1For a very thorough discussion of Te Papa’s raison d’être, see Conal McCarthy, Te Papa: Reinventing New Zealand’s National Museum, 1998–2018 (Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2018).
2The first in a planned series of rejuvenation projects, Toi Art added 35% more space for the display of art within the museum. Chair of the Te Papa board Evan Williams has commented, “We wanted to put art first and build a gallery that was larger and more flexible and would truly work as a home for New Zealand’s national collections.” “Te Papa’s Toi Art ‘A Huge Milestone’,” Radio New Zealand, March 17, 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/352727/
3Détour closed in November, but the guide is still available online at https://detour.exhibition.tepapa.govt.nz/#/.
4For further information about détournement, see Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman, “A User’s Guide to Détournement,” in Situationist International Anthology, ed. and trans. Ken Knabb (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), 14–21. http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/detourn.htm.
5The fridge meets McCahon story is much repeated. See, for example, William McAloon, ed., Art at Te Papa (Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2009), 19.
6The sculpture also stands as a flustered Pākehā counterpoint to Parekōwhai’s well-known Kapa Haka security guards modelled on his tuakana, Paratene, which show up in Détour in “maquette” form.
7See, for example, The Proceeds of the First Land Deal (c. 1910s), https://natlib.govt.nz/records/22881235.
8Scaffolding has enjoyed considerable popularity among artists of late, even becoming something of a cliché. See, for example, the Facebook page Ban Exhibited Scaffolding in Gallery Spaces, https://www.facebook.com/Ban-Exhibited
-Scaffolding-in-Gallery-Spaces-385943171836172/.This point is surely not lost on Parekōwhai, who frequently treads the borderline between the de rigueur and the passé.
9By including Geometric Mouse, Parekōwhai also alludes to a miniature and moveable museum created by Oldenburg in 1977, the Mouse Museum. The form of the multiple, a mix between a Mickey Mouse head and an old-time movie camera, also formed the basis of the museum structure.
10Parekōwhai is not the first person to play with Macalister’s work. Poet Hone Tuwhare has also done so in “To a Maori figure cast in bronze outside the Chief Post Office, Auckland.” Hone Tuwhare, Deep River Talk: Collected Poems (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994), 75.
11Macalister’s full-scale work currently stands jammed up against Quay Street in downtown Tāmaki Makaurau, on land reclaimed from the seabed.
12The online guide notes that Macalister’s preferred title was Maori chief, which of course remains generic.
13It is worth noting that Parekōwhai does not include Aotearoa’s best-known appropriator, Gordon Walters. This is perhaps due to the fact that Parekōwhai has already dealt with him. With Kiss the Baby Goodbye (1994), Parekōwhai blew up Walters’ Kahukura (1968) into a huge punch-out model, turning the white elements of the original painting into absences, and adding an extra circle to the end like a big full stop. Conversation over.
14See, for instance, Te Papa, “Emotional Pōwhiri Marks the Return of Ancestral Remains,” Te Papa, March 30, 2017, https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/about/news/emotional
15Amber Aranui, “Toi Moko in Toi Art: A Harbinger for a Conversation,” The Pantograph Punch, October 22, 2018, https://pantograph-punch.com/post/toi-moko-toi-art.
16Anthony Byrt, “How Influential Artist Michael Parekōwhai is Transforming Te Papa,” Metro, March–April 2018, https://www.noted.co.nz/culture/arts/how-influential
17See Andrew Paul Wood, “Double Vision: Redressing Theo Schoon’s Absence from New Zealand Art History” (MA thesis, University of Canterbury, 2003), 78–80.
18Andrew Paul Wood notes, “He could never identify with New Zealand beyond his interactions with Maori culture and a scattering of artists, and eventually grew to hate the country.” Wood, “Double Vision,” 8.
19For instance, a vitrine holding an Oldenburg Geometric Mouse is titled Ideal landscape: Puha tikotiko. The title in te reo can be translated as an eruption of diarrhoea.
20McCarthy, Te Papa, 29.
21McCarthy, Te Papa, 30–32. A good number of Aotearoa cultural institutions share a similar history.
