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Te Papa’s “Encounters” exhibition and book misses the chance to tell the complex stories of nineteenth century New Zealand

Reviewed by John DalyPeoples

Ngā Tai Whakarongorua  Encounters

By Rebecca Rice and Matariki Williams

Te Papa Press
RRP $22.00

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Te Papa has always prided itself on its ability to tell stories, bringing together various objects to create the various histories of New Zealand.

With its portrait wall  which was central to the gallery’s new look when it opened a dedicated art space in 2018 it seemed Te Papa had found a way to achieve this with Ngā Tai Whakarongorua  Encounters, an exhibition of thirty-six portraits representing mana, power and prestige, of royalty, Māori leaders and colonial settlers. The bi-lingual text provided information on the  individuals portrayed as well as the artist while also providing some context for their inclusion in the show.

The intention of the exhibition as one of the authors, Matariki Williams, notes in the introduction was something of a journey “As we make our way along the wall, it becomes evident that the tipuna exhibited have threads that extend throughout Te Moananui-a-Kiwa to Europe and back again, but some of those threads have been fractured by the impact of colonisation”.

In some ways the works  can be seen as bridging the history between the first portrait in the show “Poetua daughter of Oreo” through to the last work, a portrait of an unknown Māori woman, one hundred and twenty years later,

More than acknowledge the physical qualities of the portraits figures we also conceive and construct an ethos and history  for each character. They speak to us as fellow humans but from two hundred or more years ago, We recognise them as  definite characters bur we also endow them with characteristics apart from their status. We look for their human qualities, something only portraits allow us to discern.

The exhibition as a whole however lacks an engaging narrative and an opportunity for an overview of the various encounters which took place in the nineteenth century between Māori and Pakeha – social, political, religious, cultural is never adequately realised.

The exhibition is preceded by  “Te  Umukohukohu  putatara” (conch shell trumpet) by an unknown Tuhoe artist. It heralds both the beginning of the exhibition as well as recognising  a history going back several hundred years.

From there the history appears to integrate the two worlds with three works by John Webber. His  “Poedua [Poetua], daughter of Oreo’, (she was briefly held hostage by Captain James Cook on his third voyage until a member of his crew was returned) as well as his portrait of James Cook. There is also a landscape by the same artist of “Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound” which is one of the first recordings of European presence in the country. It seems a good way to tell the story of Pacific navigation and encounters.

But then comes a portrait of Admiral Sir Edward Hughes who Captain Cook once encountered on his voyages but who has no other connection with New Zealand and then there is a portrait by the American artist John Copley. The only connection to New Zealand for these works  is that they arrived here from overseas and were eventually acquired by the gallery.

At that point any sense of narrative runs out. It’s not a history of New Zealand through portraits, just a lot of portraits, which tell unconnected stories and there is little depth to these tales interesting  as they may be.

It’s only when we get to a group of portraits of Māori that there is a real sense of  connections. There is Lindauer’s portrait of Wi Tako Ngatata who was one of the first Māori to become a member  New Zealand Legislative Council. He also features in the portrait of Dr Isaac Featherston  who was a major political figure in the Wellington area. The linking of the two portraits shows the way in which Māori and European were able to wield political power in some ways during the nineteenth century.

Then there is the one work William Allsworth’s “The Emigrants”, which depicts the settler/colonisers who left behind a culture as well as transplanting a new one  in New Zealand. This is  a painting which had many counterparts at the time with works such as  Ford Maddox Brown’s “The Last of the England”

Also of interest is the portrait of Princess Charlotte of Wales, The work which was painted in 1817 was acquired  from the first New Zealand Exhibition held in  Dunedin in 1865. This exhibition was of major importance as several artefacts and paintings from Europe were purchased at the time, finding their way into private and public collections.

There are a number of other portraits by Charles Goldie, Louis John Steele and Wilhelm Dittmer which show aspects of Māori life and culture and Goldies portrait of the carver Ana Te Rahui  is paired with Steele’s portrait of Goldie, giving prominence to the two artistic traditions.

The Goldie portrait of Harata  Rewiri Tarapata references many aspects of nineteenth century history, the land wars, the role and status of Māori woman as well as Goldie’s selection  of his subjects in depicting the notion of a dying race. On the other hand the portrait of Elizabeth Lessette provides little interest  apart from the fact that the woman was a distant relative of Katherine Mansfield.

Also of interest is the research provided with some of the works which follows on from “The Back of the Painting” (published by Te Papa Press) where information about the painting’s provenance, materials, repair and conservation is included

The exhibition could  have been an opportunity to tell the interwoven, complex stories of nineteenth century New Zealand, the impacts of  colonialism, the growth of new social frameworks and the role of individuals in those changes. These aspects are really only hinted at rather than being investigated and explored.

What the book and the exhibition does highlight is the fact that Te Papa has a dearth of portraits of both private and public individuals certainly, compared with the collections of the other major galleries in Dunedin, Christchurch  and Auckland.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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