Toi Art a template for a more ‘woke’ future

Te Papa’s 20th anniversary art exhibition is bursting with energy, personalities and ideas. Finally, says Hamish Coney, the elephant is in the room.

Toi Art is all about the free-wheeling, multi-disciplinary, complex and confessional NOW. Te Papa has a lot riding on the success of the exhibition which heralds the re-opening of the new improved gallery which now boasts 35 percent more real estate. But probably more importantly, what this funky show delivers is a set of assertive curatorial positions that place Te Papa once again at the centre of our national life as an ideas factory.

Of course, the vital role Te Papa plays as a museum, as a repository of taonga, kaitiaki of the very ‘stuff’ of Aotearoa’s history is the institution’s dayjob, but Toi Art swings the pendulum into the present and makes a compelling case for a bit more ginger, joy and risk in the types of contemporary exhibitions that the new improved Our Place can present. I want to see our leading art institution mixing it up, making cases for the culture as an actor in the play, not just documenting its passage. Toi Art should be the template for a more ‘woke’ cage-rattling future.

How soon is now? goes the song. The 2018 that Toi Art speaks to is a queasy and dissonant phase of human history. Conveniently for some whilst we are distracted, incredulously watching Trump and Putin turning the global political order into a coconut shy, parts of our own art infrastructure are on the point of being denuded or dismantled in front our very eyes. Witness the incredible suggestion that Auckland Art Gallery might have to be a part-time proposition as it is potentially put on life support by funding restrictions. Or how about the closure of the Elam Library? Help me Obi Wan Kenobi…

On the home front it feels like we are about to enter another of those ghost of Christmas past conversations about the value of art or an arts education. Thankfully out there in the real world our artists are getting on with it. Luke Willis Thompson is a finalist in the Turner Prize in the UK. OMG. So, these realities at home and away and are kind of incredible; just one in a dull, migraine-inducing way and the other in a WTF how amazing is that - NZ artists are doing it on the biggest stage - kind of a way. 

In this context Toi Art needs to do some heavy lifting for Team (Art) New Zealand. Is it up to the task I hear you ask? Before I attempt an answer, we need to break out into the nature of the show itself. Toi Art consists of five distinct sections, each seemingly hermetically sealed, but the magic is where the component parts leak and seep into each other.  

I entered the exhibition into Michael Parekowhai’s show-stopper Detour which is where you’ll run into an elephant and be confronted by a vast Bladerunner style gantry containing a midden of New Zealand art history; real and imagined. However, given the porous structure of the new gallery complex and the non-linear arrangement of Toi Art one could equally enter via the crystalline milky way that is Jeena Shin’s re-imaging of the central stair access that is now adorned with her work Movement image time. Te Papa.

Anaha Te Rahui, Ngāti Tarāwhai iwi, Tauira (carved patterns), 1909. Wood. Photo: Maarten Holl, Te Papa

But Parekowhai’s chutzpah is the signature moment of arrival at Toi Art. Detour is an elliptical pushmi-pullyu of large scale sculpture in the 21st century. The visitor moves into, through and around the work. The medium is the message in Parekowhai’s hands – there is no fixed point of view, no single position of authority, but many voices: it’s all about the collective… The Toi.

Parekowhai’s audacity is well-known but here he really rows the boat out by, in effect, curating an alternative show within the ‘load-bearing’ structure of Detour. At the heart of the work is Colin McCahon’s Northland Panels dating to 1958. The fifth panel contains one of the most poignant and crushing cri-de-couer to be found in any New Zealand painting – in which McCahon laments that New Zealand is ‘a landscape with too few lovers’. This phrase has become world famous in New Zealand, articulating a potent image of the lonely poet striding through a silent land till he reaches his destination: inspiration, nationhood, black-singleted honesty… Truth in the King Country. It’s a virile, DB Brown-drinking, white male construct dating to the 1950s that over time has become shopworn to the point of daggy cliché. Seventy-five years ago, however, it was something of a rallying cry, giving voice to the idea that isolation was a defining New Zealand experience. 