22Historian Conal McCarthy notes, “Influential Māori politician Sir Āpirana Ngata had close contact with the Dominion Museum in the 1920s and 1930s, and particularly the shed in nearby Sydney Street that housed the Māori collection.” McCarthy, Te Papa, 30.
23Quoted in Puawai Cairns, “‘Museums Are Dangerous Places’—Challenging History,” Te Papa, October 19, 2018, https://blog.tepapa.govt.nz/2018/10/19/museums
24The poutoti are stowed in a vitrine called Te Kakenga. In te reo, “kakenga” refers to an ascent—the effect both of wearing a pair of stilts, and of situating a pair of stilts in a box raised off the floor.
25For a detailed discussion of Te Papa’s museological practice with respect to taonga Māori, see Conal McCarthy, Museums and Māori: Heritage Professionals, Indigenous Collections, Current Practice (Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2011), 111–46.
26See “Te Papa Pays Tribute to a Pioneering Art Scholar and Valued Mentor,” Te Papa, October 13, 2014, https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/about/press-and-media/
27For further information, see Sarah Farrar, “Angels Can Herald Beginnings,” in Colonial Gothic to Māori Renaissance: Essays in Memory of Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, ed. Conal McCarthy and Mark Stocker (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2017), 170–85. Mane-Wheoki’s approach remains underdeveloped in cities like Ōtepoti, Ōtautahi and Tāmaki Makaurau, where earlier taonga Māori tend to be siloed off in “museums,” while European and more recent Māori art is housed in “art galleries.”
28Allen Curnow, Selected Poems (Auckland: Penguin Books, 1982), 77. Curnow speaks eloquently about the poem’s meanings on Shirley Horrocks’ documentary Early Days Yet (2001). This is available online at https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/early-days-yet-2001.
29Ioana Gordon-Smith, “From the Margins to the Mainstream: Pacific Sisters at Te Papa,” The Pantograph Punch, April 18, 2018, https://pantograph-punch.com/post/pacific-sisters.
30I was particularly taken with Untitled (LBCP) (2016), a series of nineteen drawings by the Aboriginal artist Daniel Boyd that took from images by Pablo Picasso featuring motifs heavily influenced by African art.
31See, for example,https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/1491102.Te Rahui’s name is elsewhere spelled “Ānaha Te Rāhui.”
32Stocker alludes to the close relationship between the two publications in the acknowledgements section of New Zealand Art at Te Papa. Mark Stocker, ed., New Zealand Art at Te Papa (Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2018), 362. No mention is made of the 2009 book Art at Te Papa, on which New Zealand Art: From Cook to Contemporary was based, and from which New Zealand Art at Te Papa borrows a number of essays not included in New Zealand Art: From Cook to Contemporary. See, for example, McAloon, Art at Te Papa, 81; Stocker, New Zealand Art at Te Papa, 40.
33“Mark Stocker—A Survey of Te Papa’s National Art Collection,” Radio New Zealand, October 14, 2018,https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/
-a-survey-of-te-papa-s-national-art-collection.Stocker quotes Banks’ comment in the introduction to New Zealand Art at Te Papa. Stocker, New Zealand Art at Te Papa, 7.
34The book is rather muddled in its discussion of the influence of the Māori tradition on artists like Nin. Stocker’s introduction, for example, notes that “they greatly respected Māori customary art, but this was not their model.” Stocker, New Zealand Art at Te Papa, 11–12. Meanwhile, the entry for Nin’s The canoe prow (1965) by art historian Rangihīroa Panoho makes extensive reference to Māori art and culture, which is clearly essential to the work. Stocker, New Zealand Art at Te Papa, 167.
35See, for example, Tene Waitere’s tā moko panel from about 1896. Icons Ngā Taonga: From the Collections of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2004), 43.
36It only adds insult to injury that the book includes few works by non-Pākehā tauiwi, though it must be acknowledged that New Zealand Art at Te Papa does rather better than previous Te Papa publications in this respect.
