Michael Parekowhai is one of a new generation of Māori artists, known as ‘the young guns’, that emerged in the early 1990s. Back then, he distinguished himself by making works that addressed Māori themes without using materials, methods, or motifs associated with Māori art, instead subtly inflecting ones derived from ‘the dominant culture’. His influential ‘reverse appropriations’ reset the terms of reference for what contemporary Māori art could be.
Parekowhai’s Ten Guitars project is based on the Engelbert Humperdinck song. It was the B side of his international hit single, ‘Release Me’. In 1967, DJ Eddie O’Strange thrashed ‘Ten Guitars’ on the Rotorua radio station 1ZC, and it became a New Zealand sing-along standard, especially among Māori. At this time of migration into the cities, as Māori struggled to retain their roots, the song promoted the utopian ideal of playing together in harmony, becoming an alternative national anthem.
Parekowhai’s project consists of ten custom-made semi-acoustic guitars. They are crafted in imported maple and spruce, but their swamp kauri fixtures, rewarewa bindings, and paua kowhaiwhai inlays also make them ‘specifically Pacific’, Parekowhai says. Each guitar is numbered in Māori in inlaid paua on its fretboard, with the brand name ‘Patriot’ emblazoned on its machine head and strap. (Parekowhai says he chose ‘Patriot’ because it’s the name of a US missile used in the Gulf War.) Parekowhai's flash guitars imply both Māori community (the guitar as a common party instrument) and Māori aspiration (the Māori show-band tradition).
Parekowhai says the guitars can be sold individually and dispersed on the proviso that they can be reunited later. He jokes to the Evening Post, ‘Five years to separate homes and then they'll come back. A bit like Split Enz forever coming back for their last show.’
The show also includes Bosom of Abraham, a set of fourteen light boxes featuring classic kowhaiwhai patterns, named after a song Parekowhai sang in primary school.
The simplicity of Ten Guitars belies its complex implications. Is the work a celebration or subtle critique of biculturalism? Is the guitar a solution (a portable marae, generating community) or a problem (perpetuating the cliché of the ‘happy-go-lucky’ Māori)?
After premiering at Auckland's Artspace, Ten Guitars is presented at the Fourth Asia-Pacific Triennial at Brisbane’s Queensland Art Gallery before returning home, to tour to other New Zealand galleries. At each venue, the guitars are played live by a band of ten. The TV arts show Backchat also produces and screens a video clip of ten guitarists playing ‘Guitar Boogie’, recalling a performance by the Maori show band, the Quin-Tikis, in the 1966 New Zealand bicultural rock musical Don't Let It Get You.
The show is warmly received. Listener art critic Mark Amery writes, ‘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.’ ‘It's very important to look at how we perceive Māori art,’ Parekowhai tells Amery. ‘We have this term “Māori art”, which is quite odd because we don’t have a term “Pākehā 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”.’
For William McAloon in the Sunday Star Times, Ten Guitars is ‘a genuinely social work of art—one that, if only for a moment, breaks down barriers between art and life, between Māori and Pākehā.’ In Tu Mai, Julie Paama-Pengelly writes, ‘Michael Parekowhai had transformed a Gallery space into a Māori space, not with the art itself but by the art’s specification of a particular set of cultural interactions that have become recognisably Māori. Like many contemporary Māori artists he knows that if you want to talk about Māori issues, the heart of Māori discord, you need to speak in a language that the audience can hear.’