the river walk

i'll take the river walk
from the shops
or the street named after
a dead (once murderous) queen.

i'll take the river walk
ancient waka landings
and memories of other rivers
in other places i call home.

i'll take the river walk

a bullet point history of recent maori art

This 'history' of recent Maori art is based on Damian Skinner's introduction to his PhD thesis, submitted to Victoria University of Wellington in 2005. While it is a pity to reduce a well researched piece to bullet points, this seems the best way to draw out the content as well as to illustrate the inadequacy of any summary. Much of the material in this thesis (and more) is available in 'the Carver and the Artist' by the same author.

Damian has divided the thesis into four chapters, each chapter covering a phase of Maori art.

MAORITANGA: Ta Apirana Ngata (1920s to 1940s)

- massive land loss and rapid social and economic changes for the Maori tribes (Iwi/Hapu)
- in Ta Apirana's words:
a) emphasis on the continuing individuality of the Maori people
b) maintenance of such Maori characteristics and such features of Maori culture as present day circumstances permit
c) inculcation of pride in Maori history and traditions
d) retention so far as possible of old-time ceremonial
e) the continuous attempt to interpret the Maori point of view to the pakeha in power.

- conservative renovation of customary culture
- drawing on Maori cultural traditions, while using modern functions and construction materials
- centered around the marae and the whare whakairo (carved meeting house)
- concentration on craftsmanship and preservation of traditional skills and techniques

Maoritanga: Hone Taiapa (1950s to 1960s)

- continuation of Ta Apirana's philosophy

- whakairo (carving) becomes an internalised template, and operates without reference to originality and innovation
- new economic formations (e.g the tourist market) and new patrons (e.g the Mormon church)
- artist (head carver) as supervisor, and art piece (carving) as team/communal work

- Hone Taiapa, Pine Taiapa, Henare Toka, Piri Poutapu

Maori Modernism (1950s to 1960s)

- Maori artists emerging from Pakeha art schools
- Art educator Gordon Tovey's (National Supervisor Art and Culture) encouragement of experimentation in Maori Art
- Department of Education's patronage of Maori Modernists

- Artistic practice that was "individual, innovative and original"
- intentional positioning as different from the art of Maoritanga
- oriented away from 'customary culture' audience, and towards a Pakeha/International discourse

Pratene Matchitt, Arnold Wilson, Buck Nin, Cliff Whiting, Katerina Mataira

Contemporary Maori Art (1970s to 1980s)

- massive urbanisation of Maori in 50s and 60s
- Maori activist movements and increasing political consciousness among Maori

- attempts to bridge the critical distance (with Maoritanga) that Maori Modernism sought to establish
- a return to the marae as cultural centre
- an appeal to continuity with cultural forms older than Maoritanga
- articulation of Maori art as a tradition of change

Part of my interest in Maori art stems from a need to understand my own practice as a 'tribal' from North East India, with all the questions each of those terms beg to ask. In that context, here are some of the ideas that stood out.

a) 'Tradition' is as fluid an idea as 'contemporary'. On the one hand, much of 'traditional' Maori art today goes back to the 1930s and Ta Apirana Ngata's Maoritanga. On the other hand, Katerina Mataira's 1984 essay appeals to a 'tradition of change' in Maori culture when speaking for the legitimacy of Contemporary Maori art. Question to self: Which of the many available traditions am I interested in? Does it matter?

b) While there are varying perspectives on tradition, there does seem to be a visual continuity in the motifs and images used, especially in sculpture. While I cannot substantiate this without detailed study, and the work of the Maori Modernist period may well have been influenced by western Primitivism, motifs such as the 'koru' and the three fingered image seem to hold 20th century maori art together. Question to self: Are there common motifs in North East India I can use? Should I?

c) There are different ways to negotiate conflict and change. Ta Apirana chose to standardise some aspects of tradition, while allowing modernity in others. The Modernists defined themselves in their break from Ta Apirana's Maoritanga, and the Contemporary artists seem to be trying to make peace with Maoritanga and Modernism. Each of these negotiations have elements of separation and assimilation from/with dominant Pakeha/European/International culture. Question to self: What do I want to separate from, and what do I want to assimilate with?

More questions than answers, really. Ah well, story of my life!

*This is NOT a comprehensive list of names associated with this period/movement.

two conversations

a few weeks ago we went to a movie screening at the hamilton disability pride film festival. i'd heard about it by chance, and almost missed a brilliant film! 'king gimp' tells the story of artist dan keplinger, who has cerebral palsy. the film is an honest documentary of 13+ years of dan's life. though the background music can get a little over powering, the movie is largely shot in an unsentimental matter-of-fact style. in fact dan quite effectually punctures one of the more emo scenes with some bitingly dark humour. dan managed to make it through school, and decided to go on to college to study art. in spite of rejection from some teachers, he makes it through, graduating to a standing ovation. more than just a record of daniel's struggle, the film also effectively speaks of how we can individually make a difference to the lives of others.

around the same time, i was reading 'growing up severely autistic-they call me gabriel' by kate rankin. written about her autistic son, this book gave me a kick-in-the-balls perspective on what it means to be the parent of a severely autistic child. again written with little sentimentality, it is a journal of life with gabriel and the sheer amounts of work it takes to bring up an autistic child, even with physical and financial support from the government. how do parents without that support cope?