To rework and divert
For the late Iain Buchanan, who taught me about the Mouse Museum
2018 marks twenty years since the founding of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which saw the amalgamation of two major institutions, the National Museum and the National Art Gallery, and the beginning of a grand project: to tell the stories of the nation in an interdisciplinary manner.1 In March, Te Papa unveiled a revamped art gallery complex named Toi Art (each word translating the other),2 together with a suite of ambitious exhibitions. Among these was an elaborate installation by famed Aotearoa artist Michael Parekōwhai (Ngā Ariki Rotoawe, Ngāti Whakarongo), attended by a slick online guide, and carrying the seductive title Détour—accent on the “e.”3
The accent matters. It adds both a performative air of Francophone sophistication and some semiotic colour. In French, a détour is not only a deviation or diversion from a course, but also an evasion. This suits Parekōwhai’s established mode of dancing round meaning. At the same time, the title has been carved out of a larger word, détournement (roughly “rerouting” or “hijacking”), used by the Situationist artists Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman to describe the process of re-deploying images or objects in new configurations, or with additions, in order to highlight or subvert a latent signification.4 Détour is, on the whole, a grand act of détournement. In it, Parekōwhai remixes works by well-known artists from various parts of the world (most, as far as I can tell, rose to prominence during the 20th century) to create a kind of compact museum within a museum.
Parekōwhai’s work occupies a double-height gallery space, which forms the natural gateway to the rest of Toi Art. His audience is captive. To get to the destination, his detour is obligatory. Aspects of the installation feel very much like a response to Te Papa’s own history. The installation is a gaudy birthday cake. Or it’s a comedy roast, poking fun at the institution, but with a definite fondness. The work is eye-wateringly excessive, even for the flamboyant Parekōwhai, echoing Te Papa’s own famously busy insides. There are circus or zoo elements all about, suggesting the museum as a site of populist spectacle. An enormous bull elephant—which puts me in mind of the aggressively unlovely postmodern hulk that is Te Papa’s building—rears up near the lofty ceiling, ready to let loose his bowels on visitors and works alike. Titled Standing on memory, the work would seem to position the shaping or circumscription of the national memory as the “elephant in the room.”
The notion of a detour resonates with one of Te Papa’s inaugural exhibitions, Parade (1998), which famously displayed a Kelvinator alongside Colin McCahon’s Northland panels (1958).5 Parekōwhai dispenses with the fridge but keeps the panels, sticking them up like a roadside billboard advertising “Kiwi culture.” Cartoonish simians named Tiki Tour and Hoodwinked sit alongside an Enid Blyton-esque policeman, Constable Plum Bob (presumably a pun on “plumb bob,” the often-spiky lead weight on the end of a plumb line). The three figures look a bit like blown-up versions of particularly nasty examples from an institutional toy collection, reiterating Te Papa’s responsibility to display and contextualise material culture other than “fine art.” The works also allude to the museum’s holdings of scientific or natural historical items, specifically bird eggs. The monkeys’ colouration comes from the eggs of the kārearea, otherwise known as the New Zealand falcon. The policeman’s suit refers to foreign eggs, from West Germany.
With his furrowed face and “halt” gesture, Constable Plum Bob takes on the aspect of a museum guard, ticking off kids for running round the gallery or bleating “Don’t touch the exhibits!”6 The toothily grinning Tiki Tour and Hoodwinked might be stand-ins for the gallery-goer, barely paying attention to the art, just looking for a good time. I also find myself reading the three sculptures as references to colonial histories extending beyond the walls of the museum. Is there a more pointed symbol of colonial violence than the policeman? The monkeys, meanwhile, seem to echo racist depictions of people of colour as animalistic or amusing. I think, for instance, of images of Māori created by Pākehā “humourist” Trevor Lloyd, so popular in New Zealand in the early 20th century.7
It is, perhaps, worth noting that the monkeys have free run of the exhibition space, which is consumed by an enormous “jungle gym” of scaffolding.8 Titled Forest etiquette, the scaffolding forms a kit-set stand of plastic-barked trees, reminding me of the aggressively monocultural forests to be found in certain areas of Aotearoa. It also functions as a means of display. Framed works extend from the structure on branches, echoing experimental exhibition fittings of the mid-20th century, such as those once found in Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century gallery in New York. A sense of a family tree is created, a kind of three-dimensional play on Miguel Covarrubias’ The Tree of Modern Art (1933) that also resonates with Māori concepts of whanaungatanga and whakapapa.
