While preparing for my final year of university study, I spent nine months working as an intern at Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum. My role was in the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme, a group whose dedicated purpose is to locate and return Maori and Moriori ancestral remains to New Zealand. Amazingly, these remains lie scattered around the world, having been traded and sought after in the 19th century. If you want to know more, check out the Programme’s website here, because I could spend hours just talking about the Programme’s work and never even get to the point.
The internship was an incredible experience, not least because I was there to help them with translations into Italian so that they could make their case to Italian art and museum institutions. I knew so little about any of the Programme’s work, but was quickly immersed in the moving, contentious and at times sordid history of the 18th/19th century trade in human remains.
I often think of how much I enjoyed spending a little time in that amazing world, making a tiny bit of difference in my own way. And one of the ways I do that is through an extraordinary print by the New Zealand artist Lester Hall. I spotted “Kia Ora Cook” in the window of a little art gallery in Taupo. It’s not hard to see what caught my eye; the work is jam-packed with symbolism, historical references, and a bit of contention.
“Kia Ora Cook” depicts Capt. James Cook, who of course needs no introduction. He is recognisable in naval uniform, and his hair is adorned with a plume of three feathers. Traditionally, such decorations were worn by “high-born people” e.g. tribal chiefs 1. I suspect they’re meant to be the feathers of a huia bird, long since extinct but considered extremely tapu (sacred) by Maori. Capt. Cook’s face is inscribed with a swirling moko pattern on the cheeks, nose and forehead, which moves into a barcode pattern along his chin.
Now for a bit of context, it was during Cook’s first voyage on the Endeavour in 1770 that a tattooed Maori head (a toi moko) was first discovered and traded (for a pair of white drawers I believe). From this first exchange the trade in toi moko developed, and it is this commercialisation of Maori culture that Lester Hall is clearly referencing. Even the name of the print pokes a little bit of fun!
So it comes as a surprise that Lester Hall is in fact Pakeha, not of Maori decent at all. On his website (www.lesterhall.com) he describes himself as proudly Pakeha, and offers some explanation for the sort of works he produces – many of which are critiqued for their controversial themes and representations (more about that in another blog perhaps…). In describing himself as an artist, Hall says:
“…the race relations commentary I make is often misconstrued as either White supremacist or Maori centric. I consider myself an outsider artist, social commentator first and my art is a vehicle for my thoughts and philosophies and aspirations for my country. My art is a conversation with myself and represents moving thought not static dogma.” 2.
Regardless of Hall’s own purposes in producing “Kia Ora Cook”, I couldn’t walk past something that struck so many chords with the work I had been doing and the way my eyes had been opened to this astonishing part of New Zealand’s history. So now it hangs in our living room, above the piano, and Capt. Cook often gives me a look that’s a little intriguing, and perhaps even a wee bit roguish…