If you read my last post, you’ll have seen that I’ve got a bit of a crush…on New Zealand artist Lester Hall. It was inevitable I would find more in his collection that tickled my fancy.
The great thing about Hall’s prints is that they’re relatively inexpensive, and that makes them accessible to collectors like me who are just starting out without a huge budget. Of course what makes them more accessible is when your Dad helps you further your art collection by buying two for you…to celebrate graduation.
All three of the ones I’ve chosen draw on my interest in Toi Moko and Māori ancestral remains, born of the time spent interning at Te Papa. And each is as controversial and thought provoking as the next; people who visit our house seem to either love or hate them.
On his website, Hall has a section at the bottom of all the prints called “Devil’s Advocate”. Funnily enough, that’s where my two more recent acquisitions – Ake! Ake! Ake! and Hoki Mai – are displayed.
Ake! Ake! Ake! depicts a red-haired All Black, wearing a piupiu (a traditional Māori skirt made of woven flax) who is midway through passing a severed and tattooed head in place of a rugby ball. Hall talks about this work as celebrating male “toughness”, and the idea that competition is part of what binds New Zealand society. 1. Safe to say that would be true, especially when it comes to our (only?) national sport! He also says that the Toi Moko represents the way Māori culture has been “moved around” through history 2.
Hoki Mai references the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ tradition, where the spirits of departed ancestors are celebrated with beautiful decorations, particularly flowers, bright colours, and skull figurines. Here’s a pretty picture I found on Flickr that shows quite nicely what I have in mind when I think ‘Day of the Dead’ (you can click on the image to see that a man who isn’t me went to Disneyland and took it).
Hall says that this work is about “forgiveness for those who made the heads and sold them and those who bought or stole them and forgiveness also for the despised slaves and enemies the heads originally belonged to” 3. Sadly, Hall is mistaken in his reference to despised slaves, though the misconception that many of the traded Toi Moko came from slaves killed specifically for their heads is not uncommon. In fact, correction of that misconception is one of the very important things I learnt at Te Papa. Hall is also critical of a social tendency to conceal that part of New Zealand’s history in which the remains were traded.
I have to say that I agree with Hall in that I think history should be acknowledged, whether good or bad. I believe that’s one of the key roles of the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme (I mentioned them in my last post), because they bring this history to our attention and force us to confront it. The result is that whether Māori or not we have a shared interest in (and maybe even responsibility for) making sure the ancestors can come home and finally be at rest.
Despite having had a little bit of exposure to this world of repatriating Māori ancestral remains, I know I don’t come at it from the right cultural viewpoint to really understand the distress caused even to this day. So I hang highly controversial art on my wall, and it undoubtedly offends some people. But when they challenge it, I can at least engage in a bit of critical discussion to justify my contentious art choices…