Parekōwhai’s artistic whakapapa is very much on show in Détour. An emphasis is placed on members of the Euro-American avant-garde, including Claes Oldenburg, Man Ray and particularly Marcel Duchamp. Parekōwhai situates himself among the ranks of these giants, thumbing his nose at the tall poppy syndrome, and quietly counteracting the sense that Aotearoa culture exists in isolation. From Te Papa’s own collection, he plucks a 1961 incarnation of Duchamp’s famous Boîte-en-valise (“box in a valise”), a cased assemblage of miniature reproductions of Duchamp’s works, which is positioned in the online guide as a model for Parekōwhai’s much larger but still “pack-down-able” presentation.
Détour features a number of works apparently supplied by Parekōwhai, including an artist-produced replica of Man Ray’s 1921 nail-studded iron, Cadeau, and several copies (I lost count) of a multiple also held by Te Papa, Oldenburg’s Geometric Mouse, Scale D (Paper), “Home-made” (1971), which actively tends in the direction of a “collectible.”9 Together, these works provide a neat summation of the museum’s ongoing struggle to determine authenticity, importance and rareness when amassing and maintaining objects. They also remind me of the prevalence of multiples in the international collections of major Aotearoa art institutions like Te Papa. Most of our more substantial, one-off wonders remain locally made.
Parekōwhai has long been a fan of the clone, repeatedly remaking his own works. In Détour, he also clones the works of others. He presents multiple copies of Molly Macalister’s Maquette for Maori warrior (1964–66). The original—made of humble and vulnerable substances—appears alongside several durable replicas in bronze titled You dream of you. The guide states that Parekōwhai included the maquette “as a tribute both to Molly Macalister as a leading New Zealand woman sculptor, and to Auckland, a city where he has lived for most of his life.” An element of homage is surely present (Parekōwhai’s inclusion of outstanding works by the likes of Natalia Goncharova and Frances Hodgkins makes his appreciation of pioneering women artists obvious), but there is a distinct quality of reclamation to the replication process as well.10 Parekōwhai is re-appropriating a prominent depiction of a Māori man created by a Pākehā artist.11 The titular turn from the rather generic and indirect “Maori warrior” to the more intimate “you” shores up the effect.12
A re-appropriative dimension also enters a group of drawings and photographs associated with Theo Schoon, an Indonesian-born artist of Dutch extraction with a famously complicated relationship with Māori culture.13 Parekōwhai displays various Schoon sketches of toi moko formerly held by Horatio Gordon Robley, a British soldier, minor artist and collector of “tattooed heads.” These visually startling images are immediately expressive of a variety of colonial wrongs: the prurient interests of Pākehā, the cultivation of trade in human remains and the inappropriate collecting of sacred materials by individuals and institutions alike. But the presence of the toi moko may also be understood to recall recent processes of repatriation supported by Te Papa,14 which have helped to acknowledge such injustices and—in the words of researcher Amber Aranui—“lay the past to rest.”15
In a recent Metro article, critic Anthony Byrt suggested that Parekōwhai didn’t want to give Schoon too hard a time in Détour,16 but he doesn’t come off especially well. An untitled diptych created by Parekōwhai incorporates a 19th-century photograph by Pulman and Son of a rangatira called Anehana, to which Schoon has added make-up-like embellishments. The online guide notes that the act of colouring in echoes a well-known misdeed by Schoon: the retouching of Māori rock art in Te Waipounamu.17 An untitled photograph taken by Schoon about 1966 evokes a different sort of white imposition. Pākehā sightseers clip-clop round a boardwalk in a thermal landscape, gawping despoilers of the whenua. The image is wholly in-keeping with those pumped out by the New Zealand Government Tourist Bureau about the same time. Schoon, who was no fan of “middle New Zealand,”18 flip-flops between critical eye and casual sightseer.
