Gottfried Lindauer, Tamati Waka Nene, 1890, oil on canvas, 40 1/8 × 33 1/8".

Gottfried Lindauer, Tamati Waka Nene, 1890, oil on canvas, 40 1/8 × 33 1/8".

Gottfried Lindauer

Gottfried Lindauer, Tamati Waka Nene, 1890, oil on canvas, 40 1/8 × 33 1/8".

Between the 1870s and early 1900s, the Czech émigré Gottfried Lindauer crisscrossed New Zealand, hawking his skills as a portraitist. His paintings were competent, if unspectacular: realist likenesses very often made by working from (and sometimes over) photographs. His portraits of the Māori, particularly those wearing moko (traditional tattoos), are, however, major documents of New Zealand’s colonial history. Many of them traveled to Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie and the Gallery of West Bohemia in Pilsen, Czech Republic, (Lindauer’s birthplace) in 2014–15, after the Nationalgalerie’s director, Udo Kittelmann, saw them in New Zealand. In Europe, Lindauer was understandably a curiosity: one of their own, who’d left his homeland and found himself painting a culture that, even now, is perceived by many Europeans as “exotic.” In New Zealand, though, where the paintings are extraordinarily well known, the significance of the recent exhibition “The Māori Portraits: Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand” hinged on its innovative curation.

Rather than taking a chronological approach, curators Ngahiraka Mason and Nigel Borell and their team clustered Lindauer’s paintings by iwi (tribal groupings), in much the same way many Māori hang photographs of deceased family members and dignitaries in their homes and meetinghouses. This inevitably involved consultation with descendants of the subjects, a process now treated as a given in New Zealand museums and galleries whenever culturally sensitive materials or images of ancestors are displayed. This hanging strategy, supported by extensive biographical notes in wall texts, shifted the show’s emphasis from the artist’s achievements to the individuals he painted: a direct, human intimacy that was nonetheless loaded with subjective, postcolonial risks. What would it mean, for example, to favor portraits such as Tamati Waka Nene, 1890, and Ihaka Whanga, undated, because they offer up noble, impassive elders with elaborate full-face moko? Or paintings like Karawhira Kapu, 1883, and Hori Ngakapa Te Whanaunga, 1878, because they show Māori elites embracing European customs and dress? The prejudices of preference, at least for people without familial, tribal, or geographical connections to the subjects, said a lot about how Lindauer made images of Māori palatable, and mythical, for a pākehā (European New Zealander) public.

The penultimate room demonstrated this perfectly, with nine versions of Heeni Hirini and Child (formerly known as Ana Rupene and Child): a portrait of a mother with her baby on her back, which Lindauer painted some thirty times. Heeni Hirini is Lindauer’s most iconic image, largely because it has been so relentlessly reproduced, first by Lindauer after the original version won a gold medal at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, later by popular culture as a nostalgic, happy-go-lucky view of Māori. Heeni Hirini became, whether intended or not, colonial Pop art: ethno-kitsch more than a century before the term existed.

This reminder that Lindauer was, ultimately, a commercially driven artist tied the exhibition to the charged contemporary debates about how Māori are, and have been, represented in visual culture. New Zealand has, for example, selected Lisa Reihana for this year’s Fifty-Seventh Venice Biennale, where she will present a video that reimagines a famous and popular nineteenth-century French wallpaper, which exoticized the South Pacific and its people. The country’s most prestigious art award, the Walters Prize, was won in 2016 by Shannon Te Ao, who, in his video two shoots that stretch far out, 2013–14, reads an English translation of a Māori waiata (song) to animals. And in late 2014, following nearly two years of negotiations, New York’s American Museum of Natural History finally returned to New Zealand, among other remains, thirty-five toi moko (severed and preserved Māori heads)—“portraits” removed from bodies that became objects of fascination and trade in the nineteenth century. It was this context that gave “The Māori Portraits” its urgency. It was an important art-historical project, to be sure, but the far more pressing questions it posed were about what it means to look at Lindauer’s Māori, here and now––and in that act, what New Zealand, as a culture, is trying to find.

Anthony Byrt