Andrew Paul Wood
Te Motunui Epa by Rachel Buchanan (Bridget William Books, 2022), 256pp, $49.99
Wind the clock back to the early 1800s, when Pākehā have just started establishing a significant presence in Aotearoa. Te Ātiawa hapū has occupied Taranaki for generations, but a new menace has arrived to disturb the peaceful equilibrium: European muskets, and with them, nearly a century of intertribal warfare in North Taranaki.
Te Ātiawa rushed to dismantle the most precious taonga from their carved buildings and hide them in Peropero swamp, intending to retrieve them later. Alas, that did not happen. Those who knew where they were hidden were captured or killed.
Among these taonga were five exquisitely carved tōtara panels, known as Te Motunui Epa. They were carved between 1750 and 1820 and most likely formed the walls of a pātaka or storehouse.
The panels slept under the mud and the combination of lack of oxygen and the natural antioxidants in tōtara wood preserved them perfectly until they were discovered in 1974. Then, in an act of shocking greed, criminality and self-interest, they were illegally sold to the Switzerland-based art collector George Ortiz for US$65,000 and smuggled to New York. Ortiz, the heir of a tin-mining fortune who often claimed to be descended from an illiterate Bolivian peasant on one side and Emperor Barbarossa on the other, treasured the panels until October 1977.
In Te Motunui Epa Melbourne-based Dr Rachel Buchanan (Taranaki, Te Ātiawa) picks up the thread of this fascinating tale.
This is not an easy story for ngā uri of Taranaki to tell because the first taking was committed by one of our own. We cannot change that, nor erase what the record tells us. The second taking was committed by the dealer. We can’t make that go away by keeping his name unsaid either. The third taking was by the collector, and his name is impossible to erase, even if we wanted to, because it is attached to so many of the records about our tupuna, including the ones held at Archives New Zealand.
Here, Buchanan is signalling the difficulty of marrying two different worlds together: the Pākehā compulsion to know everything, dissect everything, record everything, and the very different Māori way of relating to the complexities of the world, by cordoning off the harmful and painful to prevent it infecting everything else, and the importance of what is not said, and what is kept secret. Buchanan finds a sensitive balance.
I also love that there is just something about the rhythms, the rhetorical idiosyncrasies, the easy mix of formal and informal, personal and abstract, in Buchanan’s writing that gives it a distinctly Māori voice and texture. It brings a lively immediacy to proceedings. It feels like something spoken from the heart rather than written down in the prose of clinical scholarship. We’ve already got plenty of that.
Ortiz’s wealth made his family a target. Kidnappers took his beloved daughter Graziella, demanding a $2 million ransom. He borrowed this amount from his mother, and his daughter was restored safe and sound to the family, but in order to repay his mother, Ortiz put the panels up for auction.
This alerted the cultural panjandrums in the New Zealand government, and Buchanan has done a marvellous job of accessing the relevant papers in Archives New Zealand during the Covid lockdown, piecing all the fragments together into the story of the mission to bring the panels home. Since their return in 2015, they have resided at Puke Ariki in New Plymouth.
Buchanan deftly orchestrates a whole choir of voices and tones that frequently reaches a lyrical pitch. If you’re looking for something more strictly academic and art-historical factual, you may find this approach slightly distracting. Personally, I think we could use more of it in a field that is often dry as a desiccated colonial museum display. Though the editor in me is not sure about all of the short declarative sentence fragments floating loose for effect. I’m just going to roll with it.
The result is every bit as thrilling as a James Bond movie, with less sex and violence. Buchanan is a consummate storyteller. She is kind to Ortiz, acknowledging his passion for the panels, when it would have been so easy to turn him into a cliché pantomime villain. That’s a very Māori perspective, if I may be so bold; tauwhirotanga, aroha, and manaaki.
‘There is a question, here, of agency,’ writes Buchanan. ‘On the surface, it might seem like the finder, the dealer and the collector were calling the shots, but as this research unfolded, the reverse seems to be true. Perhaps the finder, the dealer and the collector were nothing more than bit players in our tūpuna’s long lives. They have served their purpose, just as I am serving mine. The Motunui Epa let themselves be taken from the swamps and out of the country, and they gave the signal when they were ready to come back … They were in charge.’
That’s definitely a more conciliatory way of looking at it.
The panels themselves are the central characters in this story, which leads us to the great flourish of creative non-fiction at the end of the book, where Buchanan channels the voices of the panels as a kind of summary coda. Delightfully, the voices she gives them are more Billy T. James than formal rhetoric. Only the most po-faced could fail to be charmed by this description of Robert Muldoon:
Muldoon was the Prime Minister. Not much taller than us. Five foot and a smidgen. Even littler was George Ortiz with his dark-brown eyes burning bright. George was a quiverer when he got excited, which was often. Very, very intense. Robert Muldoon was intense and charismatic, a bundle of ticks and wheezes, very mobile cheeks. Again like us. Lots of massive infrastructure spending. He built hydro-electric dams and synfuel plants. We were infrastructure too, once. We were the wall of a pātaka. But also we were art. Also, we were people. Are people. Returned people. Our number-one hobby was overseas travel. We find it broadens the mind.
Cute. Buchanan has the makings of a good novelist. Te Motunui Epa is well illustrated, though some of the pictures of the actual documents might have been sacrificed for more photographic details of the panels themselves. But then, the author is an archivist. She knows the documents matter a lot to the story.
‘As the author,’ she tells us, ‘I have had to make difficult decisions about how to construct a narrative from a complex set of records and events. Not everyone will agree with these decisions. Legends can be more exciting, or palatable, than facts.’ That’s the archivist gently talking the Pākehā art historians down off their stilts of scholarly bias.
Buchanan is a Taranaki wahine; this is her tūranagawaewae and mana whenua, and that brings an essential perspective to this story. Her deep spiritual connection to her subject through her whakapapa is palpable. This has clearly been a journey for her, with more than a few bumps on the way. It’s a homecoming for Buchanan as much as it was for the panels, the tupuna, and this book is every bit a taonga as the Motunui Epa themselves.
ANDREW PAUL WOOD is an independent art writer, cultural historian, author and nuisance to the precious. He lives in Te Waipounamu and his book Shadow Worlds: A history of the occult and esoteric in New Zealand will be published by Massey University Press this year.