Contemporary artists revisiting history

Curator Modern & Contemporary Māori & Indigenous Art Megan Tamati-Quennell considers how Lisa Reihana and other contemporary New Zealand artists are interested in retelling the histories of this country, and challenging the stories we have inherited as a nation. They do so to bring new histories to light, and to redress the power balance that has privileged a Pakeha perspective.

Lisa Reihana's Digital Marae is an ongoing project that uses digital media to create portable symbols of ancestral figures that in the past would have been found as carvings on a marae. Working with photography and in the digital realm enables her to renegotiate protocols from some regions where carving is only done by men. Here she reimagines the carved figure of Marikihau, a fabulous sea monster with a spiral tail that was present in many wharenui meeting houses.

Left: Tekoteko (Madonna and child), 1850–1900, wood and paua shell. Te Papa (ME011429)

Right: Lisa Reihana, Marakihau 2001, 2001, chromogenic print. Te Papa (O.026797)

Captain Cook is celebrated in our histories for ‘discovering’ the Pacific, but these were already peopled and had their own cultures. Marian Maguire’s series of lithographs cleverly questions how nations remember and represent their histories, as well as what they choose to forget. She brings a third party to the encounters between Cook and Māori – the ancient Greeks. Is she playing on the idea of the Pacific as Arcadia, and Pacific peoples as ‘noble savages’? Or is she suggesting that Cook brought more baggage than some blankets, blue beads and a boatload of sailors?

Left: John Sherwin after Nathaniel Dance-Holland, Portrait of Captain James Cook, engraving. Plate 3 from the book Folio of Plates to Captain Cook’s Voyages, 1784. Gift of Charles Rooking Carter ( RB000261/001a) 

Right: Marian Maguire, Captain Cook makes his approach from the West, from 'The odyssey of Captain Cook', 2005, lithograph. Te Papa (2006-0015-1/4)

Parihaka village was founded in 1867 by two Māori prophets Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi. In reaction to the destructive impact of the New Zealand Wars, they proposed peaceful resistance, rather than violence, as a strategy to claim their right to live on land they had occupied for centuries. On the 5 November 1881, 1600 soldiers and police stormed Parihaka. The invasion was not greeted with resistance, but with singing children bearing baskets of food. In return, their village was looted and sacked, and Te Whiti, Tohu, men and youths, were shipped off and incarcerated in Dunedin without trial. Follow the Party of the Whale is a two-channel video projection that utilises the strategies of performance art to poignantly reflect upon their fate. The video features a performance by the artist in response to this charged history as well as unsettling images of sites around Dunedin that received the highest concentration of labour from those imprisoned.

Left: James Bragge, Parihaka, circa 1881. Te Papa (O.006868)

Right: Shannon Te Ao and Iain Frengley, Follow the Party of the Whale, 2013, digital video (two channels). Te Papa (2014-0001-1/A-B)

Simon Denny's work, Secret Power, presented at the 2015 Venice Biennale, questioned globalisation, government, privacy, and citizenship.

It took its name from a a 1996 book by Nicky Hager about New Zealand’s involvement in the 'Five Eyes' intelligence network.

Denny's practice is very different from that of the portraitist responsible for painting Keith Holyoake, New Zealand's Prime Minister from 1960-1972. Yet you might be surprised to learn that Holyoake was in power when it was first publicly acknowledged that the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (SIS) existed.

Left: William Dargie, The Right Hon. Keith J. Holyoake C.H, 1965, oil on canvas. Gift of Sir Henry J Kelliher, 1967. Te Papa (1967-0019-1)

Right: Simon Denny, Modded Server-Rack Display with Some Interpretations of Imagery from NSA MYSTIC, FOXACID, QUANTUMTHEORY, and Other SSO/TAO Slides, 2015, mixed media. Te Papa (2015-0052-1/AA-KO TO KO-KO). Photograph by Nick Ash

Shigeyuki Kihara uses photography to explore themes of gender identity, spirituality, and colonialism. She draws on the historical portrayals of Pacific islanders for inspiration, often emulating and challenging the preconceptions and practices of the European artists and studio photographers.

Left: John Webber, Poedua [Poetua], daughter of Oreo, chief of Ulaietea, one of the Society Isles, 1785, oil on canvas. Te Papa (2010-0029-1)

Right: Shigeyuki Kihara, 'My Samoan Girl', 2004–2005, colour photograph, type C print. Gift of Shigeyuki Kihara, 2009. Te Papa (O.033243)