Monday, April 20, 2015

History man

Twenty-three years ago, when Headlands, the last large scale New Zealand exhibition to be sent to Australia (#WTF?), was shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, all hell broke loose. One of the essays in the catalogue, At the Centre, in the Margins started an at times bitter debate about the appropriation of Maori imagery by contemporary artists who did not identify as Maori. The essay had argued that by translating the koru form into a design motif and denying its Maori reference as part of the work, Gordon Walters had ripped off that particular element of Maori visual culture. This was an appropriation too far. The author of the piece Rangihiroa Panoho was roundly condemned by Walters supporters for daring to make this sort of assertion, particularly at a time when we were trying to impress the Australians on their home ground. 

Now wind the clock around a few times. Later this year the same Rangihiroa Panoho will publish his book Maori Art: History, Architecture, Landscape & Theory. The book itself has apparently been on the go since the year Headlands opened in Sydney when Panoho was offered a contract by an Australian publisher. Its by-line is 'how to look at Maori art in the twenty-first century' so still room for someone to tackle the twentieth or even the nineteenth century. 

Even stepping outside the Maori perspective this substantial book won't exactly be entering a crowded field of New Zealand art history. We have shelves full of monographs, group show catalogues, collection spruiking, and picture books, but very few ambitious histories. Gordon Brown and Hamish Keith's book Introduction to New Zealand Painting was published 56 years ago and is still widely cited and Gil Docking's effort Two hundred years of New Zealand Painting (now hilariously called 240 years of New Zealand Painting) in 1971. The nearest to a recent history would be Francis Pound's The Invention of New Zealand from 2009. So anyone with a history of NZ art in the works, let us know and we can all celebrate. But for now we have Rangihiroa's Maori Art to look forward to, it's launching in June. You can follow its emergence here. We can only hope it proves as provocative as his essay all those years ago in Headlands.