Art New Zealand, no. 59 (1991).
‘Contemporary Maori art’ is a contested term. There is disagreement on where to draw the line, on what kinds of work can be admitted as ‘contemporary Maori’. Some will tell you Maori art is simply art made by Maori. Others will permit only those works by Maori which express traditional Maori concepts or values, use traditional materials and iconography. Some argue that the very idea of ‘contemporary Maori art’ is nonsensical, that Maori art is communal, marae based—necessarily ‘traditional’. Underlying the debate is a fear that Maori culture might be corrupted from outside. There is a desire to preserve what is essentially Maori in Maori art, but there is conflict over where that essence resides.
Curated as an alternative ‘1990’ exhibition by George Hubbard for Artspace, Choice! argued that the desire for a truly Maori Maori art is denying Maori artists the opportunity to be any more than ‘bearers of tradition and children of nature’, ‘representers of the land and the past’. Hubbard’s show sought to grant some attention to Maori artists whose work does not fall within what he sees as the limiting prescriptions of ‘contemporary Maori art’.1 Placed at the heart of the exhibition and its argument were three word sculptures by Michael Parekowhai. These works certainly seem unphased by ‘orthodox notions of Maoriness’, apparently preferring to touch base with the most recent developments in American art, notably the word sculptures of Nancy Dwyer. In fact, at first glance, they seem to have nothing to do with anything Maori. But looks can be deceptive, willfully so in this case.
With minimal form and uninflected surfaces, Atarangi might be thought to side with American neo geo. A set of ten huge blocks—magnified versions of the Cuisenaire rods introduced into New Zealand schools in the late 1960s to teach basic maths—have been stacked to form the word ‘HE’, tipped on its side. The work’s blocky architectural formality is belied by the jolly colours of the rods. The fact that ‘HE’ has been displaced could be read as implying that education is emasculation. And clearly the Pakeha education system has been used to undermine and efface Maori identity. Then again Atarangi can also be read as a stylised ‘primitive’ figure—the three uprights recalling forms in Maori carving. So, perhaps it is saying that it is Maori identity that is triumphant and ‘English’ identity that has been displaced.
Apparently, Cuisenaire’s system never worked that well. New Zealand children found it hard to assign number values to the rods. However Cuisenaire rods are now coming into their own as a tool for teaching oral Maori. In the Atarangi method, Cuisenaire rods become props around which conversations are conducted in Maori. This work could be seen as a celebration of the Atarangi method, as the assertion of a Maori identity that recuperates Pakeha devices for its own ends. But, Parekowhai is also breaking the rules of the Atarangi system. In Atarangi classes, English is not spoken, and, stressing the oral basis of the Maori language, writing is not used either. Under the name of Atarangi, Parekowhai is using the rods to write, and in English. The word ‘HE’ can still be read. Displaced, it’s still at least as legible as ‘the figure’. In fact, because the word is symmetrical around a horizontal axis, it can now be read from both front and back—the letters don’t appear reversed as they would if ‘HE’ was still on his feet. Oddly, in a sense, this word’s legibility has increased with its displacement.
I have read Atarangi as asserting two identities as mutually exclusive. However, we could also read it as saying that the figure is ‘HE’ and ‘HE’ is the figure; that image and text—Pakeha identity and Maori identity—are implicit in one another. I am reminded of those of McCahon’s Necessary Protection works which similarly suggest both a landscape (image) and the letter ‘I’ (text). Like Parekowhai’s Atarangi, they can be read as implying that the two terms are mutually exclusive (because one cannot read image and text at once) or identical (different sides of the same coin). Rather than either of these readings being correct, it is the fact that the readings are equally plausible despite being mutually exclusive that seems to be the point.
The Indefinite Article continues Parekowhai’s play on the word ‘he’. In this work ‘I AM HE’ is spelt out in monstrous free-standing 3-D letters after the café cubist manner of Colin McCahon’s 1954 painting I Am. The phrase ‘I am’, and variants upon it, appear throughout McCahon’s work. It is the name and definition of God, who confides to Moses at the burning bush, ‘I AM WHO I AM’ (Exodus 3:14). This statement advances God as the prime and necessary identity, the sure thing upon which all other identities are contingent. But, McCahon plays on the slippage in meaning between God and ‘the self’, God and his self, by playing on the shifty nature of the first-person pronoun—the fact its reference moves to whoever is speaking or thinking it at the time.2 Intriguingly, McCahon’s works confuse the identities of the artist and The Creator to the point that he could be accused of blowing his own trumpet. The Indefinite Article with its mock grandeur—the silliness of cubist forms projected back into the third dimension—is easily read as satire on McCahon’s cumbersome ego. Parekowhai explicitly masculinises McCahon’s assertion, but makes it seem portentous—heavy beyond belief.
But more than simply the male pronoun in English, in Maori ‘he’ becomes The Indefinite Article, equivalent of ‘a’ or ‘some’; and also the equivalent, of ‘wrong’. ‘I AM HE’ then could be read not as `I am the one’, but rather ‘I am a one’ or ‘I am wrong’—not an arrogant assertion of primacy, but an admission of partiality or guilt. The title endorses this reading. Parekowhai delivers not a genuine McCahon—the definite article—but a counterfeit, a fake. Nevertheless, Parekowhai makes it on a monumental scale and more substantial than the original. The work could also be read as an assertion of being not the one, but a one, or some (of) one, being part of something bigger rather than a whole thing in oneself. It could be an endorsement of community, the communal nature of Maori society perhaps;3 or a recognition of our dependent identity as subjects of God.
