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New Zealand Art Under Erasure

On Saturday 30 June, Victoria University’s Peter Brunt participated in our seminar New Zealand Art Under Erasure, where he presented this provocation.

Talofa everyone. I’ve chosen this sculpture of the Madonna and Child in Auckland Museum for my provocation because it represents for me the slipperiness of all categories of identification, placement, meaning, and truth—and, at the same time, the necessity and inescapability of those categories, which is how I think we should think about the category of ‘New Zealand Art’. This image confronts us with that uncertainty. 

For me personally, uncertainty is fundamental. I don’t know if that is true of all art historians—I think it might be. I think it might be true of anyone who looks critically at art in society. It might even underlie the way ‘art’ has become its own autonomous, categorical thing in the modern world. But uncertainty is certainly true for me. 

The Madonna and Child, as you might know, is said to have been carved for a Catholic Church in Maketū in the Bay of Plenty in 1845, but was rejected by the priest as likely to disturb its European parishioners. It looked too much like an ‘idol’. But the story is thought to be apocryphal, a legend, a myth—though not to the people who believe it. The legend has stuck, as have other historically arguable claims about its origins, as you will find on Catholic websites about the Madonna and Child. 

The Madonna has been carved with a full facial moko, usually reserved for men, a reflection of her mana. However, according to Auckland Museum, no iwi claims her. She is homeless in those terms. Her creation has been attributed to Patoromu Tamatea of Te Arawa, but Roger Neich disputes that authorship on stylistic grounds. It is unlike anything else Patoromu Tamatea (who has quite an extensive oeuvre) has carved. So her authorship is ambiguous. She is obviously an example of Māori art and it would be impossible to understand her form or meaning without an understanding of that artistic tradition and world. But, at the same time, she was created in the colonial era following conversion to Christianity, so it is equally impossible to separate her from the colonial project called ‘New Zealand’. 

But she is not only a figure of the historical past, a history that is over—and we are thinking about what it means for certain histories, like the history of New Zealand art, to be ‘over’ today—she has also been catapulted into the present. Her strange power has encouraged bold acts of what Robert Jahnke has called ‘allegorical seizure’, whereby she has been used to bridge Māori and European, religious and secular, past and present, contexts. In 1986, she held pride of place at the Auckland Museum when Māori welcomed Pope John Paul II to Aotearoa/New Zealand; while, in 2001, Ngahiraka Mason placed her at the entrance to Purangiāho, an exhibition of contemporary Māori art at Auckland Art Gallery. There, she functioned as a kind of precursor or ancestor for contemporary Māori artists, in the same way that George Hubbard had co-opted the work of Ralph Hotere in an earlier showing of contemporary Māori art in 1995. 

In what sense does the Madonna and Child inhabit a category called ‘New Zealand art’, if she does at all? How would you construct that history to account for her slipperiness and ambiguities: her anonymity, her mana, her homelessness, her sacredness, her secularity, and our need to use and re-use her at certain times and places?

—Peter Brunt

Peter Brunt is a Senior Lecturer in Art History at Victoria University of Wellington.