(With Wystan Curnow) Colin McCahon: On Going Out with the Tide, exhibition guide (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 2017).
The painter Colin McCahon is New Zealand’s most celebrated artist—his name is synonymous with New Zealand art. He emerged in the late 1940s and was active into the early 1980s. Over this time, his work underwent major formal and conceptual transformations. His diverse oeuvre includes landscapes, figurative paintings, abstractions, word and number paintings, and various combinations of these. McCahon’s work was inventive and inspiring—New Zealand art developed around it. Critics argued over its virtues and implications; other artists produced work in response to it. McCahon cast a long shadow. In 1987, he died.
In the 1990s, McCahon’s position in the culture changed. His work ceased to be part of the cut-and-thrust of the contemporary-art discussion and he became a more canonical, historical figure. In 1997, his works were reproduced on postage stamps. It is now fifteen years since the last McCahon survey show—Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 2002. Our project is a response to the questions: What aspects of McCahon’s work have not yet been fully explored? What kind of McCahon show might speak to the current moment?
On Going Out with the Tide addresses McCahon’s works on Maori subjects and themes from the 1960s and 1970s. These works have not been brought together before. The show locates them at the heart of his project. McCahon’s most radical and consequential work—the work on which his international reputation rests—is his later work, from the mid-1960s on. On Going Out with the Tide, then, is an opportunity to consider how things Maori influenced the most important period of New Zealand’s most celebrated artist. Now, in the twenty-first century, we can understand this work in terms of a tectonic shift in New Zealand culture—emerging biculturalism. This show seeks to place the work in its historical context: first, to understand it in terms of the times in which it was made; second, to attend to how it was interpreted and framed subsequently; and, third, to imagine how it might be read in the future, in the wake of Treaty settlements.
McCahon’s work was a product of its time. In the 1960s and 1970s, as Maori continued to migrate to the cities, mainstream awareness of Maori culture grew, a protest movement pressed for the return of Maori lands and the recognition of Maori language, and contemporary Maori artists and writers emerged—an alternative cultural narrative was revealed. This period has been called the ‘Maori Renaissance’. McCahon’s art fed off and contributed to it. In the early 1960s, McCahon began to incorporate Maori imagery and language into his work. In the late 1960s and 1970s, his interest deepened to include elements of Maori history and cosmology. Maori ideas became integral to his project, his world view. McCahon’s interest was fed by new resources on Maori culture, friendships with writers and artists, and the births of his Maori grandsons, first Matiu, then Peter (Tui). While his interest in things Maori sustained and consolidated longstanding features of his work, it also changed it.
The 1980s were the beginning of a new chapter for New Zealand. The government began to embrace the Treaty of Waitangi as the nation’s founding document, it grappled with the implications of implementing biculturalism, and it extended the powers of the Waitangi Tribunal. As contemporary Maori art and its advocates became increasingly visible, prominent Pakeha artists who had incorporated Maori elements into their work in previous decades were now criticised as appropriators. In this time, contrary views on McCahon’s use of Maori material emerged. For instance, in 1986, the academic Ngahuia Te Awekotuku criticised McCahon for quoting whakapapa in his 1969 painting The Canoe Tainui, considering it culturally insensitive. However, in 1992, the art historian Rangihiroa Panoho would celebrate McCahon’s work for sympathetically engaging Maori content, in contrast to Gordon Walters, whom he criticised for appropriating only the outward forms of Maori art. In the 1990s, a new generation of Maori artists—Michael Parekowhai, Peter Robinson, and Shane Cotton—created works drawing on McCahon and Walters that would complicate and shift the appropriation debate. Today, that debate, itself, seems to be part of history.
These days, McCahon is sometimes read, through post-colonialism, as a ‘settler’ artist, linking his work to the nationalism of such poets and commentators as Charles Brasch, Allen Curnow, and M.H. Holcroft. This emphasises McCahon’s earlier work, where he is seen as naming and claiming a silent and empty land, implicitly sidestepping prior Maori occupancy, history, and claims. From this viewpoint, his later works on Maori subjects and themes represent a change of heart, a course correction.
This reading distorts McCahon’s and his immediate circle of friends’ relation to the Pakeha mainstream. In his formative years, in the 1940s, McCahon was, in his own words, ‘a real Red’, like his Communist Party friend Ron O’Reilly. With Rodney Kennedy, McCahon briefly joined the Quakers (Kennedy was jailed during the war for his pacifist stance). McCahon’s closest painter friend, Toss Woollaston, successfully registered as a conscientious objector. When they gathered in the Nelson region, during the summer fruit-and-tobacco-picking seasons, they visited Riverside, the Christian Pacifist Society’s commune near Mapua. Established in 1941, it’s still a going concern. McCahon’s broad sympathy with its leftist Christian Pacifist values remains implicit in his work from then on, and, in part, explains his interest in the Maori prophets. Like Riverside, Te Whiti’s Parihaka community was based on pacifist principles. Like Parihaka and Rua’s Maungapohatu, Riverside is an experiment in independent community building.
McCahon’s knowledge and understanding of Maori culture was partial and piecemeal. He related to Maori ideas through their spirituality, either seeing Christian and Maori ideas as parallel or looking to the hybrid forms of Maori Christianity. His biculturalism was entangled with his Christianity, which has been seen as limiting it. For Maori, Christianity remains a thorny matter. On the one hand, it was an instrument of colonialism; on the other hand, the Maori prophets hijacked and remade it in their resistance to colonialism. Questions hang over McCahon: To what extent does he engage with Maori cultural difference and to what extent absorb it into his syncretic Christian disposition? How does it change his Christianity? Does it subvert it? Does McCahon’s work represent an opening or an obstacle for the biculturalism that follows and for one yet to come—a gate?
On Going Out with the Tide is a research project. We intend it to be a platform for ongoing discussion, both about McCahon’s work and about the ways the cultural landscape it occupies has shifted. As part of the project, we will be presenting a programme of lectures, talks, and screenings. Our aim is to produce a substantial book later, drawing on what we learn as a result of doing the show and the responses to it.