PRINT March 2021

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Creation Myth

View of “Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art,” 2020–21, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. From left: Robert Jahnke, Whenua Kore, 2019; Peter Robinson, I Am I, I Am Not I, 2001; Peter Robinson, Null and Void, 2001; Peter Robinson, Clear Zero Shift, 2005.

IN THE DARK ROOM at the start of “Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art” at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Robert Jahnke’s Whenua Kore, 2019, glows. The piece consists of a ring of white neon, which, through a trick of mirrored glass, seems to endlessly repeat and retreat deep into the wall on which it hangs, like a tunnel. Move in front of it, and the tunnel seems to bend. Two things are caught in its black reflection: on the opposite wall, Reuben Paterson’s kaleidoscopic digital animation Te Pūtahitanga ō Rehua (The Constellation of Rehua), 2005, and, floating somewhere between Paterson’s stars and the neon vortex, a spectral image of yourself—though exactly where you stand, in time and space, is impossible to know.

This interplay embodies the opening room’s theme: “Te Kore,” which is translated as “The Great Nothing-ness” or “The Empty Void.” In Māori creation narratives, Te Kore is the first state of the universe—a state of “unorganized potential” in which matter is present but hasn’t yet congealed into form. This inchoate condition is key to Peter Robinson’s I Am, I Am Not I, 2001, presented to the right of Jahnke’s piece. The ones and zeroes of binary code appear in red and white on a black ground, the three colors being those most commonly found in the decoration of traditional Māori architecture. Binary numbers are the building blocks of the digital world—but when read as letters, they spell “Io,” which here comes across as a reference to Io, the Supreme Being, a figure who in some versions of the Māori creation story has no fixed identity but exists at the beginning of everything. Hanging above is Robinson’s Universe, 2001, a blobby, cell-like sculpture that sprouts miniature versions of itself: the first signs of matter beginning to organize, growing toward form.

This successive staging of the Māori creation narrative is arguably the show’s greatest achievement: a crystal-clear curatorial expression of the Māori worldview.

There are 111 artists in “Toi Tū Toi Ora,” and more than three hundred works. Spread over several floors, with major new commissions as well as a satellite site near central Auckland’s waterfront, it is the largest exhibition in the gallery’s 132-year history. Much has been made of the show’s timing: With New Zealand’s borders all but closed due to Covid-19, now seems like a perfect moment to celebrate, on such a monumental scale, contemporary Māori culture. In truth, the conjunction was serendipitous: The exhibition has been several years in the making. In his role as curator of Māori art at the AAG and, previously, at the Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Musuem, Nigel Borell, who organized the exhibition, has become one of the New Zealand art world’s major drivers of a decolonizing agenda that privileges a Māori worldview as the guiding framework for both the assessment and display of art. In interview after interview, Borell has said explicitly that “Toi Tū Toi Ora” amounts to an Indigenous epistemological takeover of an institution—and an art-world system—with deep colonial roots. The show was also overdue: It had been nearly two decades since the AAG’s last survey of contemporary Māori art, “Pūrangiaho: Seeing Clearly,” curated by Borell’s predecessor, Ngahiraka Mason.

Fiona Pardington, Davis Kea Wings (above), 2015, two ink-jet prints, each 34 5⁄8 × 46 1⁄2”.

Compared to that earlier show, “Toi Tū Toi Ora” is vast (its size leads to some inconsistencies in the quality of work) and consequently evades easy summation. But as an exercise in curation, it is a watershed, starting with that very first room. Following “Te Kore” is “Te Pō” (The Perpetual Night): still a space of darkness, but one in which the potential begins to be organized. Here, Jahnke’s neons find more solid form: His “Ripeka” series comprises three crosses, all 2015, in red, yellow, and blue. Beside the room’s entrance, Toi Te Rito Maihi’s undated painting Tāniko features yellow and cream triangles on a black ground. The composition mimics Māori textile patterns, created via the titular finger-weaving technique, whose diagonal structures represent the intersections of people, the spiritual realm, and the natural world. The following room, “Te Wehenga o Ranginui rāua ko Papatūānuku” (The Separation of Ranginui and Papatūānuku), deals with the moment when the sky father and earth mother split from each other and light is let into the world. The lovers’ tight embrace in the realm of Te Pō is broken when their son Tāne, trapped between them with his siblings, forces them apart. Lisa Reihana’s two-channel video Ihi—The Separation of Rangi and Papa, 2020, tells that story. Nearby is Fiona Pardington’s Davis Kea Wings (above), 2015, two photographs, side by side, portraying the wings of one of New Zealand’s native parrots, framed here as a reminder that, following the separation of Rangi and Papa, Aotearoa (as New Zealand is termed in Māori) belonged to birds before it belonged to people.

