Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Connecting Then with Now

Tūruki,Tūruki! Paneke, Paneke! When Māori Art became Contemporary
Auckland Art Gallery
24 May - 24 August 2008

This show, curated by Ngahiraka Mason, celebrates the 50th anniversary of an exhibition assembled by Matiu Te Hau in 1958 for the University of Auckland. It featured five Northland school teachers: Katarina Mataira, Ralph Hotere, Muru Walters, Arnold Manaaki Wilson, and Selwyn Wilson. Obviously the original exhibition was an event that clearly deserves commemoration, yet somehow this display has ended up a fizzer. It doesn't sparkle. The project has been too ambitious, with too much space devoted to it, and fallen over. Worse still, the background context has completely overshadowed the art, ending up with a dominantly sociological and historical presentation.

There is nothing wrong with contextual information. The trouble is all the newspaper facsimiles and various publications of the time swamp the art. There is too much fifties history, and not enough gallery material. And there is insufficient about the overall careers of the five individuals. The reasons for that are obvious. Ralph Hotere overwhelmingly dominates as a significant national figure but the curator has attempted a balanced account so all five are treated equally. However at least two of these artists were not exhibiting long. They pursued other careers. So the bio accounts are averaged out and Hotere is downplayed.(His images aren't even included on the show's media kit - which is why I haven't included an image for him above.)

Another issue is its incessant looking back. That has been disastrous, for it doesn’t give the visitor a clear idea of the adventurous and dynamic developments within Māori practice in recent years. It could have tied in the past in a more overt fashion to the present, asking (perhaps) contemporary Māori artists who work in different media to comment on the events of 1958 - so that the pioneers' contributions are examined through the lens of the ‘contemporary’. It could have elucidated their part in the overall development of contemporary Māori art itself, examining, say, what later artists were inspired by the five here. Without a contemporary framing, set in its own time and not 2008, the work simply looks dreary.

Maybe I’ve got it wrong? Perhaps some of you think this show is really exciting? That you were transported back to that earlier period, and as a cultural synthesis the displayed work still seemed to be really radical. If so, it would be great to hear a counter-argument.

{Works from top to bottom are by Arnold Wilson, Muru Walters, Selwyn Wilson, and Katarina Mataira.)

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