Around the Northland Panels that serve as a metaphorical Turin Shroud, Parekowhai carefully arranges an alternative history via a rainbow choir of voices in the form of original works by mid 20th century European provocateurs such as Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and New Zealand moderns Molly Macallister, Milan Mrkusich and Frances Hodgkins. But the ‘collaboration’ that is both most startling, most urgent and one that feels most daring is Parekowhai’s pairing himself with the scarlet pimpernel of New Zealand art, Theo Schoon (1915 – 1985). I have written previously on Newsroom about the Dutch émigré’s pivotal role in New Zealand postwar visual arts culture but to see him here at the very epicenter of our national gallery, given a long overdue voice is an act of artistic generosity on Parekowhai’s part. Time heals all wounds! It is wonderful to see that an artist, who for so long remained barely acknowledged for his crucial role in the re-opening of the cross-cultural discourse in the 1950s, some 30 odd years after his death, positioned as a vital organ in the contemporary art moment in 2018. Like Schoon himself, this sense of renewal is simply incredible.

I use the term re-open both pointedly and advisedly. The cross-cultural discourse between Māori and European ideas and presentations of art is a big deal in New Zealand. As the current Gordon Walters exhibition New Vision amply demonstrates (see my previous Newsroom article) there is artistic gold to be panned in indigenous rivers. But this is also contested ground. As so often occurs in the retelling of New Zealand’s history, fertile space opens for the revisionist (translate as: speaking truth to power) impulse and in this instance such a stance is both warranted and timely.

That’s because equally telling cross-cultural artworks took place almost a century before Schoon’s ‘discoveries’ of the ‘world’s oldest art galleries’ in the limestone bluffs of South Canterbury. And whilst his documenting of Māori rock drawings, many dating back centuries, was a decisive moment of acknowledgment of Māori art practice, as opposed to such artworks being captured in archeological or ethnographic silos, Schoon enabled the past to leap into the present and the local, or iwi-based view of art to be reconciled with international modernism. That, finally, his position as a seminal 20th century voice in New Zealand art is given a stage by another artist echoes Schoon’s collaborative approach. Parekowhai is doing in turn for Schoon what he did for Gordon Walters, Len Castle and other diverse figures such as A.R.D. Fairburn.

Portrait of Anaha Te Rahui by Charles Goldie (1909) at Te Papa. Photo: Te Papa

But the earliest examples of cross-cultural New Zealand art emerged in the painted whare of Ngāti Porou and Rongowhakaata on the East Coast of the North Island and Ngāti Tarawhai carving in the Rotorua district prior to the Tarawera eruption of 1886. So, it was with great relief and joy that I turned a corner at Toi Art to see a stunning suite of 10 tauira (carved patterns) by Anaha Te Rahui commissioned in 1909 by the then-director of the Dominion Museum, Augustus Hamilton. Each panel is about the size of a school text book and they possess a similar didactic function. This suite of 10 exemplar motifs, each clearly named in English typescript, depict in the main, states of being such as Whakatara: to challenge, large scale concepts such as Takarangi: the cosmos or potent Māori archetypes such as Raaru, the double spiral. 

Anaha, one of the great Ngāti Tarawhai Tohunga Whakairo of the mid to late 19th century carved these instructive panels in 1909, the same year as Charles Goldie painted his portrait, which is also on display in the Turangawaewae: Art and New Zealand section of Toi Art. Anaha died in 1913 as a very old man of over 90 years. How the differences and convergences between these Pākehā and Māori world views and how artists expressed their contemporary realities as they began to comprehend Aotearoa New Zealand’s unique place in the world is where the magic is found in Toi Art.

From Anaha and Goldie, to Schoon and Parekowhai and then onward to the present day in the other pieces of the puzzle such as the contemporary object making of Lisa Walker (I want to go to my bedroom but I can’t be bothered) and the performative exuberance of the costume and video of Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists (among whose number was/is Lisa Reihana who recently represented New Zealand with such distinction at the Venice Biennale in 2017) Toi Art presents well over 100 years of art production in Aotearoa New Zealand. This is one of the first times that a public gallery curatorial position has felt so directional and representative of the wider New Zealand discourse between race, gender, medium and ambition. The elephant is of course the Toi part of the equation. Art with a capital A as we frequently encounter it tends to be rendered down into paintings on a wall. Toi on the other hand is a much broader church, containing song, dance, adornment, carving, installation and a state of mind only found in Aotearoa New Zealand. 

Imagine what Anaha would make of it to see his descendants ascendant.

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