Sunday, 20 September 2009



Robyn Kahukiwa


I - The Background

The whole question of non-European [by which I also mean non-North American] art that also regards itself as fully ‘contemporary’ is an increasingly complicated one. The problem has been to blend cherished indigenous traditions, often based on a very different view of the way art functions in human society, with a sense of what is relevant to the present moment, Also to find a way in which this new art can speak to outsiders, without inviting condescension. One of the barriers that serious art has to cross, in these circumstances, is the existence of a category of ‘tourist arts’, sometimes now described as ‘airport art’, made for the consumption of casual visitors. Tourist artifacts began to be made at least as early as the beginning of the 19th century – so called ‘Canton paintings’ made in the ports of southern China for visiting European traders are a case in point – and have swelled to an enormous volume in an age of mass travel. In many European and American households Ancient Egypt is represented by papyrus paintings bought for small sums in the Cairo bazaar, and the tribal arts of Africa by mass-produced woodcarvings purchased in Nairobi airport after a safari holiday.


Another, and perhaps even more serious barrier is the existence of a tradition of exoticism in European art, and particularly within Modernism. One of the earliest representatives of this was Paul Gauguin, who has a good claim to be thought of as the first truly Modern artist. Gauguin anticipated both the Fauves and the Cubists in many important respects, not least in his fascination with the idea of the primitive, and in his use of artistic conventions and even of specific images borrowed from tribal arts.


It is perhaps worth saying here that the arts of Oceania, which provided Gauguin with his source material, were in fact known to Europeans considerably before most of them became acquainted with the traditional art of Africa. While it is true that African carvings, often made of ivory, were imported into Europe by Portuguese traders from the 16th century onwards, these seem to have been known only to a small elite in the Iberian peninsula. The Pacific voyages of Captain Cook, by contrast, had an immense impact on cultivated European opinion. In 1803, the British Museum, the first attempt at a museum that would incorporate all the arts of humankind, put objects brought back by Cook on view in a special South Sea Room, where they attracted enormous public interest. Today, despite poor documentation in the early days of the collection, some twenty-eight of the Museum’s Maori items can still be traced to Cook.


Gauguin’s compositions based on South Seas motifs had an impact well beyond the European audience to which they were originally addressed. One can, for example, see distinct traces of Gauguin’s influence in the celebrated series of murals painted by Diego Rivera for the Palacio de Cortés in Cuernavaca. There is a certain irony in the fact that these murals, intended to revive the spirit of pre-Columbian Mexico, were painted in a building associated with the leader of the Spanish conquistadors who destroyed the Aztec Empire, and were paid for by the American ambassador of the time, Dwight W. Morrow.


Both Gauguin and Rivera are important figures in the context of Robyn Kahukiwa’s work. In Gauguin’s case the connection is obvious, since he was the first to make use of Oceanic, though not specifically Maori, imagery. With Rivera, the connection is both more organic and more intimate, as can be seen from large compositions such as ‘Nga Tipuna’, which has a relationship to Rivera’s autobiographical mural, ‘The Alameda on a Sunday Afternoon’ made for the Hotel del Prado in Mexico City.


He, and his fellow muralists, Orozco and Siqueiros, were looking for a way to connect the present of Mexico with its past. They wanted to do so in a way that was valid both for the Mexican popular audience and for an external one. In other words, they were intent on explaining Mexico to itself, but were certainly not unaware of the impact made on non-Mexicans. The tightrope they had to walk was stretched between the desire to produce something that not only seemed indigenous but actually was so – in other words something true to a fundamental notion of mexicanidad – but also something comprehensible within the conventions of post-Renaissance European art.


In broad terms, Robyn Kahukiwa finds herself in exactly the same position in relation to the Maori heritage, of which her work now forms an integral part.


II – The New Zealand Heritage

There are several factors that affect any assessment of Robyn Kahukiwa’s career. She is a New Zealand artist of a very specific kind: contemporary – that is, not only someone working at the present time but someone whose work is directly engaged with contemporary conditions. She is also Maori and female.


To begin with the last of these three specifics: New Zealand has a strong tradition of women artists, who have played a unusually prominent role – more prominent by far than in either Europe or the United States – in developing a local form of Modernism. Another comparison with Latin America can be made here. Tarsila do Amaral in Brazil, Frida Kahlo in Mexico, Amelia Pelaez in Cuba all play a much more prominent role in the history of art in their respective countries than European or North American equivalents.


In the 1970s a strong feminist movement developed in New Zealand and Kahukiwa’s work undoubtedly reflects that,


The most important part of her identity, however, is its Maori component. Both elements, Maori and feminist, are reflected in powerful self-portraits, such as ‘My Tapu Head’.


Paradoxically, one reason for this course of development seems to be that she grew up overseas, and only returned to New Zealand in late adolescence. This gave her a sharper consciousness of her Maori heritage. It also brought home to her the extent to which the Maori had become displaced ad marginalized within their own country. Early paintings from the 1970s often have strong political content, making comments about the impact of class, in a supposedly egalitarian country, as well as about ethnicity. An example of this concern with the social position of the Maori is her painting ‘The Choice’.


In the 1980s, 1990s and the early years of the 21st century [the period represented in this book] her focus shifted towards creating a coherent visual system featuring powerful emblems of Maori cultural identity.


In order to do this she had to focus not only on unifying elements within the Maori community, but also on the equally evident fissures within it. These fissures were to do with gender, the conflict between rural and urban communities, and the sharp disagreements between those who were politically radical and those who remained conservative.


The fact that she was female impacted on her work in fundamental ways. While Maori cosmology certainly stresses the authority and power of women, to the point where the land itself is personified as Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother, the making of artworks was traditionally regarded as men’s business. This was certainly true of woodcarving, and it is carvings that provide by far the greatest part of the Maori image repertoire.  Kahukiwaa sometimes seems to parody this perception – for example in her ‘Pou Wahine’ figures, which are painted wooden cut outs using forms based on traditional carvings used to adorn Maori merae.


