Art Asia Pacific, no. 16, 1997.
Permit me a generalisation. Colonised people often find themselves caught in a double bind. On the one hand they have been disparaged, decimated, disempowered; on the other hand they are idealised. They are routinely promoted as being closer to the land and to their selves, as being more spiritual, more human. Paradoxically, such idealisation results from a debasing. Dispossessed of the material base of their culture, their cultural values no longer function as an operating system. Once the economic, pragmatic dimension of cultural values is lost, ‘culture’ can be reified as a purely spiritual or artistic matter. For the dispossessed, it can be tempting to occupy an abstracted cultural position as if it were a point of resistance from which one might escape the logic of the colonising culture—and yet this position is already inscribed within a colonial logic. It’s a double bind.
This is certainty the case in New Zealand where Maori have long been involved in an economic and cultural struggle against the colonising European ‘Pakeha’ culture. Certainly Maori have lost a lot. Despite the Treaty of Waitangi (1840), designed to secure indigenous rights in the face of European settlement, tribes had their lands taken by conquest, confiscation, and other ruses. Today Maori resistance lurches from demonstrations of spiritual strength and cultural integrity to admissions of inadequate education, poverty, and illness. Significantly, in the art world, the ‘strength’ paradigm is dominant. Contemporary Maori art waves the flag, trafficking in big feelings and worthy concerns. Of late, it has even become a hot commodity—a guilt-edged investment reigning in showroom and seminar room alike.
Maori are seeking the return of lands and the restoration of economic rights under the Treaty. Huge amounts of money are at stake and the questions of who gets a cut of the cake and how big a cut are major bones of contention. Not only are there debates between Maori and Pakeha, there are also debates among Maori over the principle and details of the deal. One of the big questions is who counts as Maori; who has a right to claim? Generations of intermarriage, assimilation, and detribalisation add to the dilemma. Is the restoration to be individual or collective; tribal or pan-tribal?
Peter Robinson is a part-Maori artist. In 1993, having already achieved a market share for a few years of work exploring his Maori heritage, outlining Maori cosmology and trading in worthy ecological con-cern, he had a radical change of heart. He began a series of rustic Percentage Paintings, rough grounds covered with crude graphics. The works resembled ancient rock drawings or more recent graffiti. With their clumsy evocations of Maori spirals and the look of roadside signage, these works parade the watering down of Robinson’s Maori blood through successive degenerations, literally writing the countdown from 100 to 3.125 per cent. These works might seem to question how Robinson could have been so easily accepted as a Maori artist and his integrity in positioning himself as such.
Robinson’s Maori blood comes from his great, great, great-grand-father, who is Ngai Tahu. The Ngai Tahu tribe lay claim to much of New Zealand’s South Island and the fishing rights that go with it. If restoration is tribally based, Ngai Tahu stand to gain a lot. The tribe has had claims filed in the courts for 150 years—they’re seasoned campaigners in the halls of power. Certainly, they were major players and beneficiaries in the recent Sealord deal, involving a big settlement over Maori deep-sea fishing rights. But, as if to undermine their case, Professor John Gould, a first-generation immigrant from Bristol, has argued that Ngai Tahu are the least Maori of Maori tribes. His assessment is based on a variety of factors, including income, education, and self-definition. Gould calls them ‘the white tribe of Ngai Tahu’. It is true that Ngai Tahu had a head start on intermarriage, and so tend to look whiter, but should that make them less Maori in the eyes of the law? Hana O’Regan, a Ngai Tahu academic, says Gould’s view ‘reflects an indulgence in the biological arithmetic which calculates culture and inherited rights in terms of fractions of genealogical descent’. It is precisely this arithmetic that Robinson addresses in his Percentage Paintings.
