Art History, 2017
In 2008, the Adam Art Gallery staged an exhibition entitled Te Mata: The Ethnological Portrait. At its heart was a series of nine portrait busts by the Sydney sculptor, Nelson Illingworth.
The portraits came from the storerooms of Te Papa, into an environment where they could be seen as inhabiting an "intriguing middle ground between Pākehā art history and Mātauranga Māori" (Blackley 2008, 7).
Colonial art works such as Illingworth’s have had a troubled history in Aotearoa New Zealand. As with Charles F. Goldie’s famous portraits, questions have often been asked about what these works really mean.
Do they offer a nuanced and important glimpse into Māori life, or do they merely provide fuel for the ‘white saviour’ myth, of a colonial power preserving the memory of a ‘dying race’?
Roger Blackley, associate professor of Art History at Victoria and curator of Te Mata, directly addressed these concerns.
The exhibition helped the viewer to see the relationship between artist and subject, restoring the agency of the Māori men and women who posed for Illingworth’s sculptures.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the cultural institutions of New Zealand were engaged in a project of salvage ethnology. This concept, internationally popular in this period, saw attempts to ‘save’ the culture of ‘dying races’.
These problematic efforts, tied to many of the racially charged assumptions of colonialism, were associated with the encyclopaedic collection of cultural artefacts. In New Zealand, colonial museums were charged with the preservation of a "'classic' Māori culture that was located in a frozen, romanticised part before colonisation" (Blackley 2010, 9).
It was partly in the service of this mission that Illingworth was commissioned to produce the sculptures shown at Te Mata. In 1908, he was hired by Augustus Hamilton of the Dominion Museum to create a series of portraits intended to serve as a record of classic Māori ‘types’.
The series, including a portrait of Hamilton, was completed by 1909. Although they were initially meant to be cast in bronze, this never came to pass, and the busts that survive today are of painted plaster.
The sculptures are not entirely faithful to the subjects they depict, deviating from their subjects in the pursuit of Hamilton and Illingworth’s ethnological goal.
Of his portrait of Pātara Te Tuhi, Illingworth noted that his features "will not be reproduced exactly. The object of the sculptor is to perpetuate an ancient Māori type and if Te Tuhi’s features departed at any point from the ancestral pattern the sculptor will conform them in his model to the old ideal" (Illingworth n.d.).
In Pātara Te Tuhi, Illingworth found not only a Māori type, but also recognised the likeness of Julius Caesar. And, in Kahotea Hepi Te Heuheu he found Napoleon Bonaparte. This preoccupation with racial types, both European and Māori, is arguably the reason it took so long for the series to see the light of day.
It is tempting to dismiss the busts as an act of colonial ownership, and as misguided Pākehā appropriation. But with Te Mata, Blackley suggested that there may be more than meets the eye.
Because of this problematic association with ethnology, the works had largely, Blackley asserts, "languished in an ethnographic store room" over the 100 years between their creation and their Adam Art Gallery exhibition.
As a curator, Blackley is interested in shifting things that are hidden or neglected into plain view. The Adam was the perfect location to achieve this for the Illingworth busts because of its role as a university gallery and "generator of knowledge".
Blackley wanted to move the perception of the portraits from "ethnographic objects to fully fledged works of art". In doing so, he sought to emphasise the collaborative nature of the works.
In this light, we can recognise the "subjects as co-authors", and see more than just Illingworth’s ‘types’.
Blackley provided context for the actual people depicted, and for the history of the depiction of Māori at that period in New Zealand history.
While Illingworth may have been striving for an idealised stereotype, the fact remains that life casting was one of his techniques.
The identity of these individual people still shines through in each bust. Their mana is not diminished by Illingworth or Hamilton’s ethnological goals.
Blackley’s treatment of these artefacts at Te Mata allowed us finally to see the portraits both for the people they show, and for their contribution to the history of sculpture in New Zealand.