Paul Moon: Portraits fall back on shock value

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Photos of gang members are accomplished works but raise troubling questions of how we see one another.

The exhibition brings to mind the work of Charles Goldie, whose paintings worked deliberately to accentuate differences between Maori and Pakeha.
The exhibition brings to mind the work of Charles Goldie, whose paintings worked deliberately to accentuate differences between Maori and Pakeha.

Gary Langsford, of the Gow Langsford Gallery, is right in asserting that his gallery will "not ... censor an artist's work", when referring to an exhibition which includes a photograph of a heavily tattooed mobster and alleged murderer. It is another matter altogether, though, when he adds that the portrait "should be considered in the context of fine art".

Such a consideration would surely conclude that this portrait fails to reach the threshold of "fine art". Of course, art's subjectivity has long been held out as the last line of defence whenever criticism is aimed at a work, but in this instance, the assertion that the lurid image of a gang member somehow constitutes "fine art" requires some context.

Initially, the portrait appears shocking - which seems to be an important currency in so much contemporary art - but this truly is the shock of the old. Such portraits have a long pedigree in New Zealand, making photographer Jono Rotman's work not so much homage as repetition.

New Zealand's art history is strewn with images of the indigenous barbaric, which were frequently used - even if unwittingly - to accentuate the counterpoint to the civilised European.

The alleged savagery of Maori persisted in art into the 20th century, with works like Walter Wright's 1908 oil The Burning of the Boyd, which depicted the Maori attackers of the vessel simply as vicious barbarians.

Charles Goldie's theme of Maori as a "dying race" introduced a more passive but equally misleading impression of Maori to viewers. The people who once were warriors were now rendered as living museum exhibits, representing a culture on the cusp of extinction.

The aged, tattooed, hunched relics that were the subjects of many of his portraits might have appeared harmless, but Goldie continued to accentuate their differences with the mainly European viewers of these paintings, right down to fabricating the backgrounds and arranging the clothing of the subjects to make them appear that bit more indigenous.

Rotman is undoubtedly an accomplished photographer. His potent mix of lighting, composition, and perspective produce a striking visual narrative that is hard to dislodge from the memory. But in some of his portraits, he has nudged the representation of Maori backwards - reverting from the passivity of Goldie to the earlier implication of Maori as a violent race.

His emphasis on the lurid "Other" no doubt has an appeal for some viewers, but at the same time, the echoes with 19th century propaganda art which aimed at denigrating Maori are deafeningly loud.

And if you doubt that such portraits rely on a good dose of titillation for the attention they receive, then try to imagine whether there would be anywhere near such interest if the subjects were, say, Maori accountants. Hauling out the wretched of the country (preferably with a sinister backstory) in front of a camera may have some artistic merit, but it is hard not to allow this to be swamped by the sensationalist tone of the works.

And what would the purchaser of such a portrait wish to say to their friends about their acquisition? Would they gather around the image and derive some cheap thrill from the knowledge that the subject is an alleged murderer? Would it reinforce their prejudices about Maori generally being inclined to violence? Would it give them a smug sense of superiority? We may never know, but the thought that a buyer might invest (and I use that term deliberately) in such an image raises questions not only about the merits of art, but about how we see ourselves and each other as New Zealanders.

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology.

- NZ Herald

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