Of the fruits of colonisation

Whakawhetai exhibition at Tairawhiti Museum.

Whakawhetai exhibition at Tairawhiti Museum.

YSL by Melanie Tangaere Baldwin. Picture by Tairawhiti Museum

Social media is better known for its reactive, emotional blowback rather than informed responses. But in her exhibition Whakawhetai, artist Melanie Tangaere Baldwin confronts the notion, “most often espoused in online comments boards”, that Maori should be grateful for the fruits of colonisation.

“Social media is not a professional platform but it is a loud platform,” says Tangaere Baldwin.

Some politicians stand on loud platforms of their own. In a recent opinion column about the Tuia 250 commemorations National MP Paul Goldsmith said Maori should be grateful with what colonisation has helped create, says Tangaere Baldwin.

Goldsmith: “(M)any things that came after Cook massively enriched the lives of the inhabitants — protein-rich food, the written word, metal, wheels, access to the global archives of literature, religion, music, science and stories etc etc.

“Did the good outweigh the bad?

“Surely, we have to say, yes.”

Lining the walls of the Tairawhiti Museum gallery that houses Whakawhetai are large framed photographs of sculpted red heads that recall mokomokai, preserved heads kept by families and brought out only for sacred ceremonies.

During the musket wars of the 19th century “mokomokai — once essential objects in the establishment of peace — became the source of guns and the cause of wars,” note Christian Palmer and Mervyn Tano in their paper Mokomokai: Commercialization and Desacralization.

Tangaere Baldwin’s sculpted heads however are based on specific people who contributed to the colonisation process around the world. A head that represents that of Sir George Grey, 19th century governor of the South Australia colony, then New Zealand and later of South Africa’s Cape Colony, is painted with a depiction of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag.

Grey’s reputation was tarnished by his policies in Taranaki, his invasion of Waikato, and the ensuing confiscation of Maori land that followed, says an entry in online encyclopedia New Zealand History.

“The confiscations, in particular, caused decades of bitterness and deep division.”

Another head represents that of British army officer and artist Horatio Gordon Robley who collected 35 to 40 mokomokai. He later offered to sell them to the New Zealand Government. When the offer was declined, most of the collection was sold to the American Museum of Natural History.

“It’s poignant to be in a room like that and see how many people contribute to colonisation and how many peoples have been colonised,” says Tangaere Baldwin.

In this context “gratitude” is an incomprehensible and irrelevant term, she says.

The Guide suggests cynics and social media trolls might say her sophisticated technique and use of media has benefited well from European resources and influences.

“If I want to make my work accessible, and I am a product of this society, that doesn’t mean I have to be grateful for the fact people died,” says the artist.

On the far wall, and behind a screen, are three lightboxes. The backlit images of patterned figures mimic advertising panels for brands such as Yves St Laurent. The figures, though, are based on the poses of figures in French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women.

Gauguin, who spent 10 years in French Polynesia towards the end of his life ostensibly intended to escape European civilisation and “everything that is artificial and conventional”. French and European culture was already prevalent in Papeete where he spent his first three months though. Paintings Gauguin produced during his time in Tahiti are Primitivist fantasies of permissiveness, says Tangaere Baldwin.

“I’ve adapted those poses for the story I wanted to tell.”

A leaflet that accompanies the three works “talks particularly about how, in post-colonial times, we have lost the ability to see ourselves as beautiful”.

“We’re brought up to see blonde, blue-eyed, straight-haired people as the epitome of beauty.

“People think colonisation in New Zealand is all fine now but it’s just under the surface. It’s still growing, it’s still happening.”

On the wall at the opposite end of the gallery a video of a three-year-old girl in a ruffle-fronted white dress, and whose face is painted blue, dances to the repetitive beat of a 1980s styled, electronic soundtrack.

New Zealand was still “comfortably racist” in that decade, says Tangaere Baldwin.

“The 80s is an illusion, a contradiction. That music is part of that bullshit good time. It’s an illusion.

