Nine Lives, ex. cat. (Auckland: Auckland Art Gallery, 2003).
Unveiled in Choice!, 1990’s alternative contemporary-Maori-art show at Auckland’s Artspace, Michael Parekowhai’s work was a shock to the system. His witty, hospitable sculptures seemed to arrive from out of the blue. Slick, conceptual, and ‘unexpressionist’, they didn’t feature traditional Maori images, techniques, or methods. There was nothing distinctly or overtly Maori about them at all. In fact, they looked suspiciously international. They did not hail the genius of tradition or wail for the land, and yet they opened up a world of Maori implications. Rather than wear Maoriness on his sleeve, Parekowhai appropriated images from the dominant culture, subtly recoding them to speak of Maori concerns. In this, they recalled the way Maori have always drawn from the colonising culture for their own needs, for instance taking the Old Testament as a blueprint for resistance. And Parekowhai did this at a time when there was huge anxiety over Pakeha appropriating things Maori, when there was a desire for clarity between what was us and what was them. Part of a paradigm shift, Parekowhai’s work radically exceeded prevailing expectations about what and how contemporary Maori art could be.
Much of Parekowhai’s work refers to childhood generally, and his own childhood specifically. Parekowhai monumentalised children’s toys, games, and models. Adding titles, often biblical ones, he presented them on adult scale as adult conundrums. Letter blocks, Cuisenaire rods, pick-up sticks, and shape blocks were allegorised as spiritual manuals and history books. With Acts (10: 34–38) ‘He Went About Doing Good’ (1993), Parekowhai asked us to reread the game of Jack Straws through his own concerns. The Jack Straws set includes a gun, a saw, a sword, a ladder, a crutch, and a walking stick, strongly implying a colonial past, a time of oppression and healing. In the book of Acts, the apostles were provided with means to do good, to heal, and yet colonial period missionaries did not always live up to this promise. ‘They came to do good, and they did very well’, said Maori artist Selwyn Muru. Similarly many of the items in the Jack Straws set can be used for good or evil. In Parekowhai’s installation we don’t know if they have been cast off, like walking sticks and crutches following healings, or are there to be picked up and used. The piece asks what we might do with them. It invites us to consider all the possibilities.
Throughout his work, Parekowhai has paid homage to Marcel Duchamp, who originated the notion that it is the viewer who completes the work of art by assembling it conceptually. In 1994, he created a suite of monumental sculptures, which looked like moulded plastic kitsets, the kind you have for model airplanes. He created giant, do-it-yourself versions of his earlier works, other artists’ works (including Duchamp’s notorious Fountain), toys and games, and sculptor’s tools (a welder’s gas tanks). The works drew an analogy between the way we physically assemble a kitset and the way we conceptually make something of art. The biggest of them, Kiss The Baby Goodbye, was based on a classic Gordon Walters’s koru painting Kahukura. At the time, there was much criticism of Walters’s appropriation of Maori motifs. The scale of Parakowhai’s kitset Walters implied authority, it became a massive gate, but the format also implied play. Exploiting the fact that Walters’ paintings already resembled kitsets—koru pieces in a frame—Kiss asked us to imagine not constructing a Walters but deconstructing one, empowering us to unframe his work and make something new of it. Gates are meant be opened.
In recent years, Parekowhai’s childhood nostalgia has transmuted into memorialism—death becoming a key theme. He got into taxidermy. Neil Keller and Craig Keller (2000) are big photographs: extreme close-ups of a stuffed rabbit’s glass eye. The images are horrific. It’s like being eyeballed by a monster rodent, except, of course, the eyes are blind. Included in his show, The Beverley Hills Gun Club, these portraits were titled after gunsmiths, conflating the shooters and the shot, hunters and quarry, predators and prey. Parekowhai extended this dialectic of fear and pity in Roebuck Jones and the Cuniculus Kid (2001). Two stuffed rabbits decked out in kids’ cowboy regalia are caught in a high-noon showdown. The piece represents an imminent duel, yet—fatalistically—the protagonists are already dead. In New Zealand, rabbits are imported pests, who are being exterminated, and yet we’ve inherited sympathetic images of bunnies as lovable and cute through English folklore. (Parekowhai grew up on Beatrix Potter, in which the farmer was always bad.) This work draws on our conflicted identifications: rabbits potentially representing both sides of the colonial conflict: villain and victim rolled into one.