In Parekōwhai’s hands, even Schoon’s abstract-ish mud pool images—recently celebrated as neglected wonders of New Zealand modernism—begin to feel a bit uncomfortable. As with other works in Détour, Parekōwhai has inserted them into faux mid-century frames, complete with faked John Leech Gallery stickers and typed catalogue labels. The photographs are, in fact, recent reprints executed by artist Mark Adams, but Parekōwhai plunges them back into the past, as if to deny them a contemporary sanitising. The gesture also seems to mock the old defence of the historical wrong: “Well, they were different times, weren’t they?” Parekōwhai reminds us that the past endures into the present, colouring, framing, limiting—even in the most forward-looking museums.
Détour is peppered with Perspex “vitrines,” each carrying the English title Ideal landscape and a unique name in te reo.19 The boxes serve to protect the items they hold, but also evoke the specimen cabinets that for decades were the standard display method for Māori art. This is part of Te Papa’s deep history. The institution has its origins in the Colonial Museum, founded in 1865 and renamed the Dominion Museum in 1907.20 Well into the 20th century, the museum functioned chiefly as a scientific facility, centring on the natural history of Aotearoa.21 It also included taonga Māori, which were treated largely as “ethnographic objects” quite distinct from art of the western tradition, with many pieces inscribed directly with registration numbers. Māori were not left out of the development of the institution entirely, but Pākehā ways of doing and seeing things most definitely held sway.22
The single English title Ideal landscape (homogeneity anyone?) allows for a range of readings. On the one hand, it suggests the potential for museums to create ideal displays, showing works to their best advantage. On the other, it puts me in mind of the notion—recently highlighted by legal scholar Moana Jackson at Te Papa itself—that “museums are dangerous places.”23 There remains a risk in relocating taonga within spaces that are both preservation-obsessed and bound up with foreign forms of classification and interpretation. The compassionate kaihāpai shares a history (and sometimes also an office) with Constable Curator.
Looking round Détour, I begin to notice that there is very little in the way of Māori art on show—if one disregards the fact that the whole thing is by a Māori artist. A notable exception is a pair of poutoti, carved in 1964 by an unknown Te Arawa artist (or artists).24 The stilts recall one of Te Papa’s key projects since its establishment in 1998: to work with tangata whenua to ensure that taonga Māori are stored, handled and presented appropriately and to the benefit of Māori.25 Quietly integrated into Parekōwhai’s miniature museum, they also remind me of the curatorial vision of the late Jonathan Mane-Wheoki (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kurī, Te Aupōuri), head of art at Te Papa twice between 2004 and his death in 2014.26 In the 2006 collection exhibition Toi Te Papa Art of the Nation, Mane-Wheoki pioneered the presentation of taonga created using customary modes of making alongside other kinds of Māori art and art by non-Māori—resisting our often Eurocentric local art history and demonstrating the kinship between works and traditions long held apart.27
Residents of the museum since their creation, the poutoti appear near new, a quality that quite accidentally recalls the continuity essential to much Māori artistic practice. They are imbued with Te Arawa history. In the ancestral homeland of Hawaiki, tupuna Tama te Kapua used stilts to steal some breadfruit, this act contributing to his decision to leave for Aotearoa. As such, the poutoti subtly bespeak the status of Māori as the first people of this land, as well as the connections between Māori and other Moana people from throughout the Pacific. Looking at them, I find myself thinking of the closing lines of Allen Curnow’s famous poem “The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch,” which speaks of the “colonial cringe,” a sense of unease at being Pākehā in New Zealand: “Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year, / Will learn the trick of standing upright here.”28 I can almost imagine Parekōwhai whispering, “First, I see you with that erectile dysfunction pun. Second, some of us learned to stand upright here long ago.”
Détour consistently messes with my own Pākehā unease. One moment, I feel like I’m hand-wringing too much. The next, I’m being confronted with an aspect of Aotearoa history and museological practice that, deep down, I’d rather forget. I feel the bind most acutely before McCahon’s Northland panels. I’ve long been a fan of the work. In the past, it has repeatedly moved me to tears, resonating with experiences of visiting Te Tai Tokerau and seeing not only heavy beauty, but also—in the scarred land and parade of struggling communities—the damage brought largely by the colonial project. Viewing the work in Détour, I feel nothing. Parekōwhai has fixed the achingly fragile, loose panels of canvas to a plastic screen, which clangs against their powdery paint surfaces. I can’t focus on the work, can’t filter out the surrounding visual noise. The lighting is all wrong. It’s too bright, too insistent. The panels should smoulder in a darkened space, like a painting by Mark Rothko. Try photographing them and every image comes out with a nasty lemon-yellow cast.
