Intersections: Maori — Pakeha

This essay looks at the appropriation of traditional Māori motifs by pakeha artists in New Zealand, arguing that the power-dynamic established with colonisation continues to influence artistic interactions. Ultimately, it’s hard to argue that any pakeha artist using Māori motifs isn’t exploiting their access to the traditional culture of an oppressed people.

The question of pakeha appropriation of traditional Māori motifs has been a point of contention in the New Zealand art scene for many years. Measuring the oeuvres of four New Zealand artists — Theo Schoon, Gordon Walters, Dick Frizzell and Peter Robinson — against commentary on cultural appropriation by Māori Art Historian Rangihiroa Panoho and academic Ngahuia Te Awakotoku emphasises some of the most common problems with pakeha use of tribal patterns, icons and designs throughout history and into the twenty first century. Whilst each of the four artists takes a vastly different approach in their own personal artistic practice, some attempting to reconcile their own experience with their cultural dominance and some ignoring the role of Māori culture altogether, the insidious problems of colonialism are present throughout time and place.

Two early examples of pakeha appropriation of Māori motifs are those of Theo Schoon and George Walters. Having both spent time studying Māori culture, art and traditions, the paths of Walters and Schoon towards appropriation diverged early on. Schoon, fascinated by exotic cultures and with a strong belief in the importance of Māori art, spent time with Māori people learning the meanings behind their tribal aesthetics and creating a body of work that mirrored that to which he was exposed. Conversely, Walters’ exploration of Māori art led him to experiment with Māori motifs within his abstract modernist practice, and more increasingly to distance the images from their original cultural context.

Theo Schoon Self-Portrait, taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodorus_Johannes_Schoon

Schoon’s adherence to traditional methodologies and desire to work under the tuition of Māori elders appears more admirable than Walter’s denial of local artistic traditions. However, when held up to Panoho’s assessment of the major issues of appropriation, faults can be found in the work of both. Theo Schoon was one of the earliest pakeha artists to show an interest in Māori art as “the only major art tradition”[1] of New Zealand, and consider its significance as a “sophisticated cultural achievement”.[2] His engagement with indigenous communities and the contributions he made to the restoration of artistic traditions at a time when the Māori people were living “in rural poverty, in a kind of unspoken apartheid”[3] has often seen him labelled their ally.

Schoon’s Dutch heritage has been credited with his willingness to investigate new cultures, and engage with Māori traditions, often to the exclusion of Western artistic movements.[4] Schoon himself wrote, “You have to be ruthless in weeding out, and quick in accepting new insights as something to live by.”[5] He applied his philosophy of open-mindedness to his work with Māori rock drawings, which he first encountered in 1945, spending much time discovering and recording images, ultimately convincing Roger Duff, Curator of Ethnology at Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, of their value.[6] Advocating for recognition of Māori artforms is an oft-cited justification of Schoon’s early appropriation of Māori traditions, but it is also the first example of the fundamental problems inherent in the work of even the most well meaning pakeha artists.

Theo Schoon, Untitled (koru panel), 1959; Museum of New Zealand

One record of Schoon’s first encounter with rock drawings sees him retouching an image with a black crayon, seemingly in an attempt to recover its visibility.[7] It was common for Western artists to make adjustments to, or re-draw Māori rock paintings for a range of reasons.[8] What is notable about this encounter is that it places Schoon amongst his contemporaries in measuring indigenous art against a different metric from that which is applied to European art[9] — it is unlikely that Schoon would have painted over a European artwork. This is not to say that Schoon was equal to his peers in classifying tribal culture “through unknowing rather than knowing.”[10] Rather, it reminds us that even the best intentions are informed by the position of power that comes from belonging to a dominant culture. As well, it cannot be ignored that his commendation of the rock paintings to a Western institution such as the Canterbury Museum was an exchange of value judgements made of Māori art by white, European men to the exclusion of Māori voices.