This successive staging of the Māori creation narrative is arguably the show’s greatest achievement: a crystal-clear curatorial expression of that Māori worldview Borell was so keen to prioritize. The show subsequently unfolds less as a walk-through than a being-with, a mingling of artists from different generations in a perpetual present that constantly loops back to that creation story. After witnessing the separation of Rangi and Papa, viewers step into “Te Ao Mārama” (The World of Light and Life), where one of the very first works encountered is Arnold Manaaki Wilson’s sculpture Tane Mahuta (God of the Forest), 1957. Wilson represents Tāne—his parents’ separator—as a slender column of kauri (the giant trees that once covered the North Island and formed a canopy that “held up” Rangi, the sky father), drawing on both Brancusian modernism and traditional pou, the carved supporting posts of Māori buildings. The work stands near the threshold of one of the AAG’s grandest spaces, the balconied Grey Gallery, the far end of which is dominated by Atapō (Before Dawn), 2020—a collaboration between Maureen Lander and Mata Aho Collective—which similarly addresses the space between dark and light and between the spirit and human worlds. A massive installation made from layers of sheer dark fabric arranged in a steep saw-toothed pattern, with a diamond-shaped opening slicing through it, the piece draws on the story of the transformation of Hine-tı̄tama, the personification of dawn, into Hine-nui-te-pō, the guardian of souls in the underworld. Maui, the great Māori trickster, traveled to the underworld and tried to enter Hine-nui-te-pō’s body to attain immortality; alerted to Maui's attempt by a fantail (a type of native bird), Hine-nui-te-pō crushed him.

Lisa Reihana, Ihi—The Separation of Rangi and Papa, 2020, two-channel HD video, color, sound, 12 minutes.

Atapō traverses both floors of the Grey Gallery. On the lower level is Michael Parekōwhai’s Te Ao Hurihuri (roughly, “The Ever-Changing World”), 2009, a pair of huge bookends in the form of elephants, one pushing against a wall, the other pressing its head into the floor. This particular room was, until 1971, the city’s central public library and is named for one of New Zealand’s most significant colonial governors, Sir George Grey. Grey’s name is seen all over New Zealand, appearing on places, streets, and buildings. For Māori, though, he is one of the nineteenth century’s most devastating figures, having overseen wars in Taranaki and Waikato that led to massive land confiscations. Grey, then, is possibly Parekōwhai’s “elephant in the room,” but the elephant could just as easily be the institution itself, unquestionably a product of that same period. Gifts from Grey and other colonial-era figures—notably Scottish philanthropist James Tannock Mackelvie—led to the hodgepodge assembly of historical European paintings that formed the basis of the AAG’s early life.

The AAG’s historical European collection, which includes paintings by Guido Reni, James Tissot, and Frederic Leighton, is usually displayed in the Mackelvie Gallery. Borell has interspersed works by Māori artists throughout the space, most prominent among them Shane Cotton. Cotton’s painting Te Waiwhariki, 2004, is his version of a well-known carved-wood self-portrait by the nineteenth-century Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika, which Cotton (who is himself Ngāpuhi) translates into a flat image featuring the artist’s characteristic range of spectral blues on a black ground. If Governor Grey is a controversial figure for Māori, Hika isn’t far behind. A Māori warlord, Hika traveled to Britain in 1820 and charmed its high society before returning to New Zealand with muskets, which he used to conquer other Māori tribes around the North Island. At the opposite end of the gallery is another Wilson sculpture, He Tangata, He Tangata (The People, the People), 1956, the tōtara wood form portraying an abstracted figure that Borell has surrounded with works from the AAG’s colonial-Christian collection: a Saint John the Baptist, a Virgin Annunciate, a high-spirited Christ. Between them, at the center of the gallery, is Cotton’s Te Puawai (The Blossoming), 2020, a small white boat on which he has painted kōwhaiwhai patterns, symbols associated with nineteenth-century Māori prophets, manaia figures (mythical creatures), a fantail (the same bird that caused Maui’s demise), and the flag of the United Tribes, a confederation of northern Māori that briefly formed its own state in the 1830s.

Shane Cotton, Te Puawai (The Blossoming), 2020, acrylic on pressure-treated pine, mahogany plywood, copper nails and rivets. Installation view, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

The sight line through the long gallery is remarkable: from Hika’s carved face, past Cotton’s boat, to Wilson’s staunch figure, surrounded by European saints. Like the show’s first few rooms, this is Borell at his best, framing the interactions and traumas of New Zealand’s nineteenth century—a period that opened up ruptures that can never be closed—as a perpetual state of collision. In this context, Cotton’s boat becomes a purgatorial vessel, carrying all of the master craftspeople, the tricksters, warriors, protesters, and leaders, who make up this immense exhibition.

Shortly after “Toi Tū Toi Ora” opened, Borell announced his resignation from the AAG. The news came as a shock. Interviewed in the New Zealand Herald, the country’s most widely read newspaper, he cited differences of opinion with the institution’s current director, the Australian Kirsten Lacy, about the AAG’s future programming as a major factor in his departure. The inference was clear: Borell, and many others in the New Zealand art world, feel that the task of defining the country’s twenty-first-century art, and shaping the conversation about it, should be led, first and foremost, by Māori voices. “Toi Tū Toi Ora” is a major step along that path. 

Anthony Byrt is a critic and journalist based in Auckland.