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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Galleries of Maoriland: Artists, Collectors and the Māori World, 1880-1910 by Roger Blackley

‘Galleries of Maoriland’ is a fascinating piece of art, cultural and ethnic history all wrapped into one lavish book. The most obvious feature is the wealth of illustrations, from the wonderfully selected 1901 cover photo of the painter Charles Goldie in his studio with Patora Te Tuhi who is drinking tea in a break from posing for a painting, to the back cover which shows exhibits at the Hawke’s Bay Philosophical Institute in Napier in 1888. Look closely in the cabinet and you will see a pair of huia, the now extinct native bird, in the tall display case. Such pictures tell their own stories about attitudes to the past.

This is a book about changing attitudes. It tells us as much about the development of New Zealand society in the late nineteenth century as it does about evolving tastes and prejudice.

Throughout the various chapters we see behavior veer between glorious collaboration and outright exploitation. On one hand we see painters who were encouraged by Māori elders to create their portraits, which were used at ceremonies and even tangi. Relationships between artists and subjects were forged in the long hours spent sitting for portraits. On the other hand we see unscrupulous collectors of curios and antiquities who robbed Māori graves and sold artefacts overseas. Here there seemed to be few ethics or morals and the concept of hapu was widely disregarded, by both the pākehā collectors and sometimes the younger Māori who lacked respect for their beliefs and their elders. Such was the European thirst for artefacts that workshops were to be found behind certain curio shops where ‘ancient’ tiki were being mass produced. Many fakes arrived in European museums by this route.

I particularly like the immediacy of the formal painted portraits. A gallery was established on Queen Street in Auckland displaying many of the wonderful portraits by Gottfried Lindauer. We have visitor books for the Māori which shows them coming to pay respects to the portraits of their ancestors. In this new world of the formal portrait, many observers were moved to perform a haka for their ancestor, and many saw the painting as preserving some of the spirit of the subject. In this way some powerful Māori saw the portrait as an essential symbol of modern times. If kings and queens of other lands had portraits, then so should the Māori chiefs.

There is a strong tradition of gift giving within Māori culture, and I was fascinated to learn that with that came an expectation of return. A highly symbolic gift of a cloak or weapon was expected to be returned on the death of the person to whom it was given. Sadly, the pākehā did not understand this at all and would cart off such gifts and pass them through their own families. ‘Galleries of Maoriland’ has some terrible examples of those who failed to understand, not to mention those who exploited the land courts and made their colonial fortunes from some very underhand dealings.

Few pākehā come out of this book well, except perhaps the artists Goldie and Lindauer, who must be respected for their stunning portraits which at the time many thought were the last chance to capture the linkenesses of old chiefs and warriors.

I was amused at some of the comments from Māori, so said that the colonialists were always complaining about their naked or half naked bodies, but as soon as the Māori entered a museum or gallery, all they found were classical sculpture or paintings – all of it with naked bodies. All they could see was the hypocrisy.

There are plenty of challenges for the reader – most of all to see through the prejudice and the treatment of Māori. There are some interesting contrasts at the end of the book when the respect paid to Māori culture from some is seen in the context of how other indigenous peoples were treated in Australia, the USA and Canada. The author is certainly unable to find a strong tradition of formal portrait painting of other peoples, although photography was a feature in some instances.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Auckland University Press RRP $75

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