It is strongly contended in many accounts of Schoon’s involvement with Māori artistic traditions that his contribution to the resurrection of gourd carving and rock drawing gave him the right to appropriate Māori art in various ways. Panoho argues that the process of taking, without any exchange of value, is a continuation of the colonisation of indigenous people, and that appropriation can only be considered somewhat legitimate if the artist acknowledges their sources, and has taken the time to understand the underlying customs. Schoon certainly did these things. But acknowledgement and reciprocation does not mean that he negotiated the right to use Māori motifs in his own work. What Schoon gave back to the Māori people was a tradition most likely lost as a result of colonisation, a process that involved the study of examples that reside in static ethnographic collections. Schoon’s access to examples of gourd carving in museums (which were held alongside moko mokai) is evidence of the colonial approach to indigenous artefacts and artforms as exotic objects to be stripped of traditional value and studied as specimens of the primitive “other”.[11] It is not unlikely that Schoon would have had access to these collections that would have been denied to the Māori people.

No matter how well Schoon incorporated himself into the lives of the Māori people, he was still an outsider, tied to a dominant culture. He enjoyed the privilege of opting-in to aspects of Māori tradition that he judged to be valuable, whilst maintaining the option to opt-out of any discrimination that came with being a member of a colonised people. In his later years, Schoon exhibited the privilege of his position as an outsider, believing that he understood more about Māori visual culture than many Māori people did.[12] In allowing his involvement in their communities and artistic practices, the Māori people were extending civilities that Schoon was privileged to receive. At no point does the appropriation of indigenous traditions and aesthetics become the right of the dominant culture. That exchange can only happen by theft, or by generous gift.

Gordon Walters, Tama, Screen Print, 1977; Museum of New Zealand

Unlike Schoon, whose focus throughout his career was the understanding and recognition of the cultural contexts behind the Māori traditions he was appropriating, Gordon Walters’ practice very quickly worked to remove the motifs and forms from their original context, leading to his ultimate denial of their Māori origins. Whilst Walters made a conscious effort to learn about the culture of the Māori people,[13] his words and attitude, quite apart from his work, are problematic. Walters’ active programme of research into, and documentation of Māori kowhaiwhai in the Te Hau ki Turanga meeting house is widely recognised,[14] and his commonly-named “koru paintings”[15] are accepted as distinctly Kiwi.[16] However, Walters “denies that there is a cultural dimension”[17] to the symbols used in his work. Regarding his koru paintings, Walters said, “the forms I use have no descriptive value in themselves,”[18] thereby rejecting the koru as a Māori symbol of creation. This assertion reflects the primitivist assumption that indigenous cultures are passive repositories of images, words and ideas for more dynamic societies to draw from.[19] This condescending approach at once places value on European adaptation and growth, whilst ignoring the foundation of change inherent in Māori culture.[20]

Representing symbols in the style of abstraction “privileges the rhetoric of [Modernism and] silences the koru in order to appropriate it to a ‘nationalist art.’”[21] In denying the cultural uses of the symbols, Walters has appropriated Māori motifs, abstracted them to a point where they have lost their cultural context and claimed them as his “own personal signature;”[22] a modernist symbol for the country from whence the original inhabitants have been displaced.[23] Leonard Bell, an academic and supporter of Walters, characterises elements in his artworks as the “Māori motif, transformed, emptied of traditional meaning, providing a starting point for the formalist performance.”[24] Walters decides for himself whether or not the cultural traditions from which he is stealing matter more, or even as much as, his own artistic development. The Western movement of Abstract Modernism is of central importance to Walters, relegating any tribal significance to the periphery in an act of what Te Awakotoku acknowledges as “residual colonialism.”[25]

Arguments in favour of Walters’ use of symbols such as koru and spirals often focus on the presence of those patterns in the artistic and cultural traditions of many different groups across time and place.[26] What is ignored in this justification is the role of tribal art as a continuation of “an expression of values, hopes, fears and dreams.”[27] Māori artists exercise their right to “[articulate] group concerns,”[28] with a comprehensive understanding of local interpretations and cultural origins. The belief that the existence of these motifs in a wide array of cultures means that Walker could be appropriating them from anywhere, and is therefore appropriating them from nowhere in particular ignores the context in which he is creating and displaying his work.