Robinson’s work stands proud from so much branded contemporary Maori art which would parade its well-appointed tradition and deeply held spiritual beliefs. Robinson adopts a very different approach in deal-ing with the colonial legacy. In place of the spiritual and noble, his works assert vulgar economics—filthy lucre. They resemble hoardings for some bargain basement clear-out sale, bearing slogans like ‘MASSIVE REDUCTIONS’, ‘WE PAY FOR YOUR INTEREST’, ‘REDUCED TO CLEAR’, and ‘SOLD OUT’. These works seem to comment at once on the economic, political and cutural plight of Maori through history and the current market success enjoyed by contemporary Maori artists, for whom cultural values are stock-in-trade. Some of Robinson’s jokes betray dubious taste. For instance, the slogan ‘MANY LINES REDUCED’ could be understood to conflate the Maori killed by war and disease in the early contact years and the clearance of the remains of last season’s hot Maori art.
In making light of the current penchant for contemporary Maori art and the pieties of identity politics, Robinson has been accused of biting the hand that feeds him. Needless to say, this has proved to be a shrewd move—Robinson has become one of New Zealand’s most fashionable artists. In 1995, a major group show, Cultural Safety: Contemporary Art from New Zealand, showcased his work at the Frankfurter Kunstverein and Robinson picked up a residency in Aachen for his trouble. Robinson made a big new work for Frankfurt, a huge glider, tightly clad in red, black and white blankets. The plane was two steps forward and two steps back for the artist, serving as a kind of bridge between his more pious, earlier pieces and the new work. It was a profoundly ambiguous work. The organisers put it on the cover of the catalogue.
How would this work be understood? Would the Germans see it as a metaphor for careerism, with Robinson presenting himself as an antipodean high-flier—Mr Art Junket? Perhaps they would understand it as beached—a wake (canoe/vehicle) that can’t get airborne under its own steam; or perhaps a stealthy reconnaissance plane, scoping out the territory. They might not have recognised the simplified tailplane as a waka prow. They wouldn’t have made the connection to waka tupapaku (burial chests)—a key reference point in Robinson’s earlier work. And they couldn’t have registered the nod to Pakeha artist Colin McCahon, who used aeroplane crosses to evoke the Maori notion of the soul’s flight after death.
Perhaps the Germans would see a reference to Joseph Beuys. After all, felt blankets were used in healing the Luftwaffe-pilot-turned-artist. Certainly Robinson’s plane is a surrogate body (it even has an eye) and many of the aeroplanes that populate his works look suspiciously swastika-like. However, I doubt the Germans would have made the connection with the role of blankets in the early contact economy. Blankets were a mixed blessing: a key trade item, they are believed to have contributed to Maori deaths in the old days by harbouring disease. Would the Germans embrace the black, red and white colour scheme as referring to Nazism, or recognise in them in the trademark colours of traditional Maori art? Whatever, if they read the plane in terms of their own place in the world, and on the claims once made for blood purity, they may not have been far from the truth.
The show’s title, Cultural Safety, was doubtless obscure to those outside New Zealand. It referred not simply to the slippery politics of curating export art shows. At home, it labels the current imperative to acknowledge a cultural dimension in Maori health. Cultural safety policy has been criticised by many Pakeha, who resent Maori getting ‘special treatment’.
During his stay in Aachen, Robinson embarked on a new body of work exemplifying his desire to position himself in the wider art world. Instead of dealing diplomatically with the Europeans, Robinson writes his strategic plans up large. The new works are full of good advice: ‘APPEAL TO THE DESIRE FOR EXOTICA AND FAR AWAY PLACES, USE FORMULAS PROVEN TO WORK AND ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR PREDECESSORS—PEOPLE ENJOY LINKS, DESTABILISE YOUR PUBLIC WHETHER THEY ARE TANGATA WHENUA OR NOT, APPEAL TO PEOPLE’S VANITY BY ALLOWING THEM TO FEEL SMARTER THAN YOU, KISS ASS AND GREASE AS MANY PALMS AS POSSIBLE, LAUGH AT THEIR JOKES NO MATTER HOW UNFUNNY.’ Alongside these pointers Robinson offers tour-guide images of Europe’s prized cultural monuments, churches, statues and windmills and phonetically spelt, get-by phrases in European languages.
