Michael Parekowhai: Ten Guitars (Auckland: Artspace, 2000).
There’s a great bit in John O’Shea’s 1966 New Zealand rock-road movie, Don’t Let It Get You. A glamorous young Kiri Te Kanawa, at the dawn of her international career, sits in a Maori meeting house talking to children. Turning on a tape recorder for accompaniment, she breaks into an aria. The camera moves around her as the house of the ancestors is filled with incongruous sounds. The sequence is sexy and surreal. No one would shoot anything like that today, being only too aware of the contradictions involved in such post-colonial scenarios. Now we might be tempted to cast the aspiring diva as a victim, a detribalised person, someone separated from her cultural roots and pressed into mimicking European high culture—someone overimpressed. But in fact it could be read differently: as compelling, authoritative; as embodying a desire so wide-eyed and self-satisfied that the need to police identity need not raise its ugly head. Michael Parekowhai likes that sequence.
For his latest project, Parekowhai has created ten top-of-the-line, customised, hollow-body guitars, jazzed up with paua inlays reproducing classic Maori kowhaiwhai patterns. These flashy instrument were handcrafted by Manganui luthier, Laurie Williams. The project is an obvious nod to Engelbert Humperdinck, whose song ‘Ten Guitars’ is an old Maori standard, having topped their charts back in the 1960s. Maori really took this song—which promotes a utopian social ideal of playing together in harmony—to their hearts, and claimed it as their own. These days, we might consider ‘Ten Guitars’ a bicultural anthem.
I have a band of men and all they do is play for me
They come from miles around to hear them play a melody
Beneath the stars my ten guitars will play a song for you
And if you’re with the one you love this is what you do
Oh, oh, dance, dance, dance, to my ten guitars
And very soon you’ll know just where you are
Through the eyes of love you’ll see a thousand stars
When you dance, dance, dance to my ten guitars
The 1960s have long been a reference point for Parekowhai— he was born in 1968. The 1950s and 1960s was the time of ‘the second migration’, when Maori became detribalised, leaving rural areas in massive numbers to seek work in the cities. In this troubled time however the media routinely favoured images of ‘the happy Maori’, ‘as happy as the day is long’. It is hard to know if this cliche was a patronising slur projected over Maori or a confident face projected out by them. More likely, it was a bit of both. The 1960s was a time of complex and conflicted images of Maori—just look at the covers of Te Ao Hou, the Department of Maori Affairs’ remarkable magazine. On the one hand the magazine represented a flowering of Maori art, literature, and scholarship, on the other it was clearly intended as a means of easing transition, lubricating assimilation. Parekowhai finds vitality in this contradiction. Neither naive nor cynical, he revels in utopian images which, although mired in complexity, or perhaps because of it, remain emblems of a possible way through.
It was in the 1960s that the guitar became the ubiquitous ‘happy Maori’ party instrument. And the boom-chucka-boom-chucka Maori strum, with the strumming hand damping the strings, was certainly distinctive. A sing-along instrument, the guitar was part of the furniture, something to be passed around—joint property. You didn’t have to bring one to a party, there would always be one there. It symbolised and facilitated community at a time when traditional tribal structures were giving up the ghost. It was a portable meeting house. They say mimicry occurs where colonialism has done its work, but Parekowhai would stand apart from the authenticity police who lament the Westernisation of Maori music, with old chants and ancient instruments giving way to catchy melodies, tonal harmonies, and guitars. For Parekowhai it was the Maori who colonised the guitar, not the other way round—they found themselves in it.
Not that the artist is oblivious to the downside of Western influence. For Changing Signs, the 1993 Artspace billboard project, he reproduced an Ans Westra photograph of Maori kids in a classroom playing at being a rock band, with a toy drum and an Edmonds baking powder tin on a broomstick as a microphone. Over the top, he printed a John Lennon quote: ‘Before Elvis there was nothing’, pointing to how new ways were erasing the old. Certainly, the King, who took black music and made it his own, has long been a Maori favourite, and Parekowhai himself does a mean Elvis.
In the 1960s, the model of the successful Maori—the Maori ‘done good’—was the performer, be it as entertainer (Kiri Te Kanawa and Howard Morrison) or athlete (particularly rugby players like Waka Nathan). But the idea of performance is not entirely innocent. As Maori were dispossessed of their lands, their culture was steadily reified as a pageant, given a commodity form in the concert party and the Maori show band, where difference was transformed into spectacle. There’s a concern for performance in Parekowhai’s showing here, the consummate crafting of the guitars, their presentation as top-of-the-range, export quality.
