A recent cartoon stereotyping Serena Williams was slammed globally as racist, but a new book shows such blatant racism is nothing new for Māori in New Zealand.

Savaged to Suit: Māori and Cartooning in New Zealand features 250 cartoons depicting Māori from as early as the 1860s, but with a particular emphasis on the decades from the 1930s to the 1990s.

The cartoons, by both Māori and Pākehā cartoonists, showed how attitudes about race and ethnicity had changed in New Zealand.

"Cartoons can be both lightning rods for public opinion, and indicators of racial stereotyping, making them valuable and revealing historical sources in their own right," said author Paul Diamond, of Ngāti Hauā, Te Rarawa and Ngāpuhi descent.

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Paul Diamond, author of Savaged to Suit: Maori and Cartooning in New Zealand, and inaugural Curator, Maori at the Alexander Turnbull Library. Photo / Mark Beatty, ATL
Paul Diamond, author of Savaged to Suit: Maori and Cartooning in New Zealand, and inaugural Curator, Maori at the Alexander Turnbull Library. Photo / Mark Beatty, ATL

The book's name comes from how Māori were are often shown as fearsome savages in New Zealand's earliest cartoons from the 1860s onwards.

Now, most of the Māori depicted in cartoons were politicians, shown in corporate-world suits.

"I wanted to find out what was going on between those two stereotypes and also consider how Māori and their culture was sometimes 'savaged' to 'suit' by the agendas of (often) Pākehā cartoonists working within Pākehā-controlled media organisations," Diamond, a former journalist himself, said.

"Through The Tory Hat", by John McNamara, Southern Cross, [1946-50], and included in Paul Diamond's book Savaged to Suit. Image / ATL: A-369-132a

Common stereotypes included the mischievous piu piu-clad warrior, the happy-go lucky "Hori", and the obese manual worker.

The earliest cartoons were woodcuts, and often spoke to topics of wars over land, and racial inferiority.

Cartoons then were classed into the black, grey and white categories, Diamond said.

"Black was seen as permanently inferior, white as hope - such as the hopeful savage, and grey as dying, inferring Māori would not be around as they were so degenerate."

"Before the Tangi. After the Tangi", by unknown artist, NZ Observer and Free Lance, October 13 1894, and included in Paul Diamond's book Savaged to Suit. Image / ATL: J-065-020

One example was titled "Before the tangi. After the tangi" from 1894.

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It depicted an emaciated Māori man before the tangi, and smiling and bloated afterwards, surrounded by animal bones, similarly bloated figures, drinking, vomiting and passing out, with flies swarming around.

"It's an unrelentingly bleak picture of where the cartoonist saw Māori and their culture (and cultural practices) as being at the turn of the 19th century," Diamond said.

"One message from this cartoon is that Māori people remain in poverty because of their customs."

"The Oompah Games", by Gordon Minhinnick, NZ Herald, December 1 1949, and included in Paul Diamond's book Savaged to Suit. Image / Supplied

Later came the "happy-go-lucky" childish figure running around in piu piu.

One example was "The Little Brown Mandate", introduced by cartoonist Sir Gordon Minhinnick around the 1940s, which criticised the four Māori seats held by Labour.

It depicted a "diminutive Māori warrior" pulling on Māori stereotypes: short, stocky, thick-lipped and dressed in traditional costume, speaking broken English.

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"I think I'll take my name off the Maori roll", by Harry Dansey, August 27, 1956, and included in Paul Diamond's book Savaged to Suit. Image / ATL: J-065-068

Diamond said it was difficult to gauge the impact such cartoons had on the Māori population, although they often led to pushback.

With cartoons there was always a line of what would be deemed acceptable, and that line was moving all of the time. But who decided where that line was, was also important.

"When I was growing up, all of the cartoons were about grumpy feminists. That is all gone now. A lot of that gender humour has disappeared, because of the pushback. But unless we have that kind of resistance, we don't have that change."

With Maori, one example was following the University of Auckland engineering students haka protests in 1979.

"One of the protesters actually called the NZ Herald and said he was 'sick of our culture caricatured like a cartoon'."

Another more recent example was when Labour MP Louisa Wall laid a complaint with the Human Rights Review Tribunal in 2013 over cartoonist Al Nisbet's depiction of Māori and Pacific families in the Breakfast in Schools campaign.

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"Three Generations to make a Gentleman", by Frederick H. Cumberworth, Aussie, 1923, and included in Paul Diamond's book Savaged to Suit. Image / ATL: J-065-048

Stereotypes were not necessarily bad, cartoonists just needed to be aware of why they used them, Diamond said.

"Some cartoonists say it is difficult to stereotype prominent Māori without stereotypes. But you don't have to stereotype to critique a culture."

Diamond quoted New Zealand cartoonist Dylan Horrocks in the book: "The best political cartoonists are aware of [stereotypes] and deal with it critically, thoughtfully. Whereas lazy (or nasty) cartoonists revel in stereotypes without self-awareness or ethics and then say 'lighten up, it's a joke'."

This was pertinent to the Serena Williams cartoon, Diamond said.

"She is probably one of the most well-known women on the planet, but to draw her as a caricature so different of what she looks like, with enormous lips and tongue is pretty grotesque."

Cartoonists themselves were also diverse and there were times cartoonists, both Māori and Pākehā, deviated from the "standard story".

"But in the end they are still in Pākehā media institutions, run according to Pākehā tikanga, with someone deciding what is okay," Diamond said.

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The book covered the portrayal of Māori in times of war, the significance of sport, the Treaty of Waitangi, and Māori cartoonists.

Diamond is the inaugural Curator, Māori at the Alexander Turnbull Library, where he sourced many of the cartoons.

Savaged to Suit will be launched in Wellington at the National Library on Tuesday, September 25.