The Consolation of Philosophy (2001) finds Parekowhai at his most sombre. It’s a series of photographs of floral arrangements, scrupulous Koonsian bouquets of silk and plastic flowers. The individual images are titled after World War I battlefields in France and Flanders where the volunteers of the Pioneer Maori Battalion fought and died. Fighting was considered a ‘just price’ that would secure Maori the same privileges and recognition at home that Pakeha already enjoyed. The cruel irony is that they went to fight to preserve an empire that had made them second-class citizens in their own land. (The series is titled after a book by the early-sixth-century writer Boethius, who died a prisoner on foreign soil.) Exploiting the distance between the horrors of bloody conflict and the language of official commemoration, the series also enfolds the artist’s personal history: he trained to be a florist before going to art school. The Consolation of Philosophy is odd in Parekowhai’s oeuvre, for being completely unambiguous. It invites remembrance without irony and conceits. But that seems fitting—it’s an appropriate subject not to find amusing.
Robert Leonard: Michael, your work is consistently read through notions of us-and-them. I’ve always liked the way your work plays on the fact that there’s no us without them.
Michael Parekowhai: Yeah, it’s all about us-and-them, Robert. But I like to mix it up a little. I remember really clearly when I was first made to feel like ‘one of them’.
I was six years old, and starting my second year at Windy Ridge Primary School in Glenfield. My Mum—who is Pakeha—was a teacher there. We were being sorted into classes and Mum came over and whipped me out of another teacher’s group and into hers. She never explained why. Maybe she knew that I wasn’t particularly well adjusted at the time. It was too soon after the accident and she could see I needed extra support. Although I was surprised at being plucked out of the crowd, I was never really concerned. It was just a case of ‘Mum knows best’, so I didn’t complain. One day, after break, we were waiting outside ready to go back to class. I was quite flushed from running around enjoying myself and eating chocolate chippie biscuits for playlunch. As usual we lined up in rows—one for boys and one for girls. But that morning, standing at the head of the class, was a strange woman. She began to walk down the lines, inspecting us. Sometimes she’d stop and ask one of us a question or look at someone’s fingernails. We weren’t sure who she was but we could see she had authority because the teacher stood there and did nothing. The woman, probably a district nurse, singled out a few kids for a closer look. Among this group was Eugene Tangiora, Kathryn Edmonds, and me. At the time I happened to be sporting a very distinctive short-back-and-sides. I had a thatch of hair on top and blood-encrusted nicks over the rest of my scalp. In those days Dad still practised backyard barbering and it was a particularly close shave. Although his haircuts weren’t all that predictable they were character-building, he said. The nurse started to examine the children she’d separated out, looking closely at our scalps. When she got to me she also noticed the scabs all over my legs. As a child I had very sensitive skin. I was allergic to all kinds of new-season fruit and, as a result, suffered from hives, which I used to itch and scratch. Often the sores bled and became infected. When the nurse approached me I remember feeling uncomfortable. She asked, ‘Who cut your hair?’ I said, ‘My Dad did.’ Then she asked what I had for dinner and when I went to bed. I tried to make the correct response but I didn’t do a very good job because soon after Mum spoke up and ended the interrogation. ‘Back off. Leave this boy alone. He is my son and I know exactly what he had for dinner and when he went to bed.’ Then realised that the nurse wouldn’t have treated me that way if she’d known it was my mother standing there.
Although she had an intimidating manner, I can’t blame the nurse for making the kind of assessment she did. I displayed the classic physical signs of neglect and abuse, exhibiting abundant evidence of poor personal hygiene, nutrition, and health. On the surface, I was an ‘at risk’ Maori child. However, like most five-year-olds, I didn’t understand what it meant to be different. It wasn’t until I was picked out by an adult who looked critically at my body that I realised that I belonged to an ‘other’, not-very-desirable group. I remember feeling alienated, sad. Looking back, Mum didn’t manage the situation particularly well. Now, I recognise the whole incident was as much about Mum’s and my relationship as it was about the nurse’s attitude. I guess, it was my first experience of how one could be defined through other people’s views, in this case both persons trying to protect me, trying to ‘do the right thing’. I guess them-and-us seems simple, but it’s not really.