Galleries of Maoriland is a study of the people, works and objects of what would become known as ‘Māori art’, and the genre’s heyday between 1880 and 1910. It is a new appreciation of the value of the works produced, circulated and displayed during those years, and how they found a place in the fabric of our national identity.
While the focus is on the complex interactions between Māori art (art by or about Māori), its makers, collectors and traders, Māori themselves (as subjects or consumers), and the public, it is also an amazingly detailed glimpse into many other aspects of New Zealand life at the time.
It is an insight into how Māori and Pākehā saw themselves and their neighbours, as both adjusted to a shared future, and how an art and story appeared to express the spirit of this cohabitation, as the realisation slowly dawned that Māori would remain a living part of New Zealand.
Blackley recreates the wild hunt for authentic and exotic relics of a Māori past, so-called curios, and the many ways of obtaining them: trade in ceremonial gifts, tomb-raiding, or excursions to maniacally rake up the land to find buried treasures. The curios collected were often displayed (as the book’s remarkable collection of images shows) in incongruous, sometimes ghoulish arrays, of huia feathers and weapons, pounamu and disembodied heads.
Blackley explains how these displays also helped to revise the country’s pre-European material culture and its inhabitants into a more acceptable (though not particularly factual) story for the Victorian mind, enabling collectors to place these items (and perhaps their makers) on a scale of development towards the apex of supposed British superiority.
Curios also allowed Pākehā to make sense of Māori and their culture, although often with little relation to how Māori actually understood and lived it. Despite this, Blackley observes that the creation of this Māori-inspired folklore by Pākehā for themselves laid some of the groundwork for the bicultural imagery that distinguishes New Zealand today.
The book’s biographies of portrait subjects and other figures demonstrate how Māori adeptly navigated the art market, not only as suppliers of curios but also by availing their romanticised image. By recreating sittings for Goldie’s ostensibly melancholy Māori portraits, Blackley underlines this pose was agreed and negotiated, rather than disingenuous or manipulative.
Blackley explains how portraits were valued by Māori as a new taonga, and by Pākehā as an art form with uniquely local features. He details how for Māori, portraiture was a revelation, reproducing the awe of Māori in city galleries and including grateful comments to the artists in visitors’ books of the time. While Blackley recognises portraits did help reinforce prevailing beliefs of Māori fading away, he counters Māori also saw in them a medium to reach out to their descendants. As a descendant of the subject of a Goldie portrait, I appreciated this balance.
Blackley’s investigation of traders, artists, and their subjects reveals a remarkable biculturalism among Pākehā in this world and a worldly sophistication of Māori subjects, often nameless in titles of the works, who rather than brooding elders in decaying pā, were frequently influential, well-travelled, sophisticated citizens of the world. He notes these subjects felt Pākehā artists belonged to them, upending preconceived ideas of relationships between artists and these subjects.
On the other hand, Blackley observes biculturalism allowed traders to use their knowledge of Māori lore and custom to manipulate Pākehā purchasers and Māori suppliers of objects. Similarly, public figures we imagine as honourably representing the Crown, after receiving hugely significant gifts with due solemnity, did not hesitate to dip into the profitable side business of trading taonga that had been gifted with the expectation they be returned in like form.
While the period’s ongoing transfer of Māori land is not his focus, Blackley provides interesting links between the whittling away of Māori land and Māori art. Māori attending land courts were inspired to contract portraits as they passed strategically placed galleries. Pākehā legal representatives with knowledge of te reo and tikanga represented claimants and claimed healthy commissions, later funnelling them into the profitable patronage of Māori art or trade in Māori gifts.
While the book provides examples how the colonial gaze could crush innovations in Māori art that challenged the narrative about what Māori art should look like, it also provides counter examples of the fruit this fertile cross-cultural environment could produce.
In one example, idyllic visions of how Māori lived in pre-European kāinga were cobbled together to create a performative culture for visitors, the inhabited model pā. Although these did not prosper like other manifestations of Maoriland, they were surprisingly empowering for Māori, who took ownership of this idealised past, reclaiming it to fortify and revive their tikanga. We also learn how it was a Pākehā artist that brought to life a symbolically rich new flag for the Māori King – the embodiment of aspirations for Māori self-determination.
Towards the end of the period, Blackley shows how the gloomy gaze into an uncertain future so commonly associated with the pose of Goldie’s subjects could more appropriately apply to early Pākehā commentators on Māori-inspired art. The days of freewheeling theorising gave way to a more formal and structured approach, and the curio mania too became a thing of the past, although its images remained thoroughly embedded in the national psyche.
Although Blackley reveals much of so-called Māori art was Pākehā fantasy, he does not deride its makers. He recognises Pākehā collectors, amateur scholars, and artists reinterpreted or embellished Māori art not only for profit, but also in the spirit of nation building, in search of what made New Zealand unique. Māori also found a means not only to preserve their images, but to ensure their material and immaterial culture remained central in the imagination of the colony.
The resulting hybrid folklore still dwells in our national subconscious, and Blackley’s work helps to identify some of its origins. His book subverts our understandings of history, art, engagement, ownership and appropriation. It is layered and diverse as it delves into the minutiae (not to say curios) of the times it studies and does so in the spirit of those times.
Reviewed by Paul Moenboyd
Galleries of Maoriland
by Roger Blackley
Published by Auckland University Press