Contesting Colonial Constructs: Contemporary Maori Art in the Decolonizing Process

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Davies, Shona Rapira. Nga Morehu. 1988, terracotta figures with muka and wood, Te Papa, http://www.nzgeo.com/stories/finding-ourselves-at-te-papa/

The creation, circulation, and consumerism of colonial art has helped the reinforcement of Māori stereotypes, maintaining the dominant ideologies held by 19th century European settlers. This misrepresentation, whether conscious or not, confirms the subordinate position of Maori in relation to European. I will look at how these visual representations continue to produce meaning today, enforcing European perceptions of Maori, and how contemporary Maori art works to combat these notions as part of the decolonizing process.

The works of colonial artists – Lindauer, Dittmer, Goldie, Steele – often depict more about the artist and their society than that of their subjects. Bell identifies how colonial art is a “naturalization of the fictitious”, an establishment of invented representations, often influenced by Western constructs, as reality (Bell 145). Through this inaccurate portrayal of Maori, European artists, whether consciously or not, have enforced Western paradigms of perceived dominance over subordinate peoples, reducing Maori to Western idealized stereotypes. One such trope is the ‘Dusky Maiden.’ Languid and sensuous, reclining in a pure and untouched environment, this stereotype renders Maori women as little more than an object of desire, existing primarily to be looked at, to give pleasure to Europeans.” (Bell 143)

This misrepresentation continues today. Burke addresses this through the impact of the tourism industry by imposing a national identity through “signs of cultural indigeneity…willfully blurring distinctions between the real and the imaginary” (Burke 18). Engels-Schwarzpaul and Wikiteria similarly explore this through the acquisition of Maori whare and Samoan fale by Western society, in their search to “fill a perceived gap resulting from an erosion of meaning in the West”. It is this “yearning for authenticity and Paradise” (Engles-Schwarzpaul) that locks perceptions of indigenous peoples in the past, whether by conservationists seeking to preserve authenticity, or in the industry’s treatment of culture as a commodity. Either way, the effect of colonization is clear in its desire to take possession through the imposition of European maintenance over Maori culture.

After centuries of colonial art informing the global perception of Maori, the subject of contemporary Māori art often address the misrepresentation of Māori and the effects of colonization. The sculptural work of Shona Rapira Davies is an example of overcoming the objectification of Māori, particularly Māori women, as a result of the ‘superior’ European gaze. Nga Morehu, or The Survivors, addresses the role colonization has had in the labeling of women’s bodies.  The work comprises twelve figurative sculptures atop a woven mat – three kuia sitting at the rear of the work, eight younger women forming the middle, and a young child facing these women. Mouths open and faces expressive of pain and sorrow, these women stand delivering a karanga. The child faces them, naked, except for a poem written across the body. The eight women are dressed in shapeless black dresses, racist and sexist insults marking their bodies like scars.

This work challenges the perceptions and stereotypes placed upon Māori as result of the Western gaze. Originally intended to be nude, the covering up of the women contests the exoticization of Maori women. The shapeless black dress covers the women, as well as the early colonial portrayal of Maori women as available and sexually unrestricted. The pained expressions of the women “articulates the life experiences of what has been for most women a series of painful experiences” (Cull 17). As the name suggests, however, these women are not victims but survivors. In the calling of the karanga, and the placement of the figures on the woven mat, Davies is connecting the present (the women) to the past (the kuia) and the future (the child). Despite years of suppression, “these extraordinary women come into their own on the marae and all their beauty and gifts come out”.

In spite of the recurrence of colonial constructs in contemporary visual imagery, current Maori artists are working to rectify the inaccurate depictions of Maori and maintain self-representation. Contemporary works such as Nga Morehu, encourage the re-evaluation of Maori representation through addressing the falsity of the past, imagined as reality, while looking to a future of hope.

Works Cited:

Bell, Leonard. “The Representation of the Maori by European Artists in New Zealand, ca. 1890-1914.” Art Journal, Vol. 49, No. 2, Depictions of the Dispossessed (Summer, 1990), pp. 142-149.

Bell, Leonard. “Representations of Maori by Artists Active in New Zealand in the 1860s.” Colonial Constructs: European Images of Maori 1840-1914, Auckland University Press, 1992, 94-146.

Burke, G. “Cultural Safety.” Cultural Safety- Contemporary Art from New Zealand. City Gallery Wellington, Gregory Burke & Peter Weiermair, 1995, pp. 14-31.

Cull, Chloe. “Themes in Māori Women’s Art: How the Body ‘Speaks’ Within the Work of Māori Women Artists of
the Seventies and Eighties.” Oculus Post Graduate Journal. 2014. static1.squarespace.com/static/53bb2870e4b0dfc914b2b65a/t/5494bf88e4b050c0df015455/1419034504754/Oculus2014Web_Cull.pdf

Engels-Schwarzpaul, A-Chr, and K-A. Wikiteria. “Take me away… in search of original dwelling.” Interstices 10, Ross Jenner, Mark Jackson and A.-Chr. Engels-Schwarzpaul, 2009, pp. 42-54

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