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City Gallery City Gallery Wellington

‘He Has a Band of Men and All They Do Is …’, Evening Post, 11 May 2000.

Mention an art exhibition opening and it usually conjures images of people swilling back wine and staring at paintings.

But to open Michael Parekowhai’s exhibition at City Gallery tomorrow, Mr Parekowhai and nine others will play his artworks and sing with them. The artworks are ten custom-made, flat-back, semi-acoustic guitars. They were made by a master guitar maker, then Mr Parekowhai inlaid traditional Māori kowhaiwhai patterns in paua.

The exhibition is called Ten Guitars, named after the 1960s Engelbert Humperdinck song that became a standard in New Zealand, especially among Maori. The song opens with the line: ‘I have a band of men and all they do is play …’

Mr Parekowhai, 31, started playing guitar in 1979. But he admitted he wasn’t the world’s greatest player.

‘I was on the monkey bars and playing rugby when I should have been doing guitar practice’, he said.

The guitars will be displayed on stands in the gallery but Mr Parekowhai said they were also made to be played. At the end of the year, he plans to sell them to galleries and musicians, then later use them for another project.

‘Five years to separate homes and then they’ll come back. A bit like Split Enz forever coming back for their last show’, he said.

Mr Parekowhai’s exhibition partly celebrates the guitar’s popularity among Māori. It also looks at the contradictions and ironies of the 1960s image of Māori as a happy-go-lucky guitar strummer, Māori and Pākehā views on art, and how artists are treated …

Each guitar has also been named from first to tenth in Māori and they even have their own brand name, Patriot. Mr Parekowhai said different meanings were linked to the name, from being patriotic to the name of a United States defensive missile used in the Gulf War.

William McAloon, ‘Sixty Strings Slowly Strummed’, Sunday Star Times, 21 May 2000.

‘Through the eyes of love you’ll see a thousand stars.’

Organised by Auckland’s Artspace and exhibited at last year’s Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery, Auckland artist Michael Parekowhai’s Ten Guitars is, quite simply, a knockout of a show, one of the most memorable and complex works I have seen in a long time.

The concept, as is usual with Parekowhai’s work, is apparently simple enough. The work is, as the title says, 10 guitars, custom-made for the artist, with each inlaid with paua kowhaiwhai designs. The works have been sold separately as unique artworks, but come back together for each occasion of their exhibition.

But from this simplicity emerges a sophisticated discussion about culture and identity in New Zealand, one that takes in recent Māori and Pakeha history, popular culture and ideas of belonging. And out of this Parekowhai creates something very rare indeed, an artwork that carries with it a genuine sense of occasion.

The title is of course a reference to the great Engelbert Humperdinck, whose song Ten Guitars was taken up in New Zealand, particularly by Māori, in the early 1970s. Robert Leonard describes the song as a bicultural anthem, one ‘which promoted a utopian social idea of playing together in harmony’. That it was accidentally released in New Zealand as an A-side makes the song’s status that much more poignant. In Parekowhai’s work, the song’s ‘band of men who all they do is play for me’ evokes the famous ‘Māori strum’ guitar technique and its associated image of the happy-go-lucky Māori of show bands and social gatherings. At the same time, the song’s moment marks the end of the period of massive Māori migration away from their tribal areas into the cities, with its accompanying social and cultural change.

But rather than being yet another tool of colonisation, Parekowhai’s work suggests the guitar, and Western popular music in general, were a means for Māori of maintaining and asserting their own identity in their new environment. The guitar for Parekowhai thus becomes a kind of portable marae, something reinforced in his installation by the fact of the widely dispersed works coming back together for a meeting and the addition of light-box kowhaiwhai panels.

This investigation of this kind of cross-cultural borrowing or reverse appropriation is very much part of Parekowhai’s larger artistic project.

Another part of his work is an exploration of the social nature of art, a combination of the notion of art as a kind of social glue, particularly in Māori culture, as well as the idea coined by Marcel Duchamp that it is the viewer who completes the work. Parekowhai’s installation of Ten Guitars is thus a genuinely social work of art—one that, if only for a moment, breaks down barriers between art and life, between Māori and Pakeha.

That moment of breakdown was, of course, a sing-along. Wherever they go—Parekowhai’s show is touring nationally—the guitars do indeed attract ‘a band of men’ and women to play. The opening at City Gallery was no exception, with an impressive line up of strummers and virtuosos. And as the assembled throngs, Māori and Pakeha, sang or shuffled along in imperfect harmony to Engelbert Humperdinck, the lines from the song seemed palpable: ‘Dance to my ten guitars/And very soon you’ll know just where you are.’

Mark Amery, ‘Know Just Where You Are’, Listener, 24 June 2000.

If Māori mythology is ever updated, perhaps it could make reference to Maui wrestling the guitar from Elvis and inventing the legendary ‘Māori strum’. What’s more, the guitar—unlike that piano hauled onto the beach by European settlers—could be obtained without losing land in the process. Ridiculous, perhaps. But Michael Parekowhai’s installation Ten Guitars will get even the most gallery-shy New Zealander thinking. Parekowhai has hit on something that challenges you to find your own take on biculturalism and our post-colonial history. With its mix of cheeky humour, keen intelligence, and pop-culture accessibility, it could well come to be seen as one of the first cultural signposts of the new millennium.

Taking its cue from the Engelbert Humperdinck B-side that New Zealanders took into their charts and hearts—and which Māori, Parekowhai maintains, colonised as the ultimate party song—Ten Guitars is literally what it says it is. Ten radiant guitars set up on C’mon-style circular rostrums, as if in a dream music shop showroom. With their shiny wood, sexy curves and paua-inlaid kowhaiwhai patterns gleaming under the gallery lights, each looks like the perfect limited-edition kiwiana collectors’ item.

