Art and Text, no. 50, 1996.
Oh, kia ora! Jake being greeted in Maori, the language of his physical appearance, his actual ethnic existence, and yet they could be speaking Chink-language for all it mattered. Course a man understood kia ora, who doesn’t, even the honkies do, but as for the rest. Made him uncomfortable if they spoke it to him, so Jake always replied in emphatic English …
—Alan Duff, Once Were Warriors (1990)
They say it’s a good time to be a Maori artist in New Zealand. With biculturalism on the front burner, contemporary Maori art is extremely fashionable and eminently bankable—a guilt-edged investment. Public galleries are bending over backwards to compensate for their previous lack of interest: acquiring work, staging exhibitions, publishing worthy texts. The market has opened up. Buyers queued outside a recent commercial-gallery show and all the big works were gone in an hour. No one can remember the last time that happened. Plus, a large proportion of the public commissions are also going to Maori artists.
Peter Robinson exhibits as a Maori artist though he is only fractionally Maori—one of his great-great-great-grandfathers was from the South Island tribe, Ngai Tahu. Robinson happily admits his marginal status. His Percentage Paintings parade the watering down of his brown blood through successive degenerations: 100%, 50%, 25%, 12.5%, 6.25%, 3.125%. They stake his claim to a Maori legacy and yet seem to trivialise it, as if to question how much of a Maori he is or ask whether he’s just jumping on the bandwagon.
Stylised images of canoes (waka), airplanes (wakarere), and cars (motuka) float through the countdown like foreign—or native—bodies in the blood. They suggest walking sticks, corpuscles, sperm, bacteria. Birth, life, disability, and death, colonisation and migration, transmission and dissemination, and purity and pollution—such matters are at the heart of these works. Funny and ominous, the Percentage Paintings present loss of blood purity as a new kind of migration, as much an adventure as a disaster. The waka careering through the veins, negotiating their way, are, like Robinson himself, playing the numbers game.
These unrefined graphic paintings, with their rough grounds, are reminiscent of decaying ancient rock drawings or perhaps more recent graffiti. Numbers are written in crude spirals, bearing only a passing resemblance to the koru of traditional Maori art, as if the artist knew no better. The paintings have little purchase on the authority of this classical tradition—its dexterous carving, painting, and weaving.
The Percentage Paintings tip their hat to Colin McCahon, whose text and number paintings resembled artless, vernacular roadside signage. In some of those works, McCahon himself used wonky koru to make words and numbers. Robinson’s airplanes also recall McCahon’s 1973 Jet Out drawings, in which airborne crosses refer to Maori cosmology—the flight of the spirit after death. Another contact is local abstract painter Gordon Walters. Robinson’s flotilla of waka fuzzily echo Walters’s distinctive, tidily stacked koru. Robinson’s vehicles also connect with the post-contact iconography of the Ratana church, where appropriated images of the airplane and the car refer to spiritual and political aspirations.
The Percentage Paintings contribute to the ‘appropriation debate’ in which pakeha artists such as Walters and McCahon have been alternatively vilified and celebrated for their use of Maori imagery. Some understand their borrowings as homage, some condemn them as theft. Arguing that pakeha should not use these images both because they are ignorant of their meaning and because they are not related to them through whakapapa (genealogy), the prosecution conflates race and culture. The Percentage Paintings question the simplicity of the argument while siding with neither prosecution nor defense. They acknowledge that today’s Maori are inevitably partial, of mixed blood, whakapapa tying Maori and pakeha together as much as distinguishing them. They also present Maori and pakeha cultures as not pure, not distinct. Robinson gets his ‘Maori’ forms via Walters and McCahon as much as from indigenous tradition. Even the Ratana references are compelling in their impurity, their inventive deviation from tradition.
But the Percentage Paintings do much more. They challenge the prevailing notion of ‘authenticity’ in contemporary Maori art. Maori culture is typically presented as distinct, noble, sincere (no irony), spiritual, ecologically sound—a living tradition conflating the authentic with the well-appointed. While appearing PC, this misty-eyed essentialism masks economic and cultural disenfranchisement. It runs the risk of mocking and enhancing the sense of emptiness and displacement that many Maori feel, as if they are not real Maori because they do not walk the walk and talk the talk. The extent to which this identity mythology is less traditional than a construction of the present that simply refers to tradition, is seldom confronted.
Recently, pakeha artist Dick Frizzell pointed to an unconscious conspiracy to present Maori art as exclusively high. In discussing his controversial Tiki Series, based in part on Maori tiki and manaia forms, Frizzell affectionately recalled ‘shonky’ Maori art of earlier times: vernacular work, unschooled in tradition—work that might be considered closer to, appropriation art because it supposedly did not know the traditions from which it sprang.1 In the current moral climate, Frizzell’s position is conveniently characterised as racist—as an attack on the dignity of Maori art. However, Frizzell is also an aficionado of what is derided in his own cultural tradition. His paintings have relentlessly celebrated the spirit and authenticity of low art: comics, package design, graffiti, naive art, and regional landscape painting.
