Jacqueline Fraser

Jacqueline Fraser’s installation, The Flagellation of the True Voice, 1999, carries on her tradition of improbably light and elegant stories of loss and destruction associated with the colonization of New Zealand. Within a setting that approximates the heavily shrouded ambiance of a Victorian parlor, she considers the fatal contact between the Maori and some of New Zealand’s earliest and roughest European immigrants. At the heart of her tale is measles, a disease that, once introduced by European settlers, ravaged the Maori population on New Zealand’s South Island, in the 1830s. The artist’s methods of installation here effect a fairy-tale transformation, dignifying what can only be described as a grotesque tale. Fraser has perfected the polite insult, and her reference to this fatal disease as “the whaler’s gift” in the text accompanying the exhibition exemplifies the pointed nature of the attack lying at the center of her sumptuous display.

Using materials both voluptuous and humble (silk organza and telephone wire), Fraser creates tableaux that are at once spare and somewhat ornate. In the first room of the exhibition were nine “drawings,” made out of wire and attached to the wall upside-down, of the profiles of men and women wearing Victorian mourning hats and bonnets. In each work, a small square of lace is placed directly over the hat-wearer’s face, while the entire wire rendering is veiled beneath a square panel of colored organza. The centrality that Fraser grants these accoutrements of formalized grieving is an example of the way she reorganizes narrative: The hats serve as both emblems of decorum and slapstick props, suggesting that there is something farcical about the “civilized” dress code of the European immigrants, given the destruction they wrought. And while her overarching story concerns a fatal interaction between Maori and Pakeha (white, non-Maori New Zealanders), her emphasis on dress suggests other possibilities. As figurative paintings in their meetinghouses and nineteenth-century portraits attest, Maori were attracted to European dress; the top hat in particular was a highly regarded item. Like British artist Yinka Shonibare, Fraser explores dress as an ever-changing sign of cultural negotiation, and her embrace of European mourning protocol within her narrative scheme might be read as echoing the way Maori—to their ultimate peril—embraced the foreigners; but there is also a sense that something else may be going on, that through the Maori’s imaginative rewordings of European dress the artist is also offering a less fatalistic view of cultural contact.

In a separate room were two “profiles of mercy,” representing descendants of the dead and connecting Fraser’s work to the traditional Maori meetinghouse where ancestral history is visually recorded on the walls. Similarly made with wire and multiple sheets of organza, both works in this room present, floating above a single profile, a pair of dreamlike figures, recalling Maori architectural decoration, in particular the pairings of carved faces located inside and sometimes outside the meetinghouse.

Unlike predictable accounts of cultural identity, Fraser’s work is driven by personal attraction more than by programmatic strategy. Her treatment of fashion exposes cultural contradictions yet is refreshing for its outlandish juxtapositions. In “A cultural guide for the elite,” 1998, a series ostensibly describing the destruction of native birds on Big South Cape Island, her female figures, presented in the manner of saints displaying attributes, were dressed in exquisite stiletto heels and the stylized billowing forms of Dior’s “New Look,” thereby using one set of disparaged terms to transform another. Such unrestrained pleasure in fashion and ornament allows narratives of cultural oppression to take on new and valuable configurations.

Anna Miles