The Auckland Art Gallery is, at the moment, given over to Maori artists. A few classic European works linger − as artefacts of a marginal culture. The situation of the 1960s and 1970s where a few Maori works would have been shown on the margins of a predominantly Pakeha collection is neatly reversed and a Maori cultural hegemony exists. We see, quite possibly, the future Aotearoa.
The centrepiece is a collection of work by Peter Robinson called Te Kore, which investigates the nothingness of beginnings, from which Te Po will evolve and then Rangi and Papa follow. The void is a resonant concept, encompassing both myth and science – the big bang, dark matter and so on. Light and dark feature with neon coils leading to nothing other than one’s own reflection; a piupiu woven with the thin wires found in the old telephone cables is beautifully lit, a flattened staircase in a mirror glows – it is powerful conceptual art.
Thereafter there is the Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art exhibition, a pot pouri of images, some craft, some protest art, some sculpture, some pottery… As I wandered I realised that this is religious art, repeating, as Christian art does, key stories and themes. For Christianity the virgin birth, the crucifixion, Lazarus; in this case, the separation, the children, the waka, whanaungatanga, whaikorero… In this context Robyn Kahukiwa is a major artist, for she brings the realistic human form to this religious content, in the same way as the Renaissance artists brought the realism of the human form to the previously ascetic symbolism of medieval art. There is a digital attempt to capture the physical presence of the demigods, which is both muscular and curiously coy in its hiding of the sexual organs. The careful drapery of some European art is repeated. Is there, more generally a lack of sensuality, a puritanism revealed? Similarly, other than reliefs devoted to Tangaroa there is a surprising absence of the natural world in this collection. Nevertheless, this is a major exhibition, an indication of a new normal.
But there is an issue, for a tedium begins to be felt, the tedium of religious art, which is in essence, prehistorical. Man has not yet become subject to the historical narrative and the complexities of economic, social and cultural journeys taking place dialectically, revealed by a consciousness which refuses religious certainty. This tedium could become a cultural issue mirroring the self satisfaction of the Pakeha ‘God’s Own Country’ syndrome of the 1950s.