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Dr Rangihiroa Panoho - First Maori Art History Ph.D graduate

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Courtesy of National Radio from Nine to Noon 17/07/03 Presenter (Linda Clark): Let's talk about art, let's talk about Maori art. Auckland University this year saw the graduation of the first…

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Courtesy of National Radio from Nine to Noon 17/07/03

Presenter (Linda Clark): Let's talk about art, let's talk about Maori art. Auckland University this year saw the graduation of the first ever Maori Art History Ph.D. Dr Rangihiroa Panoho is a Lecturer now in Art History at the University and he joins me now. Good morning and congratulations to you. Courtesy of National Radio from Nine to Noon 17/07/03

Presenter (Linda Clark): Let's talk about art, let's talk about Maori art. Auckland University this year saw the graduation of the first ever Maori Art History Ph.D. Dr Rangihiroa Panoho is a Lecturer now in Art History at the University and he joins me now. Good morning and congratulations to you.Rangihiroa Panoho (first Maori Art History Ph.D graduate): Kia ora. Thank you.

Presenter: Hard work I bet?

Panoho: It was.

Presenter: Maori art is not something static is it, it's not just history?

Panoho: No, it's something that operates in flux. It was a key issue that I was dealing with in my thesis.

Presenter: Which is interesting because much of what we probably think of as Maori art is historic. It's tukutuku panels and carvings and meeting houses.

Panoho: Tukutuku, yeah. Well, that's perhaps a more conservative way of looking at the art which has its own value but really the difficulty that I have found was being able to reconcile both the more traditional aspect of the art form and its contemporary manifestations that you find in a gallery space for example.

Presenter: So there's a tension is there, between the traditionalists and the new artists?

Panoho: It would appear so although some of this is constructed.

Presenter: What do you mean?

Panoho: I think that there is a community of taste that operates in this country, always has really, that very much controls the way in which art is defined and that could be a very conservative perspective on the art form. It could also be a very contemporary claim regarding what the art should appear like within the gallery space.

Presenter: Well, in that case there's two communities of taste, aren't there?

Panoho: Possibly. It's a very broad thing. It's hard to pin down. In the thesis I was working with the ideas of Donald Cuspert and his book "The Cult of the Avante Garde" and also a number of other American theorists that were really talking about this notion of community of taste and the control that's exercised by I suppose philanthropists, collectors, curators, people that have a vested interest really in the way in which the art is defined.

Presenter: So young.. I mean the interesting thing here is that a lot of the very hot art at the moment in New Zealand is being painted by Maori artists?

Panoho: Well, I suppose that's..

Presenter: Don't you think?

Panoho: Ah, mmm. I'm sorry, that reads to me as a little fickle. Oops.

Presenter: Well, the art market is, isn't it? I mean you want to start talking about a community of taste. I think one of the interesting things about art is, it's a very small community whose taste determines who's hot and who's not?

Panoho: Yes it is and it needs to be broadened, that definition. I dealt with the metaphor of a river in my thesis which was a way of trying to collapse those boundaries between contemporary and traditional, reconciling each of these areas to one another through the idea of flow and flux and that there was this easy kind of movement that moved outside of the dictates perhaps of the community of taste. That is you have for example, Maori artists.. Let me try and make it a little bit more concrete. You have an artist like Manos Nathan who's a potter or works in the medium of pottery but also is very much involved with meeting house work and you'll find that artists constantly cross over these boundaries, particularly the mid-generation senior Maori artists, so it's very artificial, this idea that you know, some of these artists are hot in the gallery sort of scene. They are a particular type of artist that is producing a particular sort of work and often it's a dialogue with modernism that's going on, or post modernism. It's a fashionable thing. I mean it very much meets the dictates of people that collect or curate.

Presenter: So explain that to me. Why did it become fashionable?

Panoho: Why has it become fashionable in the museum.. Sorry, in the gallery space?

Presenter: Yeah. I mean why do collectors want to spend so much money on this work, a lot of it that is using motifs that they don't necessarily know the history of? A lot of this art using words too actually, that the collectors don't even understand?

Panoho: I think there are two things here. One is that obviously Maori expresses an indigenous aspect to culture in this country which is unique internationally so I suppose people are banking on something that really comprises our identity at heart in this country, and these younger artists are being favoured. I would also argue against that in a sense, that is the connection with motif and narrative in that there are a few.. And these are very influential critics and curators that are encouraging an art form that deliberately does not make those connections back to that what I would call more of an essentialist position, the meeting house or the heart areas of the culture, te reo Maori or the things that you see in te toi whakaaro and the meeting house carving arts, so it's a dialogue instead within an area which they're comfortable with which is post-modernism and that seems to be a direction that a lot of the art by what I would call rangitahi artists is moving in, and that's.. There's a little bit of a danger there.

Presenter: What.. Who would you classify as a rangitahi artist?

Panoho: Yes, it's a difficult one isn't it, because in New Zealand culture we would think of someone that.. I know that there's a Shane Cotton show down there in Wellington, "Poneke" at the moment, or it's starting up soon.

Presenter: Yes, it started last week. We had him on the programme last week actually.

