The history of colonial art and design practice in New Zealand has been varied. As discussed in this week’s reading, one of the first pieces of art that started this conversation was Louis Steele and Charles Goldie’s 1898 painting called ‘The Arrival of Maori in New Zealand.’
This painting depicts the first Maori in NZ as weak, starved, and savage-like men as they fumble and lay on top of one another in a worn out boat. There is a clear image of struggle, which does not line up with the traditional Maori accounts- “European histories were usually determined by theorizing and speculations about Maori origins that had little to do with traditional Maori accounts” (Bell 145). As well as this, the boat (which was more representative of a boat used hundreds of years later) and the figures (who have more Polynesian features than Maori and are wearing Polynesian tapa cloth), are lacking in the details that set our country’s history and culture apart from any other Polynesian island. Though this painting was not created with harmful intentions, the erasure of the Maori cultural identifiers such as clothing, tattoos and the boat, and the lack of similarity between traditional Maori accounts and this painting created an alternative truth. When the painting was seen by Europeans who didn’t know the true history, they thought they were viewing a historical record- the painting was a “naturalisation of the fictitious” (Bell 145).
With origins like this, colonial art practice in New Zealand had a rocky start. The piece that I have chosen to discuss is called ‘Maori Jesus,’ and shows how with the right information, modern colonial art can be made to highlight parts of colonisation that aren’t often spoken about, and encourage the kind of discourse that both recognises our full history and starts to bring about change in response to it.
‘Maori Jesus’ is “Sofia Minson’s depiction of the messiah as Tangata Whenua (indigenous Maori) with full-face moko (traditional tattoo)” (New Zealand Artwork). In last week’s blog post, I started thinking a lot about how Christianity from Europe influenced and eroded many Maori customs and practices. This painting was interesting to me as it combines some of the most notable visual expressions of European Christianity and Maori culture. When the missionaries brought Christianity to New Zealand, they also brought their image of a European Jesus to the Maori people- “as Europe colonized the globe, they took white Jesus with them” (Sofia Minson New Zealand Artwork). Although the race of Jesus is unknown, Maori were being fed the atypical white bearded vision of Christ- a representation that supported white supremacy- “most Europeans believed that it would benefit the Maori to assimilate into European culture and society” (Sofia Minson New Zealand Artwork).
This painting highlights this history by making us think about the relationship between a very European icon which is the white Jesus and the Maori moko. We are positioned to think about how the two cultures have had a relationship in the past, as well as how they should be represented together into the future. The artist Sofia Minson is of mixed Maori, Swedish, English and Irish descent, and this painting examines how these cultures combine and come to fruition together within herself. Though this is quite a controversial visual combination due to the history of whitewashing and exploitation, Minson tackles the issue through her personal experience coming to terms with her mixed heritage. ‘Maori Jesus’ shows “the living evolving and diverse culture of Maori in the 21st century” (Sofia Minson New Zealand Artwork).
Bell, Leonard. “The Representation of the Maori by European Artists in New Zealand, ca. 1890-1914”. College Art Association Art Journal, Volume 49, 1990, pp 142-149.
No Author. “Māori Jesus.” Sofia Minson New Zealand Artwork, http://www.newzealandartwork.com/product/maori-jesus.