The autobiographical dimension of the assertion ‘I AM HE’ is neatly underlined by the fact it is an anagram of Parekowhai’s Christian name, containing all but two letters from it (and containing two tell-tale spaces between the words from where those letters might have been excised). The two missing letters—’C’ and ‘L’—are the only letters in his first name not present in the Maori alphabet. It is as if Parekowhai had dropped the Pakeha aspect of his name, and yet this work takes on board plenty of other Pakeha references. Parekowhai’s identity, his Maori identity, is subtly and simultaneously both asserted and declined.
Another partial anagram of Parekowhai’s Christian name is employed in ‘Everyone Will Live Quietly’ Micah 4:4. Here, the name of the Old Testament prophet is spelt out four times in block letters, laminated with greenstone formica. The work puns not only on the proper names of the prophet and the artist, but also on the proper name of the material which dresses it: Formica. The work offers the prophet’s name as a trademark—Micah Corp. And why not? After all, the block letters in McCahon’s hyper-religious text paintings of the 1950s—such as I Am (1954) and I and Thou (1954–5)—were derived from the 3-D letters then favoured in common advertisements. Likewise, Parekowhai’s block letters look as though they’ve been set up for the filming of a television commercial.
It is easy to see how the book of Micah could be of interest to Maori people. Micah advances the years of exile as a time of testing for the Jewish people. Micah promises a utopia at the end—a reason to maintain the faith. In Maori terms, the exile can be equated with colonialism; and the establishment of Zion, the new Jerusalem, with the resurgence of Maoritanga. The letters of Parekowhai’s Micah rest on the floor. We stoop to read them. Small, dark, with great visual compression and the implied weight of greenstone, they are heavy but humble. With such qualities, Parekowhai’s work could be seen to endorse Micah and his utopian message.
Micah was one of the Old Testament’s strongest advocates for ‘true’ religion. His instructions to ignore false prophets and remain true to God could be translated as a call to practise a ‘true’ Maori culture. But while Micah demands purity, Parekowhai’s Micah exemplifies adulteration. The use of greenstone formica foregrounds the inauthenticity. Not a Maori material, but a Pakeha one; not natural, but artificial; not stone, but plastic; not solid, but a laminate. This work masquerades as a carving, but it is literally and metaphorically a construction. Here, the name of a vulgar contemporary product is conflated with the names of a supposed mouthpiece for the divine and of the artist. Parekowhai makes us wonder whether Micah was himself the genuine article or a fake. Instead of being ‘for’ Micah in the sense of an endorsement, the work could be ‘for’ Micah in the sense of being a reply to Micah.
Parekowhai is a slippery customer. He works like a jester, testing limits. Enigmatic, open to quite contradictory readings—it’s the extreme simplicity of these works that force their ambiguities to the fore. They put us in a position where we have to choose whether to read them as authentic or fake, Maori or Pakeha, pure or impure, devoted or blasphemous. Our choice will be informed by things cultural, whether we can read Maori or not, are a believer or disbeliever, etc. But, Parekowhai’s works deny the possibility of closure. It’s because there always seem to be other possibilities for interpreting these works that we are each forced to confront our desire to read them in the way we do.4
- Choice! included works by Jacqueline Fraser, Rongotai Lomas, Barnard McIntyre, Michael Parekowhai, Diane Prince, Lisa Reihana, and Darryl Thomson. The curator’s statement ‘Beyond Kia Ora: The Paraesthetics of Choice!’, co-written with Robyn Craw, was reprinted in Antic, no. 8, December 1990: 28.
- See Wystan Curnow, I Will Need Words: Colin McCahon’s Word and Number Paintings (Wellington: National Art Gallery, 1984).
- I asked Parekowhai about the scale of Atarangi. He said Cuisenaire rods were made small so they could be manipulated by small hands. Cuisenaire rods exemplify a strategy for learning that stresses individual achievement. He liked the idea of bigger blocks which children could not manage on their own, so that they would have to learn to be co-operative. Different sized blocks entail different social relations. Parekowhai envisages a performance in which a group of small children assemble a giant version of Atarangi from massive rods.
- Parekowhai’s works were wittily priced for the Artspace show. Atarangi was $1,350—1350 being the year Elsdon Best estimated that the Maori arrived in New Zealand. ‘Everyone Will Live Quietly’ Micah 4:4 was $1,840—1840 being the year the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. The Indefinite Article was $1,990—1990 being the Sesquicentennial of the signing of the Treaty and the year of the exhibition. Parekowhai had a fourth work in the Choice! show. Contiki was a gumball dispenser apparently full of plastic tikis and a sign offering them at $1.50 each. ‘One cent for every year of the con’, Parekowhai said. Oddly, while the Micah work wore fakery on its sleeve, Contiki hid its authenticity. Rather than plastic, each tiki was in fact a metal casting, electroplated, patinaed, and individually signed—a genuine artwork. On sale were not fake things pretending to be genuine but genuine things pretending to be fake. A reverse con.