Reviews, News and Commentary

History, myth and culture explored in Greco-Māori Exhibition

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Marian Maguire, Ko wai koe? Who are you?

Who Are You?: Athens, Aotearoa & the Art of Marian Maguire

Hellenic Museum, Melbourne

Until May 2023

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

The New Zealand artist Marian Maguire is currently showing a set of lithographs and etchings at Melbourne’s Hellenic Museum which combine British, Māori and ancient Greek culture and history to create a visual conversation that touches on colonialism, memory, cultural interaction, history and myth.

The works are  from several of the artist’s series, including “The Odyssey of Captain Cook”, “The Labours of Herakles”, “Titokowaru’s Dilemma” and “A Taranaki Dialogue”.

Herakles, whom we tend to refer to as Hercules, was a Greek hero of extraordinary strength, who roamed the ancient world performing extraordinary feats and founding many cities. He stands as symbol for the colonial endeavours of Greece whose empire encompassed much of the Mediterranean. In these works Hercules, Captain Cook and Britain are conflated into complex notions about colonialism as well as the impact of European civilization which has Greek culture at its institution.

In the exhibition Hercules has arrived in New Zealand to continue his activities, integrating himself into the world of 19th century New Zealand. This ancient world traveller is depicted in the style of an Athenian red and black figure bearing  his attributes , the wooden club and the lion skin. He, along with Queen Victoria are seen signing the Treaty of Waitangi but it is Hercules who is doing the actual signing rather than Victoria indicating the continuing impact of a colonial mindset. We also see Hercules as the coloniser/farmer in “Herakles Dreams of Arcadia” where he is depicted digging in the ravaged forest lands. He is also depicted as the coloniser./ intellectual in “Herakles writes home” sitting in his study which has various books of Western culture including The Bible, a Māori/ Greek Dictionary, Anne Salmond’s “The Trial of the Cannibal Dog”, Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and books about Cook’s voyages.

Marian Maguire, Herakles writes home”

Hercules becomes a mixture of the mythic Greek hero, 18th century European navigator and 19th century colonist, his New Zealand exploits paralleling the colonial ambitions of classical Greece.

The artist has depicted scenes from early New Zealand’s history including works from  “The Odyssey of Captain Cook” series which features an Attic vase with images  of sailors disembarking from a Greek trireme, Joseph Banks  bartering with a Māori for a lobster (an image based on the drawing by Tupaia) and the death of Captain Cook shown in the style of a Grecian frieze. Another image features Cook landing on a beach holding a palm frond in one hand and a musket in the other. In the boat with him is a large Greek vase depicting soldiers fighting and behind that, a partial view of the Endeavour firing its cannons.

Marian Maguire, Captain Cook makes his approach from the West

One of the images, which was widely used to publicise the exhibition, featured a Māori face confronting a masked Athenian figure, with the designs on the helmet resembling the whorls of the Māori’s tattooed face.

Many of the works make use of early images of encounter including Heaphy’s view of Mt Taranaki while “Te Whiti and Titokowaru discuss the question what is peace” is modelled on a vase painting by the Greek artist Exekias depicting Ajax and Achilles hunched over a board game during a lull in the fighting of the Trojan War. The discussion around the nature of peace references dialogues around the concept from the ancient times of Plato and Socrates and is alluded to in other images such as “Socrates asks the Mountain, What is Wisdom”. These works also emphasis the attempts at peace-making by Titokowaru  in the nineteenth century. 

Marian Maguire, Te Whiti and Titokowaru discuss the question what is peace”

The exhibition explores some of the issues around the notions of culture and change – the way European culture has been formed by various waves of colonisation, changing religious, and social ideas and concepts. It also touches on the 18th century idea that Māori were a noble race untouched by European civilisation, a notion which was addressed in Lisa Reihana’s video work “In Pursuit of Venus [infected]” as well as the political struggles of Māori over land issues during the nineteenth century.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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