Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori art edited by Nigel Borell (Penguin Random House New Zealand, 2022), 392pp, $65
‘The Māori intellectual tradition is a navigational one, forged in journeys across the Pacific that looked back to Rangiātea’, the late Moana Jackson writes in his foreword to the book Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori art. The book is based on the blockbuster exhibition of the same name presented by Auckland City Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, between December 2020 and May 2021, which took over the entire Gallery building and also spilled out into areas in the downtown Britomart precinct.
Toi Tū Toi Ora was the largest-ever survey show of modern Māori art in New Zealand. It gained this status in part because the Covid-19 pandemic had forced the cancellation of two touring overseas shows, freeing up gallery spaces, and because of the long-term patience and determination of the gallery’s then-curator of Māori art, Nigel Borell, who worked on the show for more than four years. He selected artworks to fit into a narrative based both on the Polynesian navigational tradition that Moana Jackson identifies and on Māori creation myths centred on the wharenui or communal meeting house. Establishing a story-telling environment that led from gallery space to gallery space created a memorable and immersive viewing experience.
What made the exhibition supercharged was that everything on display was part of a collective Māori identity. The show revealed an indigenous culture that is flexible, generous and wily enough to absorb other cultures and turn them to its own ends. Overall, too, there was the sense of a single curator’s vision shaping the exhibition and using a series of totalising metaphors to pull it all together. It was as if the inevitable quarrels, tensions, differences and missteps that go into the jostling and sharp-elbowed business of a major public art exhibition had been subsumed into one triumphalist orthodoxy.
The resulting book—a bulky and imposing tome—bulges with images of more than 200 artworks, including sculpture, jewellery, weaving, ceramics, prints, paintings, photographs, videos and installations, by around 110 Māori artists. Such an array might suggest something of a discontinuous assemblage of a multiplicity of individual items: an anthology of greatest hits, cranked-up for deluxe delivery via a prestigious and somewhat unwieldy coffee-table object. While the impression the exhibition gave of a guiding vision based on mātauranga Māori or Māori lore persists, the book—with its various explanatory texts—also allows a more complicated picture to emerge, one densely layered, like a palimpsest.
The book is more clearly a team effort, too. As well as the foreword by Jackson and an afterword by Elizabeth Ellis, there is a long introductory essay by Nigel Borell, and thirteen curators have contributed mini-essays or appreciations on individual artists. Each artwork has an explanatory caption. These texts are complemented by an extensive chronology that starts just after World War I and runs up to the present day, compiled by Taarati Taiaroa. It’s notable that the majority of contributing writers are female, as indeed are over half of the artists. Previous Māori art anthologies, such as Mataora, The Living Face: Contemporary Māori art (1996), edited by Sandy Adsett and Cliff Whiting, were dominated by male artists. Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori art, the publication, is designed by Tyrone Ohia, who was also responsible for designing the exhibition signage and graphics.
The result is a generally accessible taonga: a portable Māori art gallery for anyone able to afford this lavishly-produced yet reasonably priced book, which illuminates the current moment and allows you to return to contextualised artworks again and again to ponder on their imagery and symbolism. While the internet might allow you to curate your own set of images of contemporary Māori art, it is unlikely to be as coherent and organised as this publication, or as sumptuous. Its ‘contemporary’ scope offers a sweeping panorama of Māori art over the past 70 or so years, beginning with Selwyn Wilson’s modest painting ‘Study of a Head’ (1948), depicting a pensive Māori boy. This was the first contemporary Māori artwork to be purchased for a public art collection and thus achieve institutional validation. (It’s part of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki permanent collection.)
Like the exhibition, the book is not constructed chronologically but moves gradually from Ira Atua (the Divine Realm) to Ira Tangata (the Realm of Humankind). Using Māori cosmology to emphasise genealogical connections with ancestors gives Toi Tū Toi Ora an almost mystical portentousness. It is as if, in establishing a mythopoetic past, the sweep of the survey creates a kind of twenty-first-century citadel or postmodern hilltop pā, built on the abandoned ruins and remnants of nineteenth-century colonial encounters with Bible and gun: what Matthew Arnold in ‘Dover Beach’ prophetically referred to as the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of ‘The Sea of Faith’. The death of God has led to the rebirth of many gods.