all of which brings me to two conversations i had. the first was with a care-giver for an autistic child at the RDA. she mentioned that the child had never been visited by her parents after they gave her up to full time care, which was a few years ago. it quite upset me then, and still does, but after reading this book i think i can understand why some parents would be unable to cope. taking care of an autistic child has a social cost in addition to the already high financial and emotional costs. while some autisic children have special talents to 'make up' for their disability, most (like the rest of us) do not, and are stuck in an internal world that often doesn't make sense to the external one. like many autistic children in aotearoa NZ, gabriel eventually had to move to full time care in an institution set up for the purpose.

the second conversation(s) was with a lady from mumbai visiting family in hamilton, who was paralysed waist down after a gymnastic accident. JA was delighted at the chance to ride (with help) and only got off each day with the greatest reluctance. while she resolutely refused to complain, we spoke of how her sister had to carry her up three flights of stairs back home because the building they lived in didn't have a lift and how difficult it was for her to get around in her wheelchair- apparently even hospitals do not necessarily have disability access. she was working from home, as any trips outside were emotionally and physically fraught. in spite of all this, JA's spirit seemed unbeatable. she was always glad to ride, even when it was in the most extreme cold she had known. she was always ready for a trot and managed to push us, horse and sidewalkers, to do more and do better. i have had the most exercise in the weeks she was here. back in mumbai though, she will be confined to her third floor flat again.

while most of us are (rightly) horrified at the persecution of the disabled that the nazi party unleashed, i sometimes wonder if it is really very different now. we have tucked the disabled away out of sight. our lifestyles make little provision for their needs, and government policy often ignores them. even the human rights organisations seem to have forgotten them, rarely speaking out for disability rights! one of the senior teachers at a special needs school i have just joined pointed out two boys to me, and said that with their behavioural problems, they would have been in jail if they weren't in school. makes one wonder-how many disabled people actually are locked away in jails, institutions or homes? out of sight and out of mind?

watch some clips of 'king gimp' here, and read the first few pages of 'they call me gabriel' here.

...when prime minister manmohan visits shillong...

just heard the news of prime minister manmohan singh's planned visit to meghalaya, and remembered one of my favourite poems. by kynpham sing nongkynrih, it speaks of another visit by another prime minister, yet seems to ring very true even today. to twist the arm of tennyson's brook, prime ministers may come and prime ministers may go, but the hills go on for ever.

bah kynpham's writing has been described (aptly i thought) as "provide(ing) an acerbic take on contemporary life in the Northeast", but it has also been pointed out that "he returns constantly to the idea of roots – sometimes couched in the figure of a mother, sometimes as land or language itself." [taken from trisha gupta's piece in tehelka]. writing in a matriarchal society, he has also courted controversy for his infamous "blasphemous lines for mother". read that and other poems here.

the english translation (by the poet) is reproduced in full in this post, go here to see it in the original khasi language. or here for a newspaper review of an anthology of poems from the north east.



When Prime Minister Gujral
planned a visit to the city
bamboos sprang up from pavements
like a welcoming committee.

But when he came, he was
only the strident sounds of sirens
like warnings in war-time bombings.

The bamboos watched in silence.

He came with twin objectives
a mission for peace and progress.
But he was a rumbling in the clouds
a prattle in the air.

And some say he came
homing in like a missile
and left flying like an arrow.

In between?

Some say he dropped
like a falling star
and was sighted by a few
disgruntled leaders.

He came like a threat
and scam-stained ministers
were in a cold sweat.
But he left like a defused bomb.

They wondered
what he could have seen
of the land
what of the people
he could have learnt
when he came
like the snapping of fingers.

They wondered
and sought answers
like little children.

Only the bamboos watched in silence
too used to the antics of men.




witi ihimaera - like coming home!

They say (you know how 'they' are always saying things) that the joy of travel is in the finding of difference-the alien and the exotic. If you keep away from resorts and star hotels, that is. And I would, in the most, agree. There seems little point in going halfway round to world to find one self at home. There must, however, be something wrong with that thought, for it completely fails to to explain why Witi Ihimaera's stories have been so engrossing when they feel like a homecoming!

Ihimaera's stories revolve around Waituhi village, with occasional excursions into Wellington. The lines are fairly clear- Waituhi is Maori and Wellington is European, and many of the stories speak of the tension between he two cultures. While there is a sorrow at at a dying way of life, there is also a recognition that the new ways are very attractive. Ihimaera's stated claim, in the early stories, was to acquaint 'Urban' Maori with the old way of life and its values, and to help them understand their roots. This gradually moved to a more political stance, and sharper criticism of the effects of European colonisation and the struggles of Maori in the present.

What I found striking, though, is the constant feeling that these stories could so easily have been set in the North East India (an artificial unity I stubbornly cling to) that I grew up in. The experiences of the characters could as easily have been mine, from being a tribal in a world that didn't think much of tribals, to the struggle to succeed in a system one did not quite understand, even the easy laughter, sense of belonging and claustrophobia in a 'close-knit community'. It is strangely comforting to recognise characters in the book, from the dominating figure of the Matriarch to the kid torn between the old world and the new.

The setting and style of the stories beg comparison with R.K Narayan's Malgudi, though Ihimaera's writing is much more politically loaded, and much more accommodating of what has variously been called mystical, magical or superstition. They are however as pleasantly easy to read as Narayan, with none of the twisted complexity that afflicts a lot of literary writing today. One of the books has also been turned into a rather engrossing film. Very strongly recommended!