In several works, Robinson makes it clear that he plans not only to infiltrate the European scene and become a big gun, but also to subdue the natives and sell off their cultural treasures, reversing the colonial process. For the 1996 exhibition Inclusion/Exclusion in Graz, Robinson decorated a crate offering European taonga (cultural treasures) at knock-down prices. Not wanting anyone to miss the point, he even installed a real-estate For Sale sign outside the Kunstlerhaus. Acting as the king of all he surveys, Robinson epitomised presumption, echoing the swagger of the European settlers of New Zealand.
The use of the term ‘strategic plan’ has great local resonance in New Zealand. It is part of the New Right talk that has gripped New Zealand since the mid-1980s and has now completely colonised the cultural sector. This is the hegemonic language of ‘self-reliance’ (read: ‘you’re on your own’), the lingo of the residual welfare state. (It is a great irony that the welfare state is being dismantled at the same moment that treaty claims are finally being resolved.) Through this language, failure, and poverty are consistently blamed on the absence of a personal or corporate strategic plan: goals and objectives. In Robinson’s hands, the New Right self-help guide is reinterpreted as a help-yourself guide. His goals and objectives appear to be: forget deeply held spiritual beliefs, concentrate on asset stripping, stockpile get-out-of-jail-free cards, trample on the rights of others, do unto others.
Robinson is happy to play the part of the yobbo, the package tourist, the shifty real-estate guy, the philistine peasant who doesn’t know how to behave ‘proper’ in the capitals of the civilised world. Rather than come on deep and meaningful, he instead makes the indigenous people of Europe seem spiritual by contrast. In the face of criticisms from European New Zealanders that Maori are being greedy in their claims on the treaty. Robinson asks the obvious question: ‘Isn’t that the name of the game?’
Robinson casts art as cultural war, and he invites us into his war room to show off his big board. For his contribution to the last Sao Paulo Biennial a world map lay across a table. On it, small models of black and white tanks were arranged in battle formations. Behind this, the artist draped another big strategic plan. Sao Paulo has been called the Third World Biennial, absorbing, as it does, those areas off the art map into the discourse of the centre. Universalis was the name of this show, in which Robinson found himself sharing the stage with bark painters and the like. But on this occasion, Robinson’s work made a lie of the universal in favour of the political, nagging the repressive tolerance of his hosts while grateful for the invitation.
With his finely honed sense of cultural insensitivity, Robinson seems to stride in guns blazing, but it would be a mistake to•downplay the latent pathos of the work. We know that victory isn’t just around the corner, that the strategic plan won’t work, that Robinson’s work will remain that of a culture peripheral to the big deal, and Maori claims on the treaty will simply be accommodated. Really, Robinson’s strategic plan is played for laughs. How long can he get by being the fall guy of his own jokes?
This sense of pathos and tragedy is epitomised in a recent untitled drawing. A swastika is awkwardly rendered on a bit of brown paper. It looks like the work of a non-artist, someone who couldn’t get the three dimensions right, couldn’t afford good materials. This logo is accompanied by the incredible battle cry: ‘Pakeha Have Rights Too’. The drawing echoes the deluded sentiments of those of New Zealand’s poor whites, who, themselves dispossessed of political, economic and cultural life, resent all the attention given to Maori issues on TV. These are the ones who constantly moan about the amount of ‘our money’ Maori broadcaster-politicians are caught investing in their flash underwear.
Robinson’s cruddy, mutant swastika epitomises what is most compelling in his work—simultaneous intimations of power and defeat, authority and gutlessness. Robinson’s works reflect the contradictions of political life in New Zealand today. He may have no solutions but he has the problems down pat.