Reviews, News and Commentary

Toi Tu Toi Ora – The vitality of contemporary Maori art

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Peter Robinson “Universe”

Toi  Tu Toi Ora: Contemporary Maori Art

Auckland Art Gallery

Until May 9, 2021

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

The Auckland Art Gallery’s latest blockbuster show “Toi  Tu Toi Ora” is not  just big with 300 works by 111 artists it is also important in providing an overview of Maori art of the last  70 years which has built on the traditional approaches of Maori as well as creating new forms to address contemporary issues. The exhibition also shows how the art produced by Maori coincides with, comments on and expands work by Pakeha artists.

The exhibition includes a number of  iconic artworks by some of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most significant artists – Ralph Hotere, Robyn Kahukiwa, Buck Nin, Fiona Pardington, Michael Parekowhai, Lisa Reihana, Rachael Rakena, Peter Robinson, Cliff Whiting and Arnold Manaaki Wilson. The works include painting, sculpture, printmaking, clay-making, jewellery and body adornment, photography, digital media, film and installation art.

Fiona Pardington ,”Davis Kea Wings”

Western culture has been dominated by the Judeo Christian notions of The Creation. a God who creates everything with a couple of clicks of the fingers, it’s a concept which is ingrained despite its obvious absurdity.

This monotheistic approach is also at variance with what we know about the creation of life which involves a male and female. So the Maori creation myth which has Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatuanuku, the earth mother, emerging out of darkness and nothingness seems a bit more grounded in reality

Toi  Tu Toi Ora: takes this creation myth as the basis and in many ways the continuing focus of artistic enquiry  for Maori art and in the first rooms of the exhibition are a group of  works which explore notions of the universe.

There is Peter Robinson’s “I am I am not” a work consisting of the binary zeros and ones which herald the beginning of life along with  his “Universe”, a bulbous abstract depiction of the beginnings of nothingness and expanding solar system. Here also is Robert Janke’s neon work “Whanua Kora” where we are taken back into the void. The room also features Ralph Hotere’s black painting  “Te Aupouri” where we witness the birth of colour.

Hemi Macgregor, “Agent Provacateur”

Curator of the exhibition. Nigel Borell (Pirirākau, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui, Te Whakatōhea) says: “Toi Tū Toi Ora is organised around the Māori creation narrative as a way to enter into a conversation about the importance of Māori art and artists, and to explore what unites these artists across space and time.” “As visitors explore the exhibition, they will literally step into the creation story, beginning with Te Kore (the great nothingness) before traveling through to Te Po (the darkness), then the separation of Ranginui and Papatūānuku before entering Te Ao Mārama (the world of light and life)”

Throughout the exhibition are major works by significant Maori artists including Lisa Reihana’s massive video work “Iti” which has previously been on display at the Aotea Centre, Shona Rapira  Davis’s monumental sculpture “Nga Morehu” of 1982 featuring a group performing  a karanga and Selwyn Muru’s “Resurrection of Te Whiti over Taranaki “of 1975.

Many of the works in the exhibition preserve and build on the traditional knowledge, technical skills and understanding of materials. This can be seen in Kura Te Waru Rewiri’s “Arohanui”, Cliff Whiting’s “Tangaroa “and the work of Manos Nathan. A number of the works are more obviously political as with the work of  Emily Karaka, Hemi Macgregor and Shane Cotton. There are also examples of the emerging landscape and figurative painters  with work by Elizabeth Ellis, Marilyn Web and Katerina Mataira.

One new installation which could easily be missed is sited on the upper exteriors terrace. The work by Ana Iti “Takoto (Laying Down)” the artist has made casts of the volcanic rock wall which enclosed the Albert Barracks and most of the adjoining Albert Park

In the Gallery’s North Atrium, is a large installation by Emily Karaka, and in the  South Atrium there is a  two-storey-high installation by Sandy Adsett based on kōwhaiwhai  and a dramatic installation based on the female deity Hine-nui-te-po by the Mata Aho Collective in collaboration with artist Maureen Lander.

In the  Mackelvie Gallery Shane Cotton has co-curated an exhibition room that will places work by contemporary Māori artists alongside the Gallery’s historical art collection so Arnold Wilson’s abstract sculpture representing a torso/head “He tangata, He tangata” is included with a group of old master portraits.

Several of the artists have a number of works in the show  which plot their developments. Shane Cotton has works from his early sepia period with “Cross” through to his five storey high off-site  work “Maunga” in the Britomart precinct. There is also a new commissioned work “Te Puawai” from the artist which features a .small dinghy touching on ideas about voyaging, the transmittance of cultural knowledge and the legacy of colonialism.

Shane Cotton, “Te Puawai”

Peter Robinson is well represented with his “Painting “ of 1996 where he uses an airplane / waka image and numbers reflecting the blood quantum of determining ‘Maoriness’. He also has one of the final works in the show with “Strategic Plan” of 1998 with his clever take on the global art world and the place of Maori. One of his strategies is listed as  “Cash in on fashionable contemporary dialogues such as ethnicity and marginalisation”.

There are  a number of works by Michael Parekowhai although his carved piano work “Story of a New Zealand River” is not included. His works in the show all subvert the Eurocentric approach to art. There are three of his suited mannequins from the “Poorman, Beggarman Thief (Poorman)” series scattered through the galleries all with the “Hello My name is Hori” label on their suits. There are also a set of his Magritte derived figures as well as the ambiguous and enigmatic, elephant in the room  “Te Ao Hurihuri”, the two bookends  referencing New Zeeland links with western civilization, history and classification as well as colonisation .

As well as the major artist in the show are a few newcomers with a set of works by Hiria Anderson where she responds to her immediate environment and the marae with simple representations which carry a strong sense of place and narrative.

There are many interesting works such as Claudine Muru’s glassworks based on kumara forms, Brett Graham’s carved stealth bomber “Te Hokioi” and John Walsh’s ”Pare to my Place” where gods and anthropomorphic figures meet at the junction of the physical and spiritual worlds.

Claudine Muru, From the Cultivation Series

This exhibition shows the depth of Maori art and the ways in which addresses cultural, social, political and personal ideas. It also demonstrates that there is a distinct Maori voice which looks at the present day issues always with an eye on the past.

Peter Robinson, “Strateic Plan”

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

2 replies on “Toi Tu Toi Ora – The vitality of contemporary Maori art”

To dismiss the Judeo account of creation of life by a supreme intelligent spirit personality, (clearly falling into the thought trap that this took place over a series of 24-hr ‘days’ ie. “click of the fingers”), yet then swing to accepting Maori creation myth as more “grounded in reality” … now THAT’s an “obvious absurdity”. Plse note the biblical account of creation/ procreation is chock full of reference to male & female, plus the very first book of the Christian scriptures concurs with this: ‘from the beginning’. Apart from lack of knowledge across this subject, and no doubt a suck-up to Maoridom generating this silly introductory contradiction, thanks for your review, Mr Daly


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