This division has had a paradoxical result. Because women artists were excluded from carving schools, they tended to use a much wider range of materials, and to reach out more readily to new forms of art. Kahukiwa is one of a small but highly original and influential group of women painters of Maori descent who have greatly extended the range of recent New Zealand art, They have been able to speak to both communities – Maori and Pakeha. To make myself clear, the latter term was in use in New Zealand as early as 1815 to mean ‘white person’ and has now evolved to mean all New Zealanders of non-Maori descent.


The point is quite important because comparisons are sometimes made between contemporary Maori art and the new Aboriginal art of Australia.


In fact, the story is in each case different. Aboriginal art, certainly in its now familiar guise of acrylic paint on canvas, was originally introduced into Aboriginal communities by white visitors. The story of Geoffrey Barden’s enterprise at Papunya in the 1970s is well-known. While the basic authenticity of Aboriginal ‘dreamings’ as reflected in these paintings is not in doubt, the awkward fact remains that they are ‘trade goods’ to almost the same extent as the Canton School paintings mentioned earlier. That is, they are essentially artworks produced in one community, but designed to be consumed in another and very different one – the great Australian cities and, beyond then, the international art world. One of the things that has served these paintings well is their close but fortuitous resemblance to certain kinds of post World-war II European and American abstraction.


Since the early days of the boom in Aboriginal art, a new kind of urban art made by Aboriginal painters has begun to evolve, but it has remained very much under the shadow of works produced in the outback.


Robyn Kahukiwa has, I think, been increasingly conscious of the dangers that this kind of situation presents.


When one looks at the evolution of her work one sees not only a restless exploration of new media and new ways of making art, but a determination both to make emphatically public works, which speak not only for herself but for the whole Maori community, as well as others designed primarily for private contemplation.


At the same time she has tried to reach out to as many different kinds of spectator as possible, at all economic and social levels. Her output does not consist of easel-paintings alone.  She uses a bewildering variety of different formats and media, often with a deliberately popular accent – murals for community meeting places, posters and book illustrations, plus sculptures and sculptural installations. The aim is always accessibility.


One striking characteristic of her recent work is its graphic impact. Another is that she often combines images with words, sometimes actually placing them over the image, as in “NgaReoKuia’ or ‘ in ‘We Must Love Ourselves Again’. These characteristics link her to Pop Art,- a good example in a slightly different style is the boldly decorative  ‘SuperHeroHina’. This offers an admission of the fact that Maori children and even Maori adults are probably just as much addicted to supero hero comics as their North American and Western European equivalents. Kahukiwa also makes use of photography, which is now a universal language of visual representation.


For critics at the cultural centre – or, should I say, for critics who think of themselves as belonging to the cultural centre - one of the most difficult ideas to absorb is that art that embraces non-European ethnicity may also, at the same time, be linked to the modern, urban industrial world,


Yet this linkage is something that is becoming increasingly evident in a variety of supposedly marginal situations. One instance has been the rise of Political Pop in China – a style that owes something to the art of Andy Warhol, but just as much, if not more, to the imagery spawned by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, also to China’s own rapid industrialization and adoption of a consumer culture.


Other examples can be found in Africa. The work of many of the best-known contemporary African artists – a good example is that of Chéri Samba – owes little to the tribal tradition but a great deal to the popular imagery created in swarming new African cities. Samba’s sources are not the African sculptures we admire in ethnographical museums but contemporary hand-painted signs for hairdressers and other urban tradesmen, plus the satirical strip cartoons that flourish in Kinshasa.


I even know of recent art with a recognisably Pop accent from the Islamic Republic of Iran – a regime at least nominally hostile to all forms of American influence.


The fact is that Pop has been so durable because it relates to now-universal elements in world culture. As Robyn Kahukiwa recognizes, to deny the impact of industrial mass-culture on life in New Zealand, and on Maori life as well as on Pakehas, would not be honest and equally certainly would not be sensible.


A living, evolving Maori culture cannot exist in isolation – it has to enter into dialogue with precisely the things that might seem most obviously opposed to it.


My feeling is that one of the factors that has helped Kahukiwa to come to terms with this is her commitment to feminism.


We undoubtedly live in a period when art criticism and art theory have become startlingly inconsistent. For example, formalist criticism, of a kind still favoured by many academic writers on contemporary art, fails conspicuously when applied to the activities of Joseph Beuys, the performance artist and political activist who was undoubtedly one of the most influential artists of the 1970s and 1980s. A triangular block of fat place on the seat of a kitchen chair is not a thing that it is easy to interpret in terms of purely formal relationships.


Similarly, criticism of this type fails to deal with the fashion for ironic kitsch exemplified by the work of Jeff Koons, currently one of the best-known living representatives of American art. Koons’s work represents an extension of the Pop idea, but at the same time seems to deride the Pop sensibility.


Feminism, despite its clear derivation in some important respects from French Structuralist philosophy, also represents a return to an old-fashioned concern with justice and morality – preoccupations not consistently expressed in art since the end of the 19th century, and often though of as inimical to Modernism. One may perhaps argue that a concern for the survival of a living and developing Maori ethnicity amounts to the same thing.


However, the danger is that this latter concern may also bring with it the thought that the correct path for the Maori artist is to turn his or her back on the rest of the world in a search for imagined purity.


I doubt if Robyn Kakukiwa could ever be tempted to do that. Her Maori heritage roots her in a particular place. Her feminism makes her look for a universal message, even if she has to adopt apparently impure means in order to convey it.


This site was last updated 20-09-2009