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The work of some of New Zealand’s most respected Maori artists goes on show in Dunedin this weekend. Rebecca Fox talks to Milford Galleries Dunedin director Stephen Higginson about the great things happening in New Zealand art.
Ask Stephen Higginson what he hopes people will take from his latest exhibition and he has a simple answer.
"The same thing as an All Black victory: pride."
That is because Higginson is showing the work of 13 contemporary Maori artists such as Robert Jahnke, Lisa Reihana, Reuben Paterson, Brett Graham, Israel Birch and Mike Crawford at Milford Galleries Dunedin.
The exhibition comes at a time when there are "extraordinary things going on in New Zealand art", he says.
"It’s astonishing. If it’s ever been so good, I don’t know when."
There are significant numbers of New Zealand artists creating meaningful works of quality and beauty and galleries and museums around the world are taking notice.
"They are recognising that something unique and important is happening here."
Higginson is dealing with regular inquiries from institutions in the United States, Europe and further afield.
"Once, if we were to approach one of those famous museums they’d wonder who we are, now they are approaching us.
"New Zealand art is understood to be that good, that important, that distinctive. It is perceived as unique."
But Higginson has known New Zealand has something special for many years. His gallery has always had at its "beating heart" Maori and Pacific art and a significant part of its annual calendar is given over to exhibiting it.
"Conversations about identity and values, the languages and symbols of culture dominate. It’s about meaning and being. This exhibition presents Maori identity, its lineage and distinct voices.
"The intriguing and wondrous thing about Maori culture is the depth of spirit and its substance. It’s utterly undeniable and we are all the better for it."
For this exhibition, he has pulled together a selection of works
to not only showcase the artists’ work as a group, but also the many links and similarities they have despite their sometimes "vastly different" mediums and styles.
Those similarities are often apparent in the carving marks, shadow and pattern used in the works whether they are photography, painting, glass, ceramics, mixed media or sculpture.
"There are the obvious chisel marks of Chris Bailey’s works, the very clear Nga Puhi carving marks of Israel Birch. One is a carving, one a painting but they are linked really obviously by a tradition. It is not something looking back. It is the language of our time, not the language of the past. The past is now."
He chose to name the exhibition "Waitohu" as it means to "mark, signify, indicate". Wai, the word for water, and tohu the word for mark also combines to be watermark.
"A watermark is a mix of shadow and presence, it is characteristically fluxing and fugitive. It mutates: moving back and forth, across time and place and between different states and stages of being."
In the exhibition, there are works that examine whakapapa and are linked by narratives that are sometimes personal, sometimes general.
Reuben Paterson’s Whakapapa: Get down on your knees IV contrasts the use of kowhaiwhai designs with floral patterns of the 1970s.
"The artist is having a conversation explicitly about his Maori culture and also his family with the patterns his mother was wearing at that time."
"Art work can be all these things."
One of the key links in the exhibition is the presence of light and how it is used.
"Light, or its absence, being one of the core spiritual concepts in all Maori thinking and custom and stages of being."
This is shown in Robert Jahnke’s work Te tomokanga o te ua (Portal of rain), which will be the first thing visitors see when they enter the gallery.
"Coming into the gallery will be like coming on to a marae. Jahnke’s work will flank the entranceway and wrap around you with its vertical tubes of fluorescent light."
It is a fitting work for a Dunedin gallery as it incorporates poet Hone Tuwhare’s Rain and vertical (tukutuku) panels with a toroa (albatross) pattern.
"It is a bird that we have an important relationship with here in Dunedin.
"There are narratives and allegories in the work about how we look after the land and the environment and how we are trashing it."
"You look through the shape to see the shadows created. She uses a head comb, a venerated object passed down through time, but here it is stylised. And while it retains the language of what it once was, there is a spiritual conversation in evidence with the outlines of birds flying away."
Peata Larkin’s suite of light boxes achieve two "distinctly different and therefore unique things", Higginson says.
They are paintings, explicitly referencing weaving patterns and contain a binary language of painted or sculpted dots pushed through a mesh substrate.
"Then when lit they become distinctly different and infused. An entirely new spatial reality appears with the light emanating from behind and through the colour pigments."
In Mike Crawford’s glass art, the extinct giant eagle, the hokioi, flies again, its wings reaching for the sky.
"There is great technique and skill evidenced in that work and also in Crawford’s ability to give the bird life, to imbue it with yearning and power."
Lisa Reihana’s photograph Urban Warrior references Molly Macalister’s A Maori Figure in a Kaitaka Cloak on the Auckland waterfront, which was the first public work commissioned from a female artist.
"In the past, this was not something a Maori woman could do, it breaks all the gender rules. The figure appears in a crumpled cloak, with the rope line and Auckland Harbour Bridge in the background. It’s very explicitly Auckland. It openly acknowledges the mana whenua of Ngati Whatua. But you need to know none of that to see the power and beauty in it."
Higginson has been working on this exhibition for more than a year and a-half. He found that being in the United States during last year’s mosque attacks in Christchurch really highlighted how special and unique New Zealand was.
"The compelling conversation for 10 days or more there was how well our leader presented, the kindness and character shown, with the converse topic being its absence and the self evident lacks of leadership, values and belief in America today. We can easily forget when we are living it, sometimes you need to stand apart to see it — I hope this exhibition adds to the conversation about how good we are."
Milford Galleries Dunedin is not the only gallery recognising this development. Waikato Museum will be hosting the exhibition during the summer while at a similar time the Auckland Art Gallery is giving over its whole gallery to a survey of Maori art "Toi Tu Toi Ora: Contemporary Maori Art from the 1950s to the present day", which includes more than 300 artworks by 120 artists.
"It is a remarkable conversation that is happening and many of the artists in the show here will be showing in it."