the end of that long trail beginning in Southern China and many earlier Hawaiki throughout insular Asia even prior to the West and East Polynesian homelands. Contemporary Māori (modern/post-modern…) is a post world war II phenomenon that is an even smaller dot on the horizon. This “is” making the big call and I never shie away from either this huge panorama, or the intensely microcosmic tribal view, or from acknowledging some of our great European, American and global treasures. Where is the book on Maori Art by a Maori, within the discipline of art history, that dares to cover that territory? If someone else wants to bring that book out it’a little too late – it’s already out. Buy the book. Read about it.

And what’s with the idea of knocking someone who has spent their entire working life committed to Māori art history? Isn’t it a good thing that someone has chosen to dedicate themselves to write and share their life work in their specialist area? My understanding of the Māori world is that we love to celebrate the achievements of our own. I am not seeking to place myself above judgement, and regardless of whether or not people are agreeable with what I say, what has been achieved should be properly acknowledged otherwise commentary tends to be read as unflatteringly bitter. Noone can require that others acknowledge achievement but if a reviewer is reluctant to do so, as is abundantly clear in this review, he can hardly take issue with factual statements about primacy that demonstrate achievement. More typically I have found others, particularly Māori in the media, enormously generous in both the response and the pride they take in the achievements of their own. How many Māori do we get coming through with PhDs in Art History prior to 2003 or being offered an international contract to publish in Toi Tāhuhu prior to 1994? I may feel a little uncomfortable with TVNZ and Radio referencing me as an ‘expert’ in relation to my PhD and my past career but that is someone else’s thing, not mine. Indeed in my own trailer for the book, and within the book itself, I make it clear that so called ‘experts’ can sometimes prove problematic in the history of Māori art (again the reviewer or whomever made the comment regarding Sir Āpirana Ngata totally missed the point of the chapter).

Perhaps one of the saddest things, as the object of a review, is gaining an impression the reviewer is having a discussion about something else (personality, other people, other people’s opinions, other histories, other ideas…) and NOT the book itself. I can only attribute such dislocation to one of two issues. Either Gifford has trouble reading the book because: he doesn’t want to accept another take on Toi Tāhuhu or perhaps more likely he simply hasn’t taken the time to more carefully consider, reflect on and try to understand the work. Perhaps the reviewer may have done well to listen to my tuākana at the launch at Te Uru when he warned, ‘… this is not the kind of book that you can just [frivolously] dip into …’. It is a meditative philosophical work requiring reciprocal respect, focus and determination on the part of the reader. Not engaging with content leads to the kind of disconnected shallow commentary, and the resulting confused readership, under discussion here.

Take for example the decontextualising of key content crudely reduced to throwaway lines. ‘He describes his alternative as a palimpsest, after the scraping off and writing over old manuscripts.’ Presumably this explanation is supposed to help a reader understand how I was creating Toi Tāhuhu, a new Māori Art history. The line offers no hope that this reviewer possesses any real understanding of what palimpsest means in my book, its emphasis on translucency versus opacity, the use of Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s aesthetic, the avoidance of replacement and the importance of everpresent accumulative layers and the key concept of te hana ‘radiance’. Of course he can’t possibly go into this kind of detail but he does bring up material later in the review which could have very quickly deepened the idea. The discussion of Fred Graham and Shona Rapira-Davies’ sculptural installation was a lost opportunity to clarify palimpsest. Did he simply chose to ignore the idea because he simply didn’t care enough to read any further about why I chose to describe those two important public works?

My critical commentary on the opinions of others, specifically in relation to Māori art criticism, is also removed from its context and rather obviously used to try to create controversy. The idea that I am, ‘…picking a fight’ with various writers such as Ranginui Walker, Robert Leonard and Greg Burke is simply not factual. The wording is inciteful and silly, While he is annoyed by Walker’s conservatism, he is seriously angered.’ Says who? Now the reviewer reads my mind. I don’t know if Māori art history is something one can get that seriously angry over. Celebrated American modernist critic Clement Greeenberg, who visited New Zealand in 1968, certainly didn’t think that art history was something worth getting worked up over. More to the point, people get angry over lots of other things: power, loss of control, ego, reputation, threatened investment in objects and artists and so on.