Circling the display, I encounter the work’s backside, not normally seen today. McCahon’s gorgeous script is visible. More than beautiful, however, the view is interesting. Parekōwhai offers the Northland panels up for study, for analysis. Any emotional response comes second, and with effort. I’ve heard other lovers of the work complain about this aspect of the show. The desecration! The awful ugliness of the act! Loaded words like “cheeky” and “childish” have been thrown around. But the act doesn’t strike me as ugly. While the presentation might cause worry from a conservation perspective, Parekōwhai is making a worthwhile point. When you change the display conditions of a work, when you make it into a curious object first and a taonga second, you change how that work functions; you change the experience. The museum by its decisions can sever the connection between treasure and visitor. Our national museum has done this. In Parade, perhaps. In its past treatment of taonga Māori, certainly. Parekōwhai, it seems to me, is issuing a cautionary reminder to Te Papa. What you do matters. How you do it, more so.
But Parekōwhai is also saying something else. The conditions aren’t fixed. The Northland panels can be repositioned in the future and can reclaim their power. Ways of showing, looking and understanding are all open to change. That doesn’t mean we can simply shrug off history, as individuals, groups or official entities. But we can begin to tell new stories—if we want to. Parekōwhai has done this with Détour, delivering an idiosyncratic tour through the backroads of our artistic, cultural and institutional histories. He’s been selective, homing in, as curators inevitably do, on what tickles his fancy. He’s been expansive, affirming his belief in the value of those who push the boundaries and suggesting that a certain spirit of rebellion unites artists from all over the shop. He’s critiqued the museum, but also indicated that museums evolve, transition from white institutions to pātaka. The Colonial Museum becomes the Dominion Museum becomes the National Museum becomes Te Papa Tongarewa: “the container of treasures.” Parekōwhai gives me hope that the national course is being corrected.
Wandering around the rest of Toi Art, I got the impression that Te Papa was strongly committed to embracing challenging and forward-looking museological strategies. The exhibitions were not universally strong (the institution seems always to struggle to shake off a certain “infotainment” quality), but they felt like decisive steps in the right direction. Beyond Détour was a substantial survey exhibition developed by Curator Pacific Art Nina Tonga, Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists, which was deeply researched and showed off the wit and fabulousness of the Pasifika art-fashion scene that flourished in the K’ Road area of Tāmaki Makaurau in the 1990s. As writer and curator Ioana Gordon-Smith has suggested, the show was significant for recognising at a national level the importance of the Pacific Sisters collective, and of mana wāhine and Moana solidarity movements.29 It also seemed to me to suggest a desire on the part of Te Papa to do a better job of reflecting the importance of non-Pākehā tauiwi in Aotearoa.
A large multi-room exhibition of works from Te Papa’s permanent collection included a display exploring the question of cultural appropriation from a number of angles. White artists working with non-white or Indigenous subject-matter, such as Don Driver and Francis Upritchard, were contrasted with artists of Indigenous heritage commenting on the effects of such work or engaging in processes of re-appropriation.30 It was a startlingly daring display for Te Papa, one that stimulated thought without fixing interpretation. A nearby space included a series of tauira carved by Anaha Te Rahui (Ngāti Tarāwhai) in 1909 at the request of the Dominion Museum.31 These works—exemplifying a range of carving patterns from Unaunahi (fish scales) to Piko-o-Rauru (Rauru’s curve)—sat alongside recent pieces by Ngataiharuru Taepa (Te Arawa, Te Āti Awa) also deeply informed by customary practice. The gesture was not a big one, but it made a big impression. Again, Te Papa was breaking down boundaries with respect to taonga Māori.