What does come through in assessments of Walters’ oeuvre is the legitimate struggle of pakeha artists to create art that reflects their exposure to Māori culture and aesthetics, without directly appropriating the motifs of a colonised people. The work of Dick Frizzell in his 1992 exhibition Tiki, whilst still somewhat problematic, is a more constructive example of a pakeha artist coming to terms with this experience. Frizzell explains his tiki as a call-back to the “shonky Māori art” that he remembers from his youth.[29] Having gone in search of such artworks to no avail, Frizzell recreated the images himself in the traditions of Western artistic movements. The Tiki catalogue features the voices of prominent Māori artists and curators who address the question of appropriation, and echo Frizzell’s desire to “move things along a bit and stir up what is such a moribund debate”[30]

Dick Frizzell, From Mickey to Tiki Tu Meke

To argue that Tiki was a trivialisation of Māori cultural and aesthetic traditions ignores Frizzell’s broader intentions. Unlike Schoon and Walters, Frizzell was creating his work at a time when issues around colonisation and cultural dominance were commonly acknowledged. Tiki is at once an appropriation, and a self-conscious look at the issues around appropriation. The reality of Tiki is that Frizzell is not recalling shonky Māori art, but shonky pakeha art from a time of “blissful [insensitivity] to the politics of cultural interaction.”[31] Curator and writer Robert Leonard attributes the “painful and disturbing contradictions”[32] within Frizzell’s tiki to the state of pakeha identity:

In Europe, ‘primitive’ art was assimilated into a local idiom — that of modernism. The New Zealand situation was very different. Our artists typically misunderstood not only the local ‘primitive’ art they were appropriating but also a modernism that must have seemed equally distant. It is this state of double confusion that Frizzell recalls in his tiki.[33]

Frizzell’s work is not appropriating Māori motifs as a primitivist pilfering of cultural aesthetics. Rather, it tries to make sense of the pakeha identity that sits within “the gap between a local that is foreign and a ‘home’ that is distant.”[34] It is natural for pakeha artists to explore their experience of life in New Zealand, as closely tied to Māori traditions as that must be. What is problematic is Frizzell’s representation of pakeha primitivism “not as serious, powerful or oppressive, but wacky, goofy and deeply mistaken.”[35] Of course, it’s hard to argue with this assessment, but by standing back and laughing at pakeha traditions of appropriation as the quaint actions of a misguided people Frizzell at once diminishes the responsibility of European New Zealanders, symbolically places himself on equal footing with Māori people and denies his power as a member of a dominant culture. Just as Schoon spoke for the Māori people with whom he lived through the framework of Western cultural institutions, so Frizzell draws notice to Māori voices that can only garner attention when endorsed by a white, European man[36].

Peter Robinson, Painting 1993, Tar, Wax, Earth and Oil on canvas, 1993; Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

Whilst Frizzell’s attempts at addressing questions of identity and appropriation are commendable, Māori artist Peter Robinson’s work achieves this aim more fully. The questions asked by Robinson make central the experience of Māori people in the present, and the ways in which they might reconcile their pakeha heritage with their often diluted Māori heritage. Unlike all of the artists previously mentioned, Robinson’s family history does give him the right to question and explore the use of Māori motifs. His “Percentage Paintings parade the watering down of his brown blood through successive degenerations: 100%, 50%, 25%, 12.5%, 6.25%, 3.125%.”[37] Using a mix of Māori and pakeha images and patterns, Robinson acknowledges his mixed heritage and makes an argument for Māori and pakeha cultures each incorporating elements of the other. A focus on the purity of traditional cultural expressions has the potential to romanticise Māori culture whilst hiding the reality that, according to Ngahuia te Awekotuku, “the Māori world is still heavily under siege”[38], struggling against cultural, social and economic inequality. Robinson’s work allows for those struggles to be acknowledged and explored, representing Māori culture as alive and moving the debate in a direction that permits the inclusion of contemporary Māori voices.

The undercurrent of Theo Schoon’s later work — evolving from a place of cultural integration and education — was a belief in his role as guardian over traditional artistic methodologies, echoing the colonial allocation of value to particular cultural elements, and mistrust in the ability of indigenous peoples to maintain their own culture.[39] In contrast, Gordon Walters denied early on that Māori culture played any role in the development of his signature designs, suspiciously close to koru as they are. Dick Frizzell’s Tiki exhibition marked a shift in thinking around the dominance of European culture and its dominion over the indigenous traditions of New Zealand, attempting to address questions of appropriation by self-consciously engaging in the practice himself. And Peter Robinson’s Percentage Paintings signified the beginning of prioritising Māori voices and being open to the issues of contemporary Māori people.