“The show is nice to go into but you should feel a bit oppressed when you leave.”

Social media is better known for its reactive, emotional blowback rather than informed responses. But in her exhibition Whakawhetai, artist Melanie Tangaere Baldwin confronts the notion, “most often espoused in online comments boards”, that Maori should be grateful for the fruits of colonisation.

“Social media is not a professional platform but it is a loud platform,” says Tangaere Baldwin.

Some politicians stand on loud platforms of their own. In a recent opinion column about the Tuia 250 commemorations National MP Paul Goldsmith said Maori should be grateful with what colonisation has helped create, says Tangaere Baldwin.

Goldsmith: “(M)any things that came after Cook massively enriched the lives of the inhabitants — protein-rich food, the written word, metal, wheels, access to the global archives of literature, religion, music, science and stories etc etc.

“Did the good outweigh the bad?

“Surely, we have to say, yes.”

Lining the walls of the Tairawhiti Museum gallery that houses Whakawhetai are large framed photographs of sculpted red heads that recall mokomokai, preserved heads kept by families and brought out only for sacred ceremonies.

During the musket wars of the 19th century “mokomokai — once essential objects in the establishment of peace — became the source of guns and the cause of wars,” note Christian Palmer and Mervyn Tano in their paper Mokomokai: Commercialization and Desacralization.

Tangaere Baldwin’s sculpted heads however are based on specific people who contributed to the colonisation process around the world. A head that represents that of Sir George Grey, 19th century governor of the South Australia colony, then New Zealand and later of South Africa’s Cape Colony, is painted with a depiction of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag.

Grey’s reputation was tarnished by his policies in Taranaki, his invasion of Waikato, and the ensuing confiscation of Maori land that followed, says an entry in online encyclopedia New Zealand History.

“The confiscations, in particular, caused decades of bitterness and deep division.”

Another head represents that of British army officer and artist Horatio Gordon Robley who collected 35 to 40 mokomokai. He later offered to sell them to the New Zealand Government. When the offer was declined, most of the collection was sold to the American Museum of Natural History.

“It’s poignant to be in a room like that and see how many people contribute to colonisation and how many peoples have been colonised,” says Tangaere Baldwin.

In this context “gratitude” is an incomprehensible and irrelevant term, she says.

The Guide suggests cynics and social media trolls might say her sophisticated technique and use of media has benefited well from European resources and influences.

“If I want to make my work accessible, and I am a product of this society, that doesn’t mean I have to be grateful for the fact people died,” says the artist.

On the far wall, and behind a screen, are three lightboxes. The backlit images of patterned figures mimic advertising panels for brands such as Yves St Laurent. The figures, though, are based on the poses of figures in French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women.

Gauguin, who spent 10 years in French Polynesia towards the end of his life ostensibly intended to escape European civilisation and “everything that is artificial and conventional”. French and European culture was already prevalent in Papeete where he spent his first three months though. Paintings Gauguin produced during his time in Tahiti are Primitivist fantasies of permissiveness, says Tangaere Baldwin.

“I’ve adapted those poses for the story I wanted to tell.”

A leaflet that accompanies the three works “talks particularly about how, in post-colonial times, we have lost the ability to see ourselves as beautiful”.

“We’re brought up to see blonde, blue-eyed, straight-haired people as the epitome of beauty.

“People think colonisation in New Zealand is all fine now but it’s just under the surface. It’s still growing, it’s still happening.”

On the wall at the opposite end of the gallery a video of a three-year-old girl in a ruffle-fronted white dress, and whose face is painted blue, dances to the repetitive beat of a 1980s styled, electronic soundtrack.

New Zealand was still “comfortably racist” in that decade, says Tangaere Baldwin.

“The 80s is an illusion, a contradiction. That music is part of that bullshit good time. It’s an illusion.

“The show is nice to go into but you should feel a bit oppressed when you leave.”

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