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Ngā Tai Whakarongorua- Encounters by Rebecca Rice and Matariki Williams

The most popular art exhibition in Toi Art, the art gallery in New Zealand’s National Museum Te Papa, are the 36 historic portrait paintings hung salon-style on dark red walls.

For the many visitors who are flocking to see the portrait wall, its curators Rebecca Rice and Matariki Wiliams have recently co-authored Ngā Tai Whakarongorua- Encounters , a short but very informative and engaging guide in both English and Te Reo. Inside are brief stories behind the portraits as well as a full page picture of each.

As Aucklanders, because of Coved restrictions , we are unable to travel to Wellington, meet up with our art loving whanau and visit this portrait exhibition right now.

But half the fun of a journey is the sense of anticipation and the planning beforehand. This excellent little guide is allowing me to do just that.

From my years as an art teacher I have found that one way to encourage youngsters to fully engage with and add to their enjoyment of paintings is to challenge them to put their thinking hats on. So I’m keeping happily occupied creating a family quiz for when we do go. If they don’t know the answers they can fact check them in this guide. As it is pocket size it will be easy to carry with us.

I think older children would be able to recognise which portraits were created by famous New Zealand painters Goldie and Lindauer and be able to weave some connections between the portrait of Captain Cook, various Maori leaders and prosperous colonial settlers. All carry stories from our past to our present.

But would they be able to think of a reason why a taonga, an ancient Pūtātara (conch shell trumpet) which was sounded in the 1860’s during the New Zealand wars, was hung at the very beginning of this exhibition?

Why was the portrait of Admiral Sir Edward Hughes of the Royal Navy, who fought five fierce naval battles with the French fleet in the East Indies but never spent time in Aotearoa, included? There is a thread that connects him to our history, what might it be?

Then there is the case of the missing finger. How long would it take them to locate whose portrait was painted with only four fingers on one hand? And why were this portrait of a child with a double chin and other untitled portraits included? Who might the fragment of lace showing in the bottom right hand corner of the portrait of Dr Gary Hassell, the man with an enormous moustache, have belonged to?

It would be fun too to ask them to imagine, after the lights in the museum have been turned off, as Rebecca Rice has suggested, what the people in the portraits might want to say to each other under cover of darkness. For instance what would Poetua want to say to Captain James Cook who had taken her, her husband and brother hostage.

And how might they feel when they stand in front of the mirror which is part of the exhibition. Will putting themselves in the picture make them think of how the past has shaped us and still influencing us today? Or will they think of another reason. There is no right or wrong here, everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

I think this accessible and informative guide is an excellent introduction to the exhibition. Spending time with our Welligton whanau, a visit to a cafe or two, and going to this exhibition is going to be a perfect weekend!

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Te Papa Press


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