And yet, as the book’s various commentaries dig deep into Toi Tāhuhu (Māori art history), certain frictions are evident. For example ‘the Māori gaze … unique to Aotearoa’ was subject, in terms of its arts and crafts production in the mid-twentieth century, to ‘a veil of orthodoxy’, where ‘certain styles and practices’ were endorsed as ‘Māori art’ and others were not. This privileging of styles, we learn, was advocated for by figureheads including Māori leader Sir Apirana Ngata and Department of Education supervisor, Gordon Tovey, while others, including Pineamine Taiapa, a carving school leader, were co-opted. Meanwhile, the heroic myth of self-taught artists such as Paratene Matchitt, Muru Walters and Cliff Whiting was informally established. The foundations of modern Māori painting are traced back to naïve figurative paintings in meeting houses established by the millennial prophet and rebel Te Kooti in the mid-nineteenth century.
Here, Ralph Hotere is separated from the international context of modernist abstraction and woven back into the Māori worldview, with a full-page reproduction of his small 1972 work on paper ‘Rangi is My Ancestor’. The painting is inscribed: ‘Rangi is my ancestor, the origin of the Māori people. Your ancestor is money.’ These are the words of Hāmiora Tumutara Pio, a nineteenth-century Māori tohunga who had converted to Catholicism and become a lay teacher, but who left the Church during the land wars, disillusioned, to resume his tribal role as tohunga or healer.
Hotere’s other work in the book, his multi-panel Zero Series (1969), also positions him as a Māori essentialist by the placement of the work within the Te Kore creation schema. In the exhibition this series was part of atmospherically dim chambers, offering the realm of Te Pō (the Underworld), from which the figures of Rangi, the primal Sky-father, and Papatūānuku, the primal Earth-mother, break away to create Te Ao Mārama, the World of Light. The cluster of artworks suspended in this Underworld in the book include: Robert Jahnke’s sculpture ‘Whenua Kore’ (2019), a neon tunnel of white circles endlessly reflected in a mirrored blackness; and Israel Tangaroa Birch’s fiery, shimmering ‘Ara-i-te-uru’ (2011), burnished and lit-up to resemble an underground river of molten magma.
These works, with their intimations of ihi (presence) and wehi (awe), connect with the Mata Aho Collective and Maureen Lander’s ‘Atapō’ installation (2020), depicted towards the end of the book, although this work has proved difficult to reproduce and seems muted or muffled. In the gallery space, it was a huge, dark presence, constructed out of many layers of cut and stitched and back-lit fine black mesh. Atapō means before dawn, and the nine-metre-high work, which won the 2021 Walters Prize, is intended to affirm mana wahine by invoking the atua wāhine (female deities) of Hine-nui-te-pō (goddess of night) and Hine-tī-tama (goddess of dawn). It’s also a work that connects across generations: kaumatua Maureen Lander collaborated with younger artists Erena Baker, Sarah Hudson, Bridget Reweti and Terri Te Tau.
The Māori universe is a fecund matrix of shape-shifting. The eerie glow of Lisa Reihana’s photographic tableaux evokes the sorcerers and demons of a collective unconscious. Her psychodramas and mock-operatic poses, her fantastical visions of atua floating on clouds appropriate aspects of Surrealism, as well as the tropes of Hollywood superhero movies and the aura of folkloric legends, collapsing and blending and recombining eclectic elements into new gestalts.
Other artists develop motifs of connection and belonging in the here and now. For Saffronn Te Ratana, connection can be made through the whakapapa of paint and traditional kōwhaiwhai patterns, overlaid with personal imagery, to respond to the historical oppression of her Ngāi Tuhoe iwi. Ngataiharuru Taepa is another pattern-maker, working with digitally carved plywood and computer-generated imagery to construct various schema that embrace the forests of Tāne and the seas of Tangaroa.
