Friday, September 25, 2015

The Occultation of Lisa Reihana

Maori have constitutional and legal privileges denied to other New Zealanders. These privileges and a series of Treaty settlements have helped Maori become a wealthy and powerful capitalist class. Maori are exploiting Pacific Islanders, who lack their privileges and their wealth. A class war between Maori and Pasifika is beginning, as the islanders resist their Maori overlords.

These claims come not from John Ansell or the One New Zealand Foundation or some other source on the right-wing fringes of New Zealand politics, but from veteran artist and lay Buddhist monk Terrence Hanscomb. In an essay for EyeContact called 'The Occultation of the Sun', Hanscomb moves from his allegations of Maori privilege into a condemnation of Lisa Reihana's work In Pursuit of Venus, which has been on display for months at the Auckland Art Gallery. 

A video made to look like a vast stretch of moving wallpaper, In Pursuit of Venus depicts some of the earliest encounters between European mariners and traders and Pacific peoples in places like Aotearoa and Tahiti. The work has attracted big audiences and garnered praise from many reviewers; for Hanscomb, though, it is an expression of the privilege Reihana enjoys as a Maori. As an 'imperialist' and an 'entrepreneur', she is, according to Hanscomb, exploiting the history of the same Pacific peoples that Maori today oppress.

In the comments thread under Hanscomb's review, Ralph Paine and I have taken him to task for his analysis of contemporary New Zealand society and his lack of interest in Pacific history. I don't find Hanscomb's responses to our criticisms at all convincing - but I would say that, wouldn't I? Read Hanscomb's review and the discussion it has generated here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

Hi Scott. Interesting debate. It is very long and involved. I suspect there are some truth on both "sides". Handscomb is an interesting artist, but his art is rather rarified and eclectic, with formulae painted on his canvasses and much other arcana.

Of course Maori want to do well in art as do anyone. But I don't see that Pacific Islanders are in a "different" class. Where I am in South Auckland, in fact where I have been most of my life, living and working either near or with Maori Pacific Islanders and others, and continuing to see them, shows me no such privilege. The class issues are complex and complicated by many internal and external contradictions.

By the way the woman photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, that the Maori theorist supposedly critiques was a pioneer in photography in that she showed people in imaginative and often more realistic poses: so much so that Tennyson got her to illustrate one of his books. Her portraits are extraordinary considering the limitations of the technology at the time, in fact she used that limitation to advantage: her portrayal of Alice (of Wonderland fame) as Pomona (a Greek goddess of fruit and fruitfulness) is wonderful. There is nothing wrong with what she did.

I think now, that indeed, the artist, the writer, needs to be free. After all, what would Handscomb say about Billy Apple who seems to embrace commercial exploitation of art. In fact he seems to be 'about' how he can makes lots of money. (Although he is still, despite all the theoretical bullshit, an interesting artist).

I suspect that Handscomb has read to much theory, and being in love with a kind of semi-abstract, rather egg-head (!) way of thinking about art (it is a fact that such artists or writers still can make great art, the theory, wrong or not, provides a kind of structure on which they can work, whether the theory has any real validity or not, but religion did as well for T S Eliot, who is, despite his views, surely still one of the great poets.

Reihana is probably inevitably immersed in all the theory and complexity, but in the end it is the evaluation of her work that counts. Anyone doing something interesting or creative, for whatever reasons, gets my support.

I didn't see that exhibition which is a pity.

I think Andy Lelei and such as Hotere had similar issues but Hotere, it seems to me now, was simply a great artist, as for example Andy is (I knew when I saw his art he had in a garage before his first exhibition); and Hotere, influenced by McCahon no doubt, but I saw a docu on him and the mass of ingenious and creative work was extraordinary.

It seems to me that Handscomb's comments could well be divisive. He may have, what is the word, I think that many Europeans, deep down (and I think in a complex way this affects me if I self analyse), tend to default to European art, there is an assumption in the unconscious mind that the European tradition is superior...something like that. Of course, logically it is nonsense, and Handscomb probably THINKS he is free of this, but we all think, to some degree, "ethnically".

Of course there are elites and hierarchies but it is more complex than Handscomb puts it.

1:05 am  
Blogger Richard said...

A good book to get a feel of early contact is 'The Age of Wonder' by Richard Holmes. An extraordinarily good and absorbing book about science and art, as well as exploration, and the first measurement of the 'Transit of Venus' by Banks, who more or less financed the entire trip. The irony was that Banks, rich and from the 'upper' class, got on brilliantly with the Polynesian people (especially the women with whom he had many affairs etc) and he learnt their language etc. Cook was less so, but still, of course, a responsible Captain.

It is all more complex and subtle than Handscomb portrays it.

There is perhaps an overload of complex and mystifying theory that obscures the wood from the trees when artists discuss things. In many cases they could be more specific instead of talking through the mystifications of Deleuze or Badiou and others. He might think he understands all that stuff but his job as a critic is to clarify things for his readers.

Good though that there is a vibrant theoretical debate about art going on! (Do I contradict myself? Well, I contain millions...something like that.)

And your turning it back to what polynesian theorists have to say, and the complex history as far as it is known, takes it, rightly, out of the morass of overwrought philosophy. (Theory in art is good, but certain theorists get caught in the terribly tangles intaglios of their philosophical theories which seem, in many cases, to shine little light on what is right in front of the engineer that had a PhD on electric motors, generators and AC theory, but when he was taken through a power station by one of my tutors, he asked: "What are those strange things?" The answer was that they were electric generators / motors! Handscomb has so much airy theory he probably doesn't know how to boil an egg!

1:11 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

That's a shockingly brief comment you've made at EyeContact Richard.

I can see the point you're making, though. It's not only Hanscomb who seems to have to drop an -ism and a French philosopher in every second sentence he posts at the site. I don't think it helps move discussions along!

11:07 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

This was another recent and intense debate:

APW might well make some accurate points about eccentricities and oversights, but I nevertheless heartily recommend Panoho's massive book, which keeps reminding me of Smithyman's Atua Wera. Both books spend a lot of their pages describing journeys down a river in Northland!

11:11 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes, I agree. It was a bit unfair but in reality the debate involves so many issues. In fact indeed it wasn't only Handscomb who refers to complex theory etc I think that problