Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa,
Wellington, New Zealand
In their desperation to get New Zealand’s founding document signed, the British in undue haste drew up a Maori version of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi that is disputed to this day.
Particularly problematic is the translation of the word sovereignty as kawanatanga, or governance, in Maori. Surely, the more than 500 Maori chiefs who signed would have refused had they realised they were surrendering their rich and fertile land to a supreme power.
In our era of colonial guilt, Wellington’s Te Papa, as it is almost universally known, does its best to right that and many other wrongs. A museum devoted to identity, it avenges not just the Maori, but also the white New Zealanders for whom the prime draw is the exhibition on the battle of Gallilopoli when citizens gave up their lives for a remote colonial authority.
The giant figures that represent the scale of the suffering are powerfully emotional and the conflict, in which the Turks were defending their rightful territory, is especially resonant against an awareness of the bloodshed over Maori land heightened by Te Papa’s section on the Waitangi treaty.
The treaty is remembered every year on Waitangi Day on February 6. In February 2020, just before the country’s first lockdown, Jacinda Ardern joined in the paddlers in a waka, or traditional Maori canoe at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands. It was possibly one of the most relaxed moments of her premiership, judging by her smile and comment that she wanted every New Zealander to be able to share the pleasure.
Following Ardern’s abrupt resignation in January, the local press was awash with comment on the difficulties of women in power.
One solution is to find strength in numbers, or a “four brain, eight hand” approach to adopt the mantra of the Mata Aho Collective: four Maori women woven textile artists who have worked together for the last decade to produce joint works and whose exhibition Te Puni Aroaro dominates the art exhibitions at Te Papa.
Like the Gallipoli exhibition, it relies on size to make its point, but the force is female and flexible: the “kaokao”, or chevron patterns associated with strength, are balanced with fluid evocations of water and light, woven using ancient techniques from industrial materials to reflect adaptation to modern culture.
The largest installation of all is the 200 square-metre Takapau (or woven mat), suspended above the visitors, dappling them in the kind of light encountered beneath New Zealand’s giant ferns.
Kiko Moana, from the words for “flesh” and “speaking of water” – a kind of embodiment of water – is a mere 11-metres by four of blue, cascading tarpaulin.
The visitor can carry on marveling at its size from the floor above. Exhibitions there include Landscape and Desire – colonial paintings showing off what the conquerors had acquired and more critical modern takes such as contemporary Wellington artist Wayne Youle’s “What Do You Say Savages”, which itemises the 21 kegs of gun powder, 20 dozen pocket handkerchiefs, two cases of soap, 120 muskets, 48 iron pots and 100 red blankets Maori were persuaded to accept in return for land.
The biggest land dispute of all is between mankind and nature, which Te Papa acknowledges in a section devoted to the country’s natural wonders, including a super volcano, a giant squid with eyes the size of footballs and the giant kauri tree, one of the world’s longest living trees, which is falling victim to kauri dieback.
If by now you need a break from the anxiety of beleaguered nature and broken politics, the collection Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa is a celebration of the joy of colour as the medium and the message.
Contemporary Christchurch artist Helen Calder’s “Everything in its right place” is an arrangement of thick strips of paint, like elongated drips that she says was inspired by a happy accident when paint collected in a pool in her studio and she began experimenting with skins of paint.
It means whatever we want it to. It’s as abstract as traditional Maori art and, like everything in Te Papa, it explores identity in New Zealand, or should I say Aotearoa?
Barbara Lewis © 2023.