Monday, December 19, 2011

Tītokowaru's Dilemma

This is a question to you. To whom does England belong? To whom does this upon which you stand belong?

(Riwha Tītokowaru)

Socrates and Tītokowaru sit together in a forest, tending a campfire with long sticks. Behind them, the profile of Mount Taranaki. It’s an incongruous, anachronistic meeting, drawn in an incongruous, anachronistic mixture of styles. Red-figure Attic vase painting for the human figures and the campfire, minutely detailed nineteenth century print for the lush native bush, and a more stylised, minimalist sketch for the mountain in the background. The title of the piece, reproduced in small block letters underneath the two men, is Socrates and Tītokowaru discuss the question, ‘What is Virtue?’, and it begs another question: in what language?

click here to view in detail
The language in which the title itself is written belongs to a third, absent figure, that of the coloniser, which asserts itself implicitly also in the iconographic source of the painterly landscape. But its absent presence consists mainly of this: that a meeting between the Greek philosopher Socrates (who was also a warrior) and the Māori warrior Tītokowaru (who was also a philosopher) couldn’t be but a colonial fantasy, a case of Western culture producing a fanciful analogy thanks to its capacity to reference a wide range of other, past cultures, and put them in relation to one another. Hence the potentially problematic ground occupied by this image as art that translates indigenous experience into an archaic foreign language, or, in the crudest of simplifications, Pākehā art, or art that speaks primarily to a white audience. I want to talk about some of the problems I see in this view.

Christchurch printmaker Marian Maguire began her journey of rediscovery of colonial Aotearoa/New Zealand through ancient Greek narratives and artforms in The Odyssey of Captain Cook (2005), followed in 2008 by The Labours of Herakles. In both series it was the outsider – first the explorer, then the settler – who ostensibly underwent the transformation into poetic or mythical figure, but in fact it was the land itself, along with its first inhabitants, that became a hybrid Arcadia, in a continual inversion and mixing of the roles. From the relatively straightforward encounter of the Odyssey’s Ko wai koe (who are you?), pitching a two-dimensional Attic warrior opposite a Māori man fashioned after de Sainson’s drawing of the chief Ngatai, Maguire gave us Herakles discusses Boundary Issues with the Neighbours, in which it was Herakles’ turn to assume the semblance and pictorial form of Ngatai, while the indigenous warrior took on the Grecian form. The land went through many more transformations, from theatre of classical ruin to pastoral idyll to place of magic and foreboding, with levels of botanical detail ranging accordingly from the exquisite to the stylised, and back again.

If the novelty of the Odyssey lithographs turned into the maturity and deft humour of the lithographs and etchings of Herakles, Tītokowaru’s Dilemma presented Maguire with a greater challenge, that of representing no longer an encounter, a coming together – however fraught – of distant cultures, but rather the conflict and trauma of the land wars and the betrayal of the covenant established by the Treaty. Tītokowaru was an inspired but equally challenging choice as the lead character. His is a complex, long-misunderstood and still in several respects enigmatic figure: not an indomitable warrior whose eventual defeat could be romanticised and offered as a comforting colonial narrative, but rather a political and spiritual leader thrown into the role of general, cornered into waging a war that was as cunning as it was desperate; then, having attained a position of true strength, Tītokowaru inexplicably relinquished his command, abandoned his encampment at Tauranga-ika and retreated north, for reasons that are still unclear – although the most credited theory is that he had an illicit relationship with the wife of a subordinate, which caused him to lose his mana – yet remained an influential figure and continued to preach peace mixed with actions of protest and defiance for many years, notably through his involvement with the movement associated with the settlement of Parihaka.

Tītokowaru is thus an emblematic figure of the impossibility of not only waging war, but also making peace with the coloniser. That Maguire manages to give visual shape – albeit by necessity in abbreviated form – to the historical events that marked Tītokowaru’s life is impressive enough. But the series, consisting of twelve lithographs and the two sets of etchings entitled Colonial Encounters and A Taranaki Dialogue, accounts primarily for Tītokowaru as the man caught in this unsolvable bind, as the leader doomed to defeat but not to failure, and for his land and times.

click here to view in detail
In The Indiscretion Vase, Discovered at Tauranga-ika Pa (abandoned 1869), above, we find a compendium of the series’ strongest themes. In the embrace between the two totemic figures, the seduction and eroticism that Maguire explores fully in Colonial Encounters; in the abandoned pā, the nocturnal setting and the crack running through the amphora, a sense of loss mixed with contemplation; an uncanny serenity.

Finally, after having spent some time with Te Whiti, weighing in the manner of Socrates the subject of peace, in the last lithograph of the set Tītokowaru returns, possibly in death, as a menacing carving moulded in the very body of the vase, presiding over, guarding the land painted beneath his one-eyed gaze (the result of a battle wound). Written on the base, in minute letters that can barely be made out, a question that Tītokowaru had addressed to George Whitmore, the colonel in charge of the colonial troops in Taranaki, but that has not lost any of its force or meaning to this day: ‘To whom does this upon which you stand belong?’