Since he is trying to pursue the controversial line lets look at that idea. In relation to both Walker and Walker’s text on Harrison’s work he will have problems connecting the dots. I consider Harrison a whānuanga, I told whānau about my writing and in case there is any doubt I am a big admirer of Harrison’s toi whakairo (particularly that inside Tanenui-a-Rangi and Rākaiora at Harataunga). I also have a lot of time for Walker’s voice and am thrilled he covered the colourful life of this very important carver, mentor and teacher in his biography. On the odd occasion that Ranginui has expressed an opinion in my specialist area I have not shied away from voicing concern if I felt it was important. Such expression is here both warranted and necessary. ‘Te Waiherehere’ the chapter (the short chapter under discussion here) where all three people (Ranginui, Burke and Leonard) are mentioned is entirely devoted to what others say about Māori art. Presumably New Zealanders and the world are interested not only in monologues, from institutions and from key stakeholders, but also critical engagements with these narratives as well. The purpose of weighing up these veiwpoints is to look at the different ways in which people perceive and value particular expressions of Māori art over different periods of time. Comparing and contrasting ideas and philosophical positions is a pretty normal practice in the discipline. If you look at each of these people examined and others mentioned they have put themselves and their strong opinions out into the public arena. Why shouldn’t they expect critical response? Is it preferable that those the community of taste patronises, employs or supports not be questioned, challenged or queried? It is a real shock to me that a lot of this kōrero seems to have gone unnoticed and in some cases, where it begs to be tested, unchallenged.

(‘That’s where the book gets unwieldy. If it had come out in the 1990s it might have contributed to the effort to write the Maori modernists into the canon of New Zealand modernism, a job that has now been taken up by the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki.’)

This is where the review gets unwieldy and hopelessly irrelevant. Nobody, and certainly not a Māori, could have brought a book out like this one, in relation to the discipline of art history, in the early 1990s let alone 2015. I only finished my Masters thesis in 1988. I was 24 years of age. What did I know about Māori Art, life, and how things are approved or advanced in the New Zealand artworld? The offer by a major publishing house for a Māori to write a book on contemporary Maori art for the local and international market came in 1993 from Sydney, not New Zealand. It was Craftsman House under Gordon and Breach International Publishing Group who first offered me a contract that was totally unique at the time. Books like this don’t just appear in a couple of years.

As for the issue of writing Māori into some imagined New Zealand canon of modernism. What an absolute waste of time and public money in the service of a hopelessly outdated objective that seriously deserves to sucumb to local government scrutiny and wider social and political change. Again anyone reading my book would know I don’t have much faith in a pantheon of artists endorsed by the community of taste. You received poor advice in picking the wrong person to try out this idea of ommission. The words of American Thomas McEvilley, from ‘Art and Otherness’ (enjoyed in both MĀORI ART and in my PhD) are both pertinent and timely in relation to the vested interest oozing from this attack:

All value judgements [i.e. regarding beauty and taste in art], being historically conditioned, are partly motivated ideologically and these are susceptible to social change, but it is to the advantage of the controlling group to posit its own criteria as eternal and universal.’ Exposing this discrepancy the writer then goes on to inclusively suggest, ‘… we have to criticise our own tastes and to see that certain elements in them are local and temporary and have hidden motivations that are not necessarily honorable …

If the reviewer had more carefully read the work he would have demonstrated an appreciation that MĀORI ART, for its own unique reasons, involves a very different sense of taste and quite different criteria in its selection of material, imagery and ideas. It is not only a different kind of project. It is a lifetimes work. Here a later comment is more useful to this particular discussion:

(‘Panoho’s views may have been better served by a more regular publishing schedule – collections of essays, perhaps poetic explorations of history and landscape illuminated by Mark Adams’ photographs, monographs on Matchitt or Hotere, and exhibition catalogues for the shows Panoho needs to curate to bring what he loves to the attention of an audience.’)

The country that I have been working in for nearly the last three decades would never have publically funded one individual let alone the team of individuals required to undertake all of the projects patronisingly suggested here. MĀORI ART was generously supported, to an extent, by Creative New Zealand, Te Puni Kōkiri and the Asia New Zealand Foundation. However, not even a larger institution may have been able to practice this glibly offered advice. I doubt any institution would have had the focus, determination and experience (shared amongst myself, Adams and Sameshima) to sustain this type of unique collaborative project over such a time period. The words ‘better served’ then ring hollow. Better served by whom or what? This project was largely altruistic. Primarily it was my family, the photographers and their homes that bore the costs of this beautiful high end book. It is a 23 year long project that would quite easily have sunk many a writer and would have hopelessly frustrated any institution. As for the helpful suggestion of curating and monographs. Why? Doesn’t New Zealand have enough monographs on artists and surveys…? Why keep working within formulas and with structures that are not helpful to the flow of the art or to embracing its broad diversity.

In relation to the idea that I should have gone off and curated some of the material in Māori Art. Oh yes, try a different profession. I thought I had already given enough to Māori and Pacific art in this area in the Australasian gallery museum circuit (see current blog Maori Curator I,II…which describe this legacy in detail) Nothing much can be achieved in this country (not all countries) if key stakeholders don’t support it and galleries won’t collaborate. This is why I would appeal to the reader to buy the book MĀORI ART and make up your own minds as to whether there is value in supporting its flow. Paraphrasing the great Ephesian philosopher Heraclitus I say, ‘…dip your feet in the river and neither you nor the river will be the same again.’