Investigation into the work of Theo Schoon, Gordon Walters and Dick Frizzell confirms the assertion of Panoho that much has been taken from Māori culture in New Zealand with very little being given in return. Whilst some cross-cultural integration is an inevitable result of colonisation, the attempts by each of these artists to examine their own relationship to the indigenous culture of their country has led to the creation of art that appropriates elements of Māori tradition built upon the learnt belief in the passivity of tribal culture. In their differing attempts to positively influence Māori traditions, the western lens through which they have approached their task has blinded them to the fact that as white men, they will always be outsiders. The right to tell Māori stories and voice Māori concerns is tied to Māori heritage, and cannot be earned. The work of Peter Robinson gives hope that artists are beginning to understand this, by ensuring that Māori voices are central to debates that concern their communities. Whilst the cultural dominance of the west remains in New Zealand, work such as Robinson’s is imperative. Pakeha artists must actively step aside, accept that their ties to Māori culture are limited and defer to those born with the right to speak.

Bibliography

Bell, L., ‘Walters and Māori Art: The Nature of a Relationship?’, in James Ross and Laurence Simmons (eds.), Gordon Walters: Order and Intuition (Auckland: Private Press, 1989),

p. 13

Brunt, P., ‘Since ‘Choice!’: Exhibiting the ‘New Māori Art’’, in Anna Smith & Lydia Wevers (eds.), Victoria University Press On Display: New Essays in Cultural Studies (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2001), p. 215

Dutta, M., Communicating Social Change: Structure, Culture and Agency (New York: Routledge, 2011)

Leonard, R., ‘3.125% Pure: Peter Robinson Plays the Numbers Game’, Art and Text, no. 50, 1996, accessed at Robert Leonard: Contemporary Art Writer and Curator [website] <http://robertleonard.org/3-125-pure-peter-robinson-plays-the-numbers-game/

Leonard R., & McCormack, J., ‘Dick Frizzell: Beyond the Pale’, Art Asia Pacific, no. 2, 1993, accessed at Robert Leonard: Contemporary Art Writer and Curator [Website] <http://robertleonard.org/dick-frizzell-beyond-the-pale/>

Mané-Wheoki, J., ‘The Resurgence of Māori Art: Conflict and Continuities in the Eighties’, The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 7 (1995), p. 10

Onciul, B., ‘Indigenous Peoples and International Museology’, Museums, Heritage and Indigenous Voice: Decolonising Engagement, (New York: Routledge, 2015)

O’Neil, L., ‘Art vs Craft: The Impact of Colonial Vision’, Craft Victoria [website], February 2012 <http://www.craft.org.au/news/art-vs-craft/>

Panoho, R., ‘Māori: At the Centre, On the Margins’, Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art, Exhibition Catalogue (Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2002), p. 130

Pound, F., The Invention of New Zealand: Art & National Identity, 1930–1970 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2009), p. 283

Richardson, D., ‘The Problem of Aboriginal Art’, Quadrant Online [website], October 2008

<https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2008/10/the-problem-of-aboriginal-art/>

Simpson, M., Making Representations: Museums in the Post-Colonial Era (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 188

Te Awakotoku, N., ‘In Conversation with Elizabeth Eastmond and Priscilla Pitts’, Antic 1, vol. 44–55, 1986, p. 48

Trotter, M. & McCulloch, B. ‘Frenchmans Gully and Theo Schoon’, Archaeology in New Zealand, New Zealand Archaeological Association, vol. 43.2 (2000), p. 146

Wood, A., ‘Double Vision: Redressing Theo Schoon’s Absence from New Zealand Art History’, Masters Thesis (University of Canterbury, 2003), p. 81

[1] Andrew P. Wood, ‘Double Vision: Redressing Theo Schoon’s Absence from New Zealand Art History’, Masters Thesis (University of Canterbury, 2003), p. 81

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid., p. 66

[4] ibid., p. 65

[5] ibid., p. 65

[6] Francis Pound, The Invention of New Zealand: Art & National Identity, 1930–1970 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2009), p. 283

[7] Michael Trotter & Beverley McCulloch, ‘Frenchmans Gully and Theo Schoon’, Archaeology in New Zealand, New Zealand Archaeological Association, vol. 43.2 (2000), p. 146