Curio from the Colonial Era. Artisan unknown. Dated 1860-1880. Taranaki origin. Click here to view in detail.
Dominion over the land has of course symbolic and discursive dimensions besides the literal one. What does it mean to belong, or to possess? The question reframes the relationship I hinted at earlier between the Pākehā artist or writer (the two main chroniclers of Tītokowaru’s life story thus far have been James Belich and Maurice Shadbolt) and the Māori subject, and that Maguire presents in one of the essay that accompanies the series as her own dilemma (‘it was a hard decision to make my central character a North Island Māori of great mana, when I am a female printmaker from the south, a Pākehā’). It is a relationship that remains problematic until such a point as the subject is allowed to do some of his own writing and produce some of his own meanings, a process made possible by the richness of the work and its stubborn refusal to produce univocal directional readings.

The pairings and substitutions in Maguire’s trilogy cumulatively produce an effect that goes beyond estrangement, beyond making the viewer look at colonisation with different eyes: they question the direction of the colonial gaze itself. In another essay, Anne Salmond explains that Māori culture contemplated questions such as whether to pursue war or peace in the pae, that is to say
the horizon or edge between worlds – te ao mārama, the world of light and life inhabited by people, and te pō, the realm of darkness and death, inhabited by ancestors and atua (gods).
Salmond’s claim that Maguire’s work ‘gives artistic expression to the pae’ produces an interpretation that reframes the work from a Māori perspective and gives it indigenous meaning, setting in motion a reversing of the relationships – such as the one of primacy – that would structure a reading informed by Western culture, and showing te ao Māori, the Māori worldview, as being as capable of embracing the ancient Greek worldview or the British colonial worldview or the contemporary Pākehā worldview as they are to embrace it.


This is my last post for the year and I must cite as a personal highlight of 2011 the opportunity to write an essay to accompany Tītokowaru, which came after a review of Herakles I posted here in late 2009. Being published alongside those works, and the writings of some pretty special people, was a great reward for the work of blogging, as was the chance to visit Marian in Christchurch and see her studio and her gallery.

Tītokowaru was three years in the making, and opened at the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui while Herakles was still showing at Te Manawa, in Palmertson North. There might be auspices to be read in the criss-crossing paths of the touring exhibitions as well, if one were so inclined. But visiting Christchurch in late 2011 meant seeing other ruins, and hearing of other traumas, the effects of which could scarcely be expected not to be etched into the stones on which Marian works, as she has acknowledged. The thin crack running down the length of The indiscretion Vase suddenly opens up to other readings, as does the upheaval of colonisation, as do the meanings one reads in the landscape – which never exists independently of culture or history, in a purely natural state.

That visit too, the good and the bad, was a highlight of the year, and all of the people I knew there I came across through some form of online writing, and so it seems fitting to mention it at this time. Thank you all for reading and see you after the break.

Tītokowaru's Dilemma is showing at the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui until February 12 (thereafter check the exhibition link). The Labours of Herakles is at Te Manawa in Palmerston North until January 29 and then will travel to Tauranga and to the Waikato Museum.

The quotations in the post are from the'Across the Pae - Sex, war and peace in Taranaki' by Anne Salmond and 'An Artist's Dilemma' by Marian Maguire, both in the exhibition catalogue.

Oh, and speaking of highlights of the year, this


Unknown said...

Thank you Giovanni for your genius and untiring work.
You introduced me to Marian Maguire's work, it was perplexing for me. I had been reading of Tītokowaru, and as ever worrying about Pākehā art.
These works are exceptional to me. Baxter's early poetry mimicked early Greek styles, a discussion for another day perhaps.

Stephanie said...

Re TNI - a bloody marvellous chrissie present, and well deserved. I posted a link to your essay on my FB page as a number of family had wondered about Timeline. It seemed to me that you had identified the issues and scoped the concerns to a 'T'.

This post re Titokowaru is also a thoughtful comment on the state of pakeha/maori relations. I praise your decision to write on it, and to do so as you have. Titokowaru's question has been as the crux of our nation since the first Cook landing. Unfortunately, despite numerous findings by tribunals and governments, the answer for most Kiwis remains unclear.

Finally, it is a bonus that you draw attention to Marian Maguire's works at the centre of this essay.

George D said...

Maguire's reflection on her work reinforces my own ambiguity towards it. Is it estrangement of Titokowaru, mythologisation and transferring him to the realm of the pantheon of demi-gods (does anyone really treat the Greek philosophers as fully human in this day and age?). Or is this a localisation of Greece, bringing the cultural arbiters of Europe, the men it claims its somewhat questionable lineage from into the forest and putting them on Titokowaru's familiar wet earth?

I don't know.

In any case, a thoughtful and provocative project. Thanks,

Richard said...

Very very good. As well as being a good post, and the art being very thought provoking, Maguire's art as seen here is also quite beautiful. Imaginative and highly skilled lithographs.