John Weekes is an NZME News Service reporter based in Wellington.

Toi moko art print upsets

Lester Hall's print. Photo / Supplied
Lester Hall's print. Photo / Supplied

A $750 print of a tattooed Maori head has sparked controversy but the artist remains defiant.

Bay of Islands artist Lester Hall advertised the prints for sale in NZ Life and Leisure magazine this week.

They depict a toi moko (tattooed head), which is held with 34 others in the American Museum of Natural History's Robley Collection in New York.

Official attempts to get the heads returned home for a proper burial have so far been unsuccessful.

Hall, a Pakeha, said some Maori had called him "a dick" for doing this, but he had also received support from some Maori academics.

"What this says to Maori is: I am every bit tangata whenua and part of this nation ... I'm Pakeha. This is what I think. I don't think you're dicks but I do think I have some rights you might like to tell me I don't have.

"What I get a lot is that I'm not really allowed to comment because I'm Pakeha."

The flowers in the teeth and eye sockets, he said, were inspired by current art movements based on Mexican `day of the dead' motifs. "I'm unashamedly using some of the stylistic pop-art conversations at the moment."

The toi moko was copied from a head owned by Major-General Horatio Robley, now held in New York.

Intellectual property lawyer Maui Solomon said if the image was taken from an actual toi moko then it was both a cultural misappropriation and culturally offensive. "If the artist thinks that this is being too sensitive then he is grossly mistaken. This is another reason - if one is needed - of why there needs to be an ethical framework which sets out what is acceptable and what is not for the use of these taonga."

But Rangi Kipa, one of the world's most respected ta moko artists, said Hall's work forced Maori to challenge their perceptions. "Given the chance I may have snapped this work up for my own collection."

- Herald on Sunday

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