[8] ibid

[9] Donald Richardson, ‘The Problem of Aboriginal Art’, Quadrant Online [website], October 2008

<https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2008/10/the-problem-of-aboriginal-art/>

[10] Louise O’Neil, ‘Art vs Craft: The Impact of Colonial Vision’, Craft Victoria [website], February 2012 <http://www.craft.org.au/news/art-vs-craft/>

[11] Bryony Onciul, ‘Indigenous Peoples and International Museology’, Museums, Heritage and Indigenous Voice: Decolonising Engagement, (New York: Routledge, 2015)

[12] Andrew P. Wood, ‘Double Vision: Redressing Theo Schoon’s Absence from New Zealand Art History’, Masters Thesis (University of Canterbury, 2003), p. 83

[13] Jonathan Mané-Wheoki, ‘The Resurgence of Māori Art: Conflict and Continuities in the Eighties’, The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 7 (1995), p. 10

[14] Rangihiroa Panoho, ‘Māori: At the Centre, On the Margins’, Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art, Exhibition Catalogue (Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2002), p. 130

[15] ibid., p. 131

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid.

[18] ibid.

[19] Mohan J. Dutta, Communicating Social Change: Structure, Culture and Agency (New York: Routledge, 2011)

[20] Rangihiroa Panoho, ‘Māori: At the Centre, On the Margins’, Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art, Exhibition Catalogue (Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2002), p. 124

[21] ibid., p. 129

[22] ibid., p. 132

[23] Gordon Walters designed the koru logo for the New Zealand Film Commission in 1990, and the koru design also features as Air New Zealand’s logo

[24] Leonard Bell, ‘Walters and Māori Art: The Nature of a Relationship?’, in James Ross and Laurence Simmons (eds.), Gordon Walters: Order and Intuition (Auckland: Private Press, 1989),

p. 13

[25] Ngahuia Te Awakotoku, ‘In Conversation with Elizabeth Eastmond and Priscilla Pitts’, Antic 1, vol. 44–55, 1986, p. 48

[26] Leonard Bell, ‘Walters and Māori Art: The Nature of a Relationship?’, in James Ross and Laurence Simmons (eds.), Gordon Walters: Order and Intuition (Auckland: Private Press, 1989),

p. 18

[27] Rangihiroa Panoho, ‘Māori: At the Centre, On the Margins’, Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art, Exhibition Catalogue (Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2002), p. 129

[28] ibid.

[29] Robert Leonard & John McCormack, ‘Dick Frizzell: Beyond the Pale’, Art Asia Pacific, no. 2, 1993, accessed at Robert Leonard: Contemporary Art Writer and Curator [Website] <http://robertleonard.org/dick-frizzell-beyond-the-pale/>

[30] Robert Leonard & John McCormack, ‘Dick Frizzell: Beyond the Pale’, Art Asia Pacific, no. 2, 1993, accessed at Robert Leonard: Contemporary Art Writer and Curator [Website] <http://robertleonard.org/dick-frizzell-beyond-the-pale/>

[31] ibid

[32] ibid

[33] ibid

[34] ibid

[35] ibid

[36] George Hubbard’s exhibition was not recognised or widely patronized, but his essay in Frizzell’s exhibition catalogue received recognition, see: Peter Brunt, ‘Since ‘Choice!’: Exhibiting the ‘New Māori Art’’, in Anna Smith & Lydia Wevers (eds.), Victoria University Press On Display: New Essays in Cultural Studies (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2001), p. 215

[37] Robert Leonard, ‘3.125% Pure: Peter Robinson Plays the Numbers Game’, Art and Text, no. 50, 1996, accessed at Robert Leonard: Contemporary Art Writer and Curator [website] <http://robertleonard.org/3-125-pure-peter-robinson-plays-the-numbers-game/

[38] Ngahuia Te Awakotoku, ‘In Conversation with Elizabeth Eastmond and Priscilla Pitts’, Antic 1, vol. 44–55, 1986, p. 48

[39] Moira G. Simpson, Making Representations: Museums in the Post-Colonial Era (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 188

Curator | PhD Candidate @ La Trobe University developing ways to curate for the absence of images of women in Australian art history

Curator | PhD Candidate @ La Trobe University developing ways to curate for the absence of images of women in Australian art history