That’s where I’d like to end the story—on a positive note, with the national museum doing its duty through progressive curating and commissioning. But a recent event has waved a contrary hand insistently in the air. In November, Te Papa released a book called New Zealand Art at Te Papa (note that the words “toi” and “Aotearoa” do not appear). Edited by Curator Historical International Arts Mark Stocker, the publication is essentially a revised edition of a 2010 Te Papa book, New Zealand Art: From Cook to Contemporary, incorporating many of the same works and texts.32 Like its predecessor, New Zealand Art at Te Papa begins with the arrival of James Cook in Aotearoa and omits all “customary Māori art,” meaning in effect all Māori art from prior to 1965. Defending this decision in a radio interview with Mark Amery, Stocker acknowledged the “politically charged” nature of the issue, then rapidly turned around and paraphrased a comment by Endeavour naturalist Joseph Banks to the effect that “it’s next to impossible to put your finger on customary Māori art.”33 Stocker went on (approximately):
It’s nothing like anything else that we—if you like, Pākehā—had seen. It is so significant in its way that I really think to do that whole swathe of art, which is half of biculturalism, justice requires a separate volume.… It would have, I believe, to some extent, for want of a better word, compromised the simplicity, accessibility of [New Zealand] Art at Te Papa. And the point is, also, it’s very important to note that from the first Māori modernists, from about the 1950s—and certainly into the ’60s—onwards, when Māori themselves address the Pākehā tradition, which is sort of the bones and the basis of the book, they get absolutely full billing there.
This centring of the “Pākehā tradition” feels deeply out of touch. It leaves Māori and Pākehā “modernists” who drew extensively on the Māori tradition oddly unmoored; the only Māori antecedents in the book for works by the likes of Buck Nin (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa) and Gordon Walters are within sketches and photographs by non-Māori.34 It tends to give the impression that Māori were unaffected by European art-making until the mid-20th century, in contrast to previous Te Papa books like 2004’s Icons Ngā Taonga, which shows that various earlier Māori artists played with introduced forms.35 The suggestion that discussing older taonga Māori might compromise accessibility is flat out risible. Te Papa is staffed by some of the finest experts on Māori art in the world, and they are more than capable of lucid communication, a fact evidenced by the many exhibitions including earlier taonga that have appeared at Te Papa over the past twenty years—both in the areas dedicated to mātauranga Māori and in those dedicated to art.
In 1998, Te Papa brought together a plurality of art forms and works. From the National Museum, it inherited a collection of earlier Māori art. From the National Art Gallery, it inherited a collection skewed towards the European tradition. While the Taonga Māori and Art Collections continue to be administered separately, the border between the two is permeable—and is meant to be so. In 2018, for Te Papa to put out a book of more than 300 pages that skirts the Taonga Māori Collection entirely, including fewer works by artists of Māori heritage than images of Māori people by non-Māori, does not merely signpost the inadequacies of history, it re-enacts and reinforces them. New Zealand Art at Te Papa presents as bewilderingly backward, undermining the museum’s commitment and ability to serve Māori and, by extension, all of us living in a fundamentally Māori land.36
Surrounded by scraps of paper covered in representation tallies, I find myself thinking about Parekōwhai again. Can I take courage from the example of Détour and recast New Zealand Art at Te Papa as a deviation from the correct course, an evasion of responsibility? Or does Parekōwhai’s work itself suggest that conservatism still rules the road, notwithstanding the grandest artistic attempts at diversion? Forget art books; just look at our poverty and prison statistics. Face furrowed, I begin to wonder if Parekōwhai is hinting at something else altogether, suggesting that the museum, the exhibition and the book are each less powerful than those of us who curate and make and write might think—or might like to think.
Perhaps Parekōwhai is saying: Oh, sure, art has power, and the ways we chose to deal with it matter. But we need at times to stop and to remember that it’s not an everyday route. Détour is a detour within the museum visit, which is a detour within daily life. Half the people in this place just came in to take a nice picture in the rainbow room, to grab a coffee or a sausage roll, to get out of the “wild wet Wellington wind.” Art—as much as anything else, and as Te Papa has always understood—is a way to divert yourself.