It’s interesting to compare Parekowhai’s aspirational luxury instruments with the basic acoustic guitar, incised with kowhaiwhai patterns, that turns up in this year’s movie What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, the sequel to Once Were Warriors. This guitar appears at a crucial juncture, being implicated in the moment of Jake Heke’s redemption, the fire-side sing-song that marks his return to the community. Parekowhai’s Ten Guitars also evokes this possibility of community—we’re all ‘with the band’. The big difference is that his instruments are flash. They are the apotheosis of the Broken Hearted guitar—what it might dream of being. Such instruments are usually one-offs, made for star performers, entertainers, name artists. But here, it’s like everyone in the band gets one. While unique, with distinct patterns and individually numbered off in paua in Maori on the fretboards, they also imply a team.
Not that Parekowhai is mindlessly warm-fuzzy about community. Branding the guitars ‘Patriot’ on their machine heads brings a range of contradictory associations, complicating a simplistically utopian reading. Patriotism implies fighting for ones country or creed, in that flag-waving, hand-on-heart, white bread, country-music way. It also refers specifically to the American Patriot missile—echoed in the guitars’ missile-shaped cases. This high-tech device—supposedly a defensive weapon for the greater good—is used to destroy the enemy’s missiles mid-flight, most successfully in the Gulf War. We are used to the idea of weapons concealed in instrument cases, but here guitars are concealed within missile cases, perhaps recalling American folk singer Woody Guthrie’s guitar, which bore the inscription, ‘This machine kills fascists’. If patriotism insists on belonging, it also requires an other, the possibility of not belonging: one person’s patriot is another’s traitor. So the utopian image of Humperdinck’s happy band playing together is also tainted, politicised—us and them.
But there is another sense in which patriotism operates here. As T.J. McNamara put it in a review of the Artspace show: ‘You have to take out a mental subscription to this kind of art, but once you are a subscriber, the possibilities are endless.’ It is as though the artist were inviting us to become patriots of the guitars themselves, asking us to take them as our treaty, our founding document, our meeting house.
The Guitars are accompanied by a second installation, which also takes its name from an old popular song. The Bosom of Abraham is an arcade of fourteen kowhaiwhai-pattern lightboxes, a generic meeting house. Traditionally the meeting house is where the tribe details and asserts its identity, but it is also where locals and outsiders are made one through a sequence of protocols. It’s a cultural airlock of sorts. Parekowhai’s meeting house does without the most tribally specific aspects—the carvings of ancestors; those features that make it, in the first instance, someone’s place and not another’s. In fact, the kowhaiwhai patterns from the rafters have migrated down to take the place of the carvings. Further the two kowhaiwhai patterns Parekowhai uses are among the most well-known, which, rather than defining a particular quality within Maori culture, today simply indicate Maoriness. Like the Guitars, this is a make-shift modern meeting place for all.
Parekowhai has long engaged the Duchampian idea that the viewer completes the art work. Previous sculptures were based on letter blocks, toys, games, and kitset models, implying that the viewer might physically manipulate the work. Similarly, the guitars long to be played. Resting silent on their stands, they await the band of men who will coax them to life, delivering up a possibility latent within them. Play isn’t simply implied; there have been and will be performances.1 The project opened with a performance by the guitar orchestra, Gitbox, reprising the Maori show band the Quin-Tikis’s number ‘Guitar Boogie’ from Don’t Let It Get You. A pick-up band also played ‘Guitar Boogie’ at Queensland Art Gallery for the 1999 Asia-Pacific Triennial. And more performances are planned. The choice of ‘Guitar Boogie’ is pointed. The Quin Tikis exemplified the play-together spirit of ‘Ten Guitars’ quite literally. In Don’t Let it Get You, we see one player picking and another fingering the notes on the same guitar, coordinated in a virtuoso show.
The guitars are also commodities. The artist insists they be split up, sold off as individuals, available to collectors, museums, and musicians alike. So the guitars have potentially different destinies: one may be played in church or by Neil Finn, another kept in a glass case. However there is always the possibility—and intention—that they be reunited, played together again at a different time and place, bringing their histories with them. A reunion gig. The idea of return is crucial. Parekowhai’s Ten Guitars is nostalgic for a time when Maori, at least in representations like Don’t Let It Get You, could believe in both putting differences aside and retaining their selves.