Panoho: Yeah, I mean he hasn't turned 40 and he's got this ten year retrospective. So yes, I think your claim regarding the focus on young Maori artists is very true but in the Maori world that person would hardly have come of age. You know, around about 40, that's sort of 21 you know, in a western sense so it's an unusual predicament that we're looking at. So I'm talking about artists like Cotton, Parekowhai, Robinson, you know, there's a whole range of them.. Natalie Robertson. The young artists that have come through the Polytech or the art school system.

Presenter: And their work is gaining in value. I mean they're being exhibited as you.. I mean Cotton is the classic example because he's got this.. The big exhibition at the moment and now he exhibits frequently or regularly in Sydney, but explain that to me. That's what.. I find that is the curious thing about this art, it's not easy art to understand but for whatever reason, this community of taste thing that you talk about, there is a community now that has decided that this is good taste?

Panoho: Yes, yeah, well Shane is an unusual case I think because he's a little bit different from some of the other artists. Shane is.. Often I trace a move from pretty much an etic position to an emic position in anthropological terms. That is a movement from being an observer.. And he's gone from observing aspects of Maori culture early on to being much more of a participant so he's actually gone back up North to his roots and looked at for example, those early prophetic cults and looked at his landscape and it keeps recurring in his painting whereas.. So I think that you can find that heart area there, but with some of the other rangitahi artist, they're deliberately not making those sorts of connections and they're leaving their work in a neutral space. That is, it could be assessed as being this or that. You know, it could have a Maori aspect and I think Parekowhai is a classic example of this, or it could be interpreted in terms of Duchamp you know, the famous French painter-multimedia artist, Dada artist.

Presenter: Yeah, but the people buying this art aren't Maori, are they?

Panoho: I know, you keep coming back to the collector.

Presenter: Well, the collector determines what's.. Determines the taste in a certain sense. I mean don't tell me that the artists don't know who's buying their art.

Panoho: Oh yes, I suppose to some extent that is influential or it's important but I think also the role of the curator and the critic, for example the sorts of things that Francis Pound or Robert Leonard, you know, write about Michael Parekowhai are influential so they have an impact in turn on the collector. So its' all.. I think it's a cyclic kind of device that we're observing here.

Presenter: With all of the emphasis on these kind of new contemporary Maori artists, is the risk that the traditional arts, the traditional Maori art forms are sort of time capsuled? You know, they almost stop?

Panoho: Well, that's my argument, that to some extent the museum puts these objects into a very unreal world which is.. Oh well, it's almost as if taonga are on life support in there and I know that's probably going to hurt for those people that work in museums, but I think there is a danger that we're classicising, we leave it frozen, leave that culture frozen because it's not. It's not real to what's happening out there, for example in the rural or the urban areas where communities are producing their work, you know, as a statement of their aspirations, where they want to go in the future. So I would be really interested in much more open debate regarding the nature of you know, Maori art, defining it and being able to pull down these boundaries, traditional contemporary.. The artificial space that seems to be generated around a museum object versus a gallery object.

Presenter: You pull down the boundaries though, is the risk not that you somehow dilute the traditional ways of doing things?

Panoho: No, I think that we always need people like.. You know, thinkers like Sydney Mead or people that are more conservative in their perspective, that have an idea of retaining things that are special and significant in the culture. That's very important but at the same time you need your rangitahi artist to be you know, pioneering and pushing those boundaries. I just think we need a situation which is more reflective or realistic to what's actually happening at the moment in Aotearoa.

Presenter: There's different ways of pushing boundaries though. I mean the modern Maori artists who are really painting contemporary works, maybe with reference to.. In motif or form to old ways and old stories but if you look at for instance the way that the carvings on a whare nui, now in.. When Te Papa opened all of those years ago, and they had created the sort of modern marae with the plywood..

Panoho: You mean the recent manifestation of..?

Presenter: Yes, the real sort of multi-coloured highly stylised carvings?

Panoho: Oh, Cliff Whiting's Tehomuki Hawaiiki

Presenter: Yeah. Now, what do you think of that?

Panoho: Oh, it's great. It's just a demonstration of another contemporary face or manifestation of the culture speaking. It's nationalistic so I think a lot of the work that's being positioned there at Te Papa is.. Has that dialogue with nationalism. You know, it's trying to speak for the nation which can be a bit artificial but I think it's valid. It's just a different construction. It's different to for example, an Auckland museum kind of perspective on taonga or art.

Presenter: Well, is it a taonga?

Panoho: Is it taonga? It will become one probably.

Presenter: Even if it's only made out of plywood?

Panoho: What does it matter? My argument is that it's not really the appearance. If we could talk about this in terms of the vessel, it's not the look of the vessel, it's the contents that goes into it and therefore it's the values that are infused within the object itself and there's plenty of that in Tehomuki Hawaiiki.

Presenter: Interesting talking to you, Dr Rangihiroa Panoho there.

These excerpts are from a National Radio programme supplied by Replay Radio, RNZ Ltd. If you would like to order a copy of this programme, please call 0800 REPLAY (737 529).

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