Frizzell’s comment begs the question, why must Maori art (or pakeha art for that matter) be viewed as exclusively blue-blooded? Why should identity be located only in that which is ‘high’? And must authenticity be equated with quality—a habit in the souvenir trade? And what about forms of cultural identity and knowledge that are not based on tradition? As if picking up on Frizzell’s argument, Robinson’s Percentage Paintings, with their wonky spirals and stretched hoon-mobiles, assert an identity less blue-blooded than blue collar. While the politically correct persist in describing New Zealand as the land of the long white cloud, Robinson recognises it as a nation of panel-beaters.
Yet this remains a recent development in Robinson’s work. It was only five years ago that he began to explore his Maori heritage. Robinson made all the appropriate moves: attending artists’ hui (meetings) and seeking the advice of elders. As a Maori artist, Robinson was taken very seriously, being included in museum shows, entering the stable of a blue-chip dealer. In those days, his works expressed ecological concerns in terms of Maori cosmology. For instance, the installation Aitua, first shown in Perth at ARX 3 in 1992, had him illustrating traditional Maori concepts in a proper and earnest manner. Here, the creation story of the separation of Ranginui (sky father) and Papatuanuku (earth mother) is inverted. This work warns that desecration of the environment may return us to the primal darkness. With such works, Robinson was getting caught up in a nostalgic fetishisation of ‘roots’, becoming complicit in the presentation of an authentic Maori identity that was not his.
In an opposite and equal reaction, Robinson produced The Tongue of the False Prophet (1992). The title alone suggests his concern at so rapidly being accepted as the real thing. The four mysterious talismans suggest ancient Maori forms streamlined by Philippe Starck. Clad in materials referring to European colonisation (paint, blankets, glass beads, and pasta), they defy description through either Maori or pakeha frameworks. We do not know whether to read Tongue as totems from some Maori cargo cult or as pakeha misinterpretations of Maori objects. The Tongue of the False Prophet paved the way to the Percentage Paintings.
In his latest show, New Lines/Old Stock, at Christchurch’s Brooke/Gifford Gallery, Robinson has thrown the arguments of his Percentage Paintings into even sharper relief. During the opening, a professional hawker stood outside the gallery cajoling passersby to partake of bargains within. The works look like handmade advertisements for a low-rent massive clearout sale. They are all done in red and black and white—the Maori colours, used in kowhaiwhai, painting, and taniko weaving. Using strongly made slogans like ‘LOST TRIBAL ARTIFACTS/CHEAP/SWAP AND SELL/YOU GET MORE WITH LESS/WHYTES LTD TRUSTED DEALERS FOR OVER 150 YEARS/MANY LINES REDUCED’. Robinson’s sales pitch is an ironic comment both on the present (the commodity status of contemporary Maori art) and history (the daylight robbery of Maori land).
One work finds a car crate converted into a makeshift shelter. This is not a whare whakairo, a finely carved ancestral house—focus for traditional tribal identity. Rather it is accommodation for the dispossessed: street kids, say, escaping bad blood. Not that street kids aren’t tribal in a way. The outside of the crate is covered in commercial offers, but inside the cupboard is bare. A small sign leans against the crate’s back wall. It reads, ‘SORRY SOLD OUT’, offering a role reversal in the broken-promises scenario. A floor piece offers a little black wooden car (marked ‘3.125’) and a little white wooden airplane (marked ‘96.875’) stranded on a red blanket, a relic from the trade wars. There’s a community noticeboard full of commercial messages—reducing sense of community to economic relations. And there’s a line of placards that do not protest but carry more commercials. It is as if these protesters want to sell the very emblems of their struggle to those they are protesting to.
Robinson is, in his own words, ‘part of a lost tribe, a tribe that has lost its Maoriness and is finding its own roots’.2 So, in presenting these works as ‘lost tribal artifacts’, he is referring not to the loss of taonga (tribal treasures providing links with the past) but to his own detribalised identity and to the new treasures that issue from it. He is the inhabitant of a new world and has to find his own way. His identity lies not in a tradition that tells him how and what to be, but in his passionate engagement with being ‘dazed and confused’. In rejecting the noble tradition, Robinson’s work appears heretical as contemporary Maori art. Indeed, he is less interested in finding solutions to a problem than in dwelling on, even relishing, its complexities, its catch-22s.
- ‘I made a visit to the East Coast at the beginning of 1992 looking for shonky Maori art, but I couldn’t find it. It seemed to have disappeared as part of a cleansing, leaving only high art and no lows. I thought I’d paint a whole lot of shonky art to bring back the stuff that was missing.’ Dick Frizzell, quoted in Robert Leonard and John McCormack, ‘Beyond the Pale: Dick Frizzell’s Indigenuity’, Art Asia Pacific, June 1993: 38.
- Megan Tamati-Quennell, ‘Pale by Comparison’, Planet, no. 14, 1994: 60.