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May 18, 2009 | by  | in Visual Arts | [ssba]

Plastic Maori

When a Canadian Inuit recently pointed out how an Eskimo lolly caused offence by reverting back to archaic and indignifying stereotypes of her culture, her concerns were mostly met with hostility. The political weight the issue of misrepresentation carries was disregarded. New Zealand has seen plenty of controversy surrounding the use, misuse and abuse of Maori culture, such as renowned artist Gordon Walters sparking debate over his modernist koru prints or cigarettes sold in Israel under the brand name ‘Maori’, igniting anger within Maori smoke-free groups.

These debates surrounding racial stereotyping and intellectual property are well complemented by the slick and clever exhibition Plastic Maori, on until 9 August at the NewDowse. In this exhibition, curator Reuben Friend sets out to dismantle the idea that Maori art must remain immune to adaptation in order to retain authenticity.

The first thing that struck me about this exhibition was the colour. Bold vibrant colours in all sorts of plastic tones encompass the space, quickly disassociating the show from being a red, white and black koru show. Upon entering the space we are also greeted by two figures, one of which brought back pleasant childhood memories. Manu from Play School (yes, you remember) stands opposite a plastic security guard sculpture by Michael Parekowhai, entitled Pakaka. These two sit comfortably opposite each other, showing the two ends of the conventional Maori (mis)representation spectrum. Pakaka embodies a figure that is imposing and induces apprehension, whereas Manu is exoticised, idealised and beautiful. It was pretty exciting to see Manu because growing up as an ethnic kid, seeing a doll that wasn’t blonde, foetal or fantastical was a pretty big deal.

The works in the show challenge the notion that Maori art is static and shows how it is socially and technologically engaged with contemporary issues. Some of the works are more overtly political such as Robert Jahnke’s Forged Artefacts showing trowels with text such as “this is not a Maori issue, this is a Pakeha issue”, an obvious hint towards contested ideas of land and colonisation. Other works are more subtle and try to marry the gap between customary culture and a contemporary reality. I found Gina Matchitt’s work particularly clever in doing this. Her tuku tuku panels comprised of recycled computer keys made me think about how sustainable contemporary ideas are and whether there will a reversion back to customary culture amidst the furore of the disposable new.

I thoroughly recommend this exhibition and think it is important for art like this to exist within our consciousness. They show that categories and labels should be a matter of self-determination and not for corporations to decide.

Many in the show have addressed ideas surrounding the commodification of Maori culture and its commercially lucrative potential. Youle’s work Often Licked, Occasionally Beaten is particularly pertinent amidst the Eskimo lolly issue where he has created Tiki shaped lollipops in various colours. These also sit nicely alongside his work WHEN! displaying rows of tiki ornaments which have now become a prominent feature in kitsch culture. Although the circulation of these objects are now in mainstream consciousness, their value as respected cultural object has somewhat been lost in translation between Taonga Maori and tourism selling-point.

Curated by Reuben Friend The New Dowse Until 9 August


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