"The media aren't here, they aren't going to cover this!" cried a curiously forceful man at the Auckland Art Gallery's indigenous art symposium last Saturday. "We're just talking to ourselves!" He indignantly said that a wall text, just upstairs from where we were sitting, described abstract art as only reaching New Zealand in the 1940s, "but it's a bloody lie!"
In the break, I introduced myself as The Media. Apart from the important reminder that Maori have practiced both figurative and abstract art for centuries, was there anything he'd like to tell the Herald's readers? He turned out to be Radio Waatea host Keith Stewart, and he was more interested in telling my editors what to do. "When I was reviewing art I received three death threats!" he thundered. (Eek, can I claim for danger money?)
But, in fact, even if I and other media hadn't been there, Maori art experts aren't just talking to themselves. They're creating compelling exhibitions, like Five Maori Painters (free entry on the gallery's top floor until June 15). As a show dealing with deep issues of this land, and from the point of view of tangata whenua, it speaks directly to all of us living in Aotearoa.
And, when it comes to publicising Maori painting's long history, colours speak even louder than symposium words. Instead of the usual bold contrast of black and "museum red" associated with Maori culture, the Five Maori Painters branding flanks red with a soft mustard-olive and dusty turquoise. The palette is an unusual triumvirate, and looks Scandinavian-contemporary, but in fact, echoes the mineral colours used by pre-contact and 19th century Maori artists.
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I know this because the exhibition includes tins of pigments used by early artists and a 19th century hoe (waka paddle), painted with turquoise leaves. Above them hangs a stunning landscape by Star Gossage in the same earthy-to-heavy-sky hues, an experiment using clays she found at her ancestral Pakiri home.
When the gallery reopened in 2011, another Kiwi critic Keith - Hamish K, not K Stew - was also concerned that Maori art was not served as excellently as European art, as its historical pieces were kept separately, in museums: "Contemporary Pakeha artists can chat with their ancestors. Contemporary Maori cannot." Keith described this separation as an outdated "cultural injustice".
By borrowing pieces from Auckland Museum like the hoe, the gallery's indigenous curator Ngahiraka Mason cuts across that divide, shifts that paradigm, corrects that injustice, and allows us to see Gossage's work in colour-korero with earlier works, which are finally presented as art and not "artefacts".
At the symposium, Gossage's Auckland dealer Tim Melville told the story of first meeting her. He was driven up to Pakiri by artist Jim Vivieaere, whose only map was a ripped cover of Art New Zealand, showing Gossage in a patch of cabbage trees. "I'm pretty sure we can find those trees," said Vivieaere. And they did. Melville was stunned. You will be too.