In a way, the cumulative effect of the pages of Toi Tū Toi Ora is that of a kaleidoscopic whirl, affirming a Māori way of seeing that combines collective and individual aspirations using contemporary technologies. The cover design of the book in black and white has something of the celestial vividness of Matariki, as channelled through digital satellite technology. Māori tino rangatiratanga (self-determination) has, in general, encouraged artists to reinterpret and innovate in response to new materials and new ideas within customary art frameworks, from the old guard of the 1950s and 1960s, to the political activists of the 1970s, to the young guns of the 1990s to the millennials of the noughties.
Donna Tupaea-Petero reinvigorates Māori weaving traditions (mahi raranga) using light and pigment, while Gina Matchitt constructs tukutuku patterns using discarded computer keyboard tiles. Reuben Paterson glitter-dusts biomorphic forms to invest them with spirit and energy, while Michael Parekowhai’s giant white elephants—sculpted from aluminium and fibreglass, butting their heads against the floor and walls of a gallery that was once the Auckland Central Library—might represent bookends for outmoded volumes of the old Imperial order that have been removed and pulped under the decolonising dispensation of a newly rampant iconoclasm, as is happening to institutional libraries up and down the land.
Shane Cotton’s ‘Maunga’ (2020), a permanent wall mural in the Britomart precinct, symbolically presents tūpuna maunga (ancestral mountains) placed in pots that resemble Grecian urns. These curvilinear forms could symbolise the modern-day necessity to honour and protect the land against commodification and environmental damage. Thus they emphasise kaitiakitanga o te whenua (stewardship of the land).
Emily Karaka’s paintings have as their subtext ongoing breaches of Te Tiriti O Waitangi and the long-standing grievances of her iwi Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki. Her gouts of colour with their vibrant rainbow expressionism are aestheticism as activism, another assertion of mana whenua. Sculptor Brett Graham’s ‘Te Hokioi’ (2008) is a fibreglass and steel mock-up of a stealth jet, a spy-plane scaled down and covered in rauru spiral carving patterns, by way of reference to the 2007 police raids undertaken by government agencies against Tūhoe in the Urewera district. While its whorls and grooves demonstrate Graham’s craft virtuosity, conceptually he is addressing state monitoring and surveillance and racial profiling. Ana Iti is a younger multi-media artist also focused on legacies of colonialism with her ‘Takoto’ (2020), a mixed-media sculptural installation moulded from segments of the nineteenth-century Albert Barracks wall, located in the grounds of Auckland University, on what was formerly the site of Te Horotiu Pā, and consequently an emblem of colonial loss and post-colonial melancholia.
The main argument of Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art is that these artists, with their hybrid roots that involve international art traditions and settler culture but are centred on Māori whakapapa (genealogy) and kaupapa (protocols), are making the defining art of Aotearoa today. This is certainly transformative. A number of contributors mention the bad old days when Māori arts and crafts were repressed, or tolerated as quaint curios, or even co-opted for nationalist image-making divorced of context, as in government tourist posters.
Arguments and debates persist about so-called appropriations by Gordon Walters, Colin McCahon, Dick Frizzell and others, which this book doesn’t address directly. Rather, with its round-up of vital representations of Māori art, it brings together traditionalists, purists, revisionists and fusionists into one assembly on common ground. This indicates, then, not the wholesale repudiation of a Eurocentric art history, but rather a process of negotiation, and to use Moana Jackson’s term, ‘navigation’: one acknowledging the Pākehā tauiwi (migrant) ancestry that most of these artists also possess as part of the ongoing process of indigenising and decolonising the nation’s visual culture. Heritage art forms (weaving, ceramics, carved and painted meeting houses) are shown to be creative opportunities for artists to amalgamate traditional motifs with concepts that enrich notions of essentialism: either serving to heal schisms or to provoke new disruptions. Like the exhibition on which it is based, this book effectively celebrates the proliferation, confidence and energy of contemporary Māori art-making now.
DAVID EGGLETON is a writer and poet living in Ōtepōti Dunedin. His latest collection of poems is Respirator: A Poet Laureate Collection 2019–2022, published by Otago University Press in 2023.