Make a big difference to The Big Idea.

Help us tell the most creative stories.

Become a supporter

Matters of Life and Death

Robyn Kahukiwa - Environmental Product, 2011 Alkyd oil on canvas, 500mm x 900mm Courtesy of the artist and Bowen Galleries
Robyn Kahukiwa - NZ Native Series – Wahine / Kereru / Kaka Beak, 2010 Oil on canvas, 760mm x 1060mm Courtesy of the artist and Warwick Henderson Gallery
Robyn Kahukiwa - Resistance / Te Tohenga, 2009, (detail), courtesy of the artist and Bowen Galleries. Photograph by Stephen A’Court
So it Vanishes - Teresa Margolles
Mark Amery considers the cancellation of Teresa Margolles’ NZ International Arts Festival work at The Dowse and reviews a survey of Maori artist Robyn Kahukiwa’s work.


Mark Amery considers the cancellation of Teresa Margolles’ NZ International Arts Festival work at The Dowse and reviews a survey of Maori artist Robyn Kahukiwa’s work.

* * *

The cancellation of Teresa Margolles’ festival work at The Dowse raises questions about the relationship between treasured objects and the contemporary art space.

Featuring bubbles containing traces of water used to wash corpses Margolles’ work was cancelled due to concerns over its placement alongside treasured pataka Nuku Tewhatewha. Given its disturbance of Maori tikanga and that the Dowse is guardian of this pataka this was the only course of action. That processes didn’t see this come to a head earlier is regrettable. We are at least left with discussion about our different attitudes to the dead - something the work clearly set out to achieve.

A contemporary art space however is no place for such taonga. Our wish to see galleries play multiple cultural roles can place limits on having valuable safe spaces that allow work like Margolles’ to challenge our thinking.

I’m also led to question the dearth of Maori visual art in this year’s festival. A Toi Maori programme used to be a cornerstone of the festival, a reflection of our bi-cultural makeup in an international context. Discussion around the Margolles work only shows Maori in a defensive light.

For something more proactive you need to travel to Waikanae, for the first survey of senior Maori artist Robyn Kahukiwa’s work at Mahara Gallery. Former head of art at Te Papa Jonathan Mane-Wheoki identifies Kahukiwa as our most popular Maori women artist, yet this survey is being held a long way from our national museum’s door.

Kahukiwa’s work is not fashionable. It doesn’t principally seek to push art into new forms. It is often illustrative, didactic and emotional. Yet so is much great art from the history of the Christian church, the influence of which is felt in Kahukiwa’s family portraits and frieze like groupings of figures. She follows a Maori art kaupapa of representing the concerns of the many, but within this are subtler nuances expressive of the people around her. Her work at its best is complex, charged and vital. That vitality isn’t just political. Few other New Zealand artists so directly and powerfully express the full range of human emotions.

The intimacy of the Mahara suits this survey. It is work about whanau and people coming together. More surveys could do with this kind of closeness. The figures in the paintings converse over time. In particular, women and children are made present. Figures dominate, the eyes and motion of heads able to express all shades of emotion.

Kahukiwa’s early works from the 1970s are the revelation. They are simpler in style, but her handling of composition and the warmth and movement of the figures ask us questions with a subtler power than later more overtly political poster-like work. A suite of works from the mid 80s mixing styles drifts from Kahukiwa’s focus on the human form and is weaker for it. Yet elsewhere the survey impresses in the breadth and confidence of Kahukiwa’s experimentation across styles and media.

The strength of her line work and design is evident in the number of outstanding prints. I’ve never been a fan of her more sculptural and abstracted figurative paintings, relating strongly to Maori carving - sculpture handles these forms so much better. By contrast Unidentified Maori Woman (interestingly, commissioned for the 1994 International Festival) impressively brings photography and history into the present through painting. A 19th century portrait is juxtaposed against that of a contemporary woman, covered in a light film of expressive white marks as if she is being slowly rubbed away. The recent paintings are also terrific, and the most violent and unsettling in their unflinching response to issues such as the Foreshore and Seabed debate and child abuse and poverty.

When I think of another artist of emotion it is McCahon. A 1984 Kahukiwa work He aha te mea nui te ao? is a direct response to his late dark ruminations. It’s a pastiche but the colours are deep blues and purples, the text about valuing people and its emblem the figure of an unborn child. If the Margolles incident makes us consider our treatment of death, Kahukiwa’s oeuvre is all about celebrating life.

  • Maumahara: Remember, Robyn Kahukiwa, Mahara Gallery, Waikanae, until 29 April

Written by

Mark Amery

1 Mar 2012

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.