By Mark Amery
One of the great pleasures of visiting a public gallery is when the whole experience clicks. Strong distinct exhibitions come together to form a whole that speaks to the institution’s sense of purpose. Things just feel grounded. That was my experience at the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt this month.
Architecturally, navigation wasn’t made easy at the Dowse with the building redesign eight years ago. It can feel like a mouse maze. Nevertheless the current shows manage to talk to one another. Objects throughout the building wittily and warmly hold layers of stories.
At the time of the redesign then director Tim Walker reopened the museum with a pink sparky logo as ‘The New Dowse’, buzzily widening the institution’s field of vision to consider “creativity as a transformative force”. Well beyond the museum’s traditional arts and crafts brief. It didn’t last long. Since things have quietly shifted back to the old moniker, roots and sense of purpose. Under current director Courtney Johnston there’s a sense of shoring up its still distinct place amongst leading public galleries nationally.
Call it old fashioned, but the Dowse asserts the enduring power of the art object, and the artist as a maker of things. The Hawkes Bay Museum touring Bronwynne Cornish show Mudlark currently provides magic examples of the former (bringing the work back home of this Lower Hutt born artist). Group exhibition on collage Cut and Paste meanwhile does a great job of showing how political and relevant artists with pairs of sissors (actual or digital) are in reconstituting all the visual stimuli sent us.
Cut and Paste is a great exemplar of curation with love and attention. The evidence is everywhere. Little-seen excellent works gathered, singing strongly together under themes. The spread of work suggests wide-ranging dealer and studio visits around the country have been undertaken, dominating rather than supplementing the work from Dowse’s collection. It’s terrific.
There is one disconnect at the Dowse. And that is the institution’s relationship with Nuku Tuwhatewha, the magnificent pataka it has housed since 1982. This is something recent exhibition Nuku: Symbols of Mana, and the presence currently of Rewiti Arapere’s work ‘Rangimatua’ temporarily resolve.
The pataka was carved for Wi Tako Ngatata of Te Atiawa, Ngati Ruanui and Taranaki iwi in the 1850s as a sign of support for Kingitanga or the Maori King movement. Nuku Tuwhatewha is one of seven such pataka built around the North Island as “pillars of the kingdom”. In its own way then it also asserts the Dowse as both part of a larger network and a taonga cherished locally. It has been housed at the Dowse since 1982.
I can’t speak to its 23-year history at the Dowse but the relationship between the pataka and the museum to me feels uneasy. Its majesty and centrality was not recognised physically in the museum redesign. No matter the strong support of information and respect given to it, it still sits oddly in the exhibition flow, garaged.
The physical building may be hard to change anytime soon, but building an exhibition and events programme around it is an opportunity. The pataka could be the lynchpin for a bicultural shift in the institution to give a stronger place to contemporary Maori art and craft, a better partnership with iwi, and curation through a Maori lens.
The complexity of simply housing the pataka alongside contemporary art came home to roost in 2012 when an installation by Mexican artist Teresa Margolles was withdrawn after concerns from local iwi Te Atiawa about how the work concerning death and memory - featuring bubbles containing the essence of water from a morgue - would sit next to the pataka. The museum responded on the back foot, but well. Then Director Cam McCracken wrote, “our challenge is to ensure that we critically examine how Nuku Tewhatewha can sit comfortably in a contemporary art museum and that we strengthen our bonds with iwi groups in the city to help us do this.” A challenge I’m not clear has been met.
Perhaps Nuku is the beginning. Nuku: Symbols of Mana was curated by 2014 Blumhardt curatorial intern Bridget Rewiti. It took as its starting point the fact that the pataka features above its doorway the carved image of a woman breastfeeding. According to the Dowse website this is thought to be a clue to its name as “connected to the role of women as the progenitor of hapu.”
In response Nuku: Symbols of Mana was a very smart and elegant group exhibition of women artists, exploring the different permutations of the concept of mana as it relates to women: mana wahine. Rather than provide an exhibition of ‘Maori art’ Rewiti was able to go wider in her selection of artists to focus keenly on her theme and what the artists are actually saying, as seen through a Maori lens.
While Nuku Tuwharewha struggles in its space, Rewiti Arapere’s giant felt-tip tattooed cardboard warrior figure ‘Rangimatua’ completely owns the neighbouring gallery. To enter is as if to be manuhiri before it on the marae atea, the pataka behind, the towering figure about to advance dancing in the charged space between. Staunch in baseball hat with white tipped Huia feathers, sneakers and penis and balls cheekily dangling, Rangimatua’s boxed whare-like shape also suggests it might start shuffling angularly forward like an old school computer game icon.
This is the first time I’ve seen Arapere’s work respond in scale and position so well to space. Dramatically lit, this terrific work speaks magnificently at once to both urban grafitti styles, and those of traditional carving and tattooing. The surface is a complex clash of these codes, weaving different patterns, areas of black and colour and shifting planar perspectives.
Rangimatua is the sky father from the creation myth, and the work is described as both a tiki and a pou. Like a traditional pou perhaps it could be said to mark a place of significance (the pataka) and carries stories, in this case relating the story of rangi but also connecting it in symbols to another whare carrying kingitanga iconography from the King Country.
In this way the pou like the pataka is a holder of many crossing stories and symbols, accessible at a range of different levels. A connector of people. It’s achievement is to be so audacious and strident in a young urban Maori present, whilst placing in front the traditions and the stories of the past. It is alive in this space connecting stories and traditions, and as such feels utterly fresh as contemporary art.
Rangimatua, Rewiti Arapere, Dowse Art Museum, until 2 August
Cut and Paste, Dowse Art Museum, until 14 June