Since 1990, Parekowhai has been one of the young artists to watch, taking the ideas behind Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and pushing them forward culturally. Initially, his objects might seem illustrations of simple concepts, but they touch off a myriad of interwoven ideas.

Ten Guitars is Parekowhai’s response to the culture he was born into, in Porirua in 1968. In a neat conceptual twist, old schoolfriend Laurie Williams specially made the guitars. School was where they learnt to strum, and an accompanying wall work of kowhaiwhai patterns screen-printed onto light boxes is titled after a primary school guitar anthem: ‘(Rock My Soul in) the Bosom of Abraham’.

In the 1960s, Parekowhai suggests, the guitar was a portable meeting house. In a time of Māori urbanisation, when traditional community structures were breaking down, people came together, sang and felt a sense of belonging as a collective around the guitar.

‘When I was at secondary school, before DJs came along with their scratchy records’, he says, ‘we’d still take a guitar along to a party. There was always someone who could play a hell of a lot better than you, so basically you’d hope someone else would bring one, or one would already be there.’

On one level, then, Ten Guitars is a cultural celebration; but it’s much more than just nostalgia for the 1960s and beer-crate circles on the back lawn. Parekowhai examines the cultural undercurrents behind the cliché of the ‘happy Māori with his guitar’.

Was that image empowering, even ahead of the 1970s so-called Māori renaissance? Are the words to ‘Ten Guitars’ a directive to treat the guitarist’s axe as warrior’s taiaha? ‘Dance, dance, dance to my ten guitars’, they go, ‘and very soon you’ll know just where you are.’ Where? Aotearoa might as well be the unsaid next line.

Compare this to the sentiments of Sam Freedman’s ‘Māori Action Song’ of the Hawaiian steel-guitar period of the mid-1950s: ‘When the tourists need attraction, we’re the ones to give them action/it’s no trouble at all/Golly, golly, we’re so jolly you’ll be jumping like a dolly/at the golliwogs’ ball.’

It’s no wonder Māori embraced rock’n’roll.

The instruments themselves look absolutely stunning. Physically at least, they seem like contemporary taonga, worthy of joining the host of traditional instruments revived by the likes of Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns. Though made from imported maple and spruce, their swamp kauri fixtures and rewarewa bindings make them, says Parekowhai, ‘specifically Pacific’.

‘I could have done the patterns in felt-tip,’ he adds, ‘but I wanted a flash guitar. It’s like you can just walk around with one and automatically you have this sense of control and power!’

On the shoulder straps of each guitar the word ‘Patriot’ is emblazoned. This is perhaps the one clever idea that distracts rather than enhances. Parekowhai took the name from the Gulf war, liking the irony of a Patriot being a ballistic missile. Which may or may not suggest that in a bicultural society the two cultures tend to snuff each other out—or does ‘Ten Guitars’ deserve to be our new national anthem?

It’s the fact that we are denied the chance to play the instruments that sets the mind plucking them instead. This is a key reason why Parekowhai’s work has always been so successful. In the past he has displayed everything from giant pick-up sticks that you long to pick up, and Gordon Walters–like koru motifs in giant kitset frames you long to snap out. Being unable to do so leaves you mentally finding a way of participating instead.

These guitars are in fact as playable as they are good-looking. In true party style, a bunch of guitarists were rung up just days before the opening at Wellington’s City Gallery and invited to come and jam. As they launched into ‘Guitar Boogie’ (reprising the performance by the Quin-Tikis in Don’t Let It Get You) and then ‘Ten Guitars’, each taking lead guitar when not joining in the communal strum, everybody in the gallery knew they were experiencing something that was unique to New Zealand. It broke down cultural barriers more effectively than any other gallery performance I’ve witnessed.

Few Māori artists have so radically liberated Māoritanga from traditional structures. Parekowhai’s work could even be seen as staking the claim that conceptual art (with layers of meaning enunciated through symbol) is as close in tradition, if not more so, to Māori  thought as it is to European.

‘It’s very important to look at how we perceive Māori art’. he says. ‘We have this term “Māori art”, which is quite odd because we don’t have a term Pakeha art’. Before this work I’d never used true traditional motifs. It was a bit problematic for me, because I saw the motifs as a marker to say, “This is Māori art.”‘

‘To me, Māori art is much greater than just the kowhaiwhai or the carving. Māori art extends to the kitchen, to the way that you bring up your children, to life itself, and I guess what the guitarists here recognised as a celebration of that life spirit.’

Parekowhai makes conceptual art accessible. Speaking publicly at the City Gallery the day after the opening-night gig, he invited the audience in that pristine white space to sit on the floor. All dressed up in T-shirt, overalls, rugby socks and boots, he cradled and occasionally strummed one of his guitars, joking with a cheeky casualness that wouldn’t be out of place at a Porirua local. Warhol he is not.

‘I think art is a very serious hobby for me’, he says. ‘It’s like smoking. I’ve been trying to give it up for ten years now, but I just seem to keep going back to it.’

Like all art multiples, Parekowhai’ s works have edition numbers (written in Māori in paua on the twelfth fret), and each will eventually be sold individually.

‘As with all families, there comes a time when they have to go out into the real world and create their own identity. However, the plan is that they have a life-line or fallopian tube and that in five years’ time, just like Split Enz, I’m going to have a reunion concert and they’re going to play together again.’

And, in another nice nod to our popular musical history, Parekowhai made sure that they achieved success in Australia first. Ten Guitars premiered at the Fourth Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane last year. See them now, before Engelbert or one of the Finn brothers buys up the lot.