A major exhibition of Maori art combines tradition and the new, writes T.J. McNAMARA

Hugely proud is how Chris Saines, the director of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, describes himself when he speaks of the exhibition Purangiaho - Seeing Clearly which opened last Friday.

He is proud of the fact that such an energetic, considered, relevant and up-to-date exhibition is shown at the gallery. He is proud of the way at least a third of the works come from the gallery's own collection and another third loaned by the artists themselves.

He is proud of the way the gallery's own Kaitiaki Maori Curator, Ngahiraka Mason, has assembled the show and arranged it thematically. He is intensely proud of the way it throws light on the legacy of tradition in contemporary Maori art. He is proud of the variety and quality of the work.


Attitudes toward Maori art have undergone huge and fertile changes. Nearly 50 years ago a modern artist who was also a Maori wished to be described only as an artist. He felt patronised when Pakeha spoke of him as a Maori artist, as if they were surprised he was an artist at all.

He quoted the story about Dr Johnson who, when asked what he thought of a woman preaching said it was "like a dog's walking on its hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

He did not wish to be patronised as a Maori in the way Dr Johnson had been patronising about women.

All this has changed utterly. Not only has the patronising manner been swept away but there is immense pride in the Maori heritage which, after all is said and done, makes New Zealand unique in the world.

This exhibition is part of that pride and it goes beyond the senior artists - who brought the change about - to the lively work of the young generation.

It is often said that Maori turn their faces toward the past as they advance into the future, while the European turns his face to the future and gives the back of his head to the push of the past.

This exhibition acknowledges the past by the presence of a Madonna and Child carved for the Catholic Church at Maketu, rejected, saved and now in the collection of the Auckland Museum which loaned it to the exhibition. The age-old European subject of mother and child has been done in traditional Maori style.

This fascinating carving has been placed under an arch which is a gateway to the first gallery that in some ways is like a meeting house. The walls contain fine examples of Shane Cotton's profound explorations of land, heritage and the spirit of both.


Michael Parekowhai's 14 lights with kowhaiwhai patterns are like the ribs of the house and, on the end wall, where photographs of the family might be there is a witty but admiring group of paintings by Isiaha Barlow in which some older Maori artists are elevated to the status of saint with all the trappings of icons.

The possibility of a synthesis between Western art forms and the great Maori tradition was a sort of Holy Grail last century. But the synthesis was thought of as imposed from the European side, so there was a reaction.

Maori motifs were not to be taken over. Out of the fertile controversy a new synthesis emerged. The way forward was to ally cultural pride in traditional Maori art with contemporary art practice.

The second gallery is devoted to work that shows the struggle to achieve this. It includes a big painting by Peter Robinson, one of our representatives at the Venice Biennale. It is lettered with guide-book pronunciations in German, bad Maori, sly English Maori motifs and, prophetically in the light of events, the image of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, as well as the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. In another painting he also shows aeroplanes that are simultaneously wakas.

The same gallery also has the grand and menacing work by Robert Jahnke that assembles 12 axes and 12 bishops' mitres in an image of cultural takeover.

One aspect that is profoundly Maori is that little in the entire show is representational. Nothing just describes. Everything comes from the world of thought and spirit, though the tone may be popular, ironic, visionary or social comment.

This is true even of such apparently realistic things as the many fine photographs in the exhibition. They include Fiona Pardington's notorious bar of soap. Not only does she emphasise the exploited word taniwha which makes it a distinctly New Zealand soap, she also makes its slippery presence reflect a whole lifetime of washday Mondays, as well as commenting on the seizing of mythology for a domestic product. Her superb photographs of tikis redeem them for mythology.

The variety of work is astonishing and extends to Lisa Reihana's digital marae which furnishes the ironic, iconic, floating image that characterises the exhibition.

The exhibition incorporates both power and fun. It is important enough to make scholars and art historians ponder on the interactions and trends it displays.

But the rest of us will simply go to enjoy the work and rejoice that we have such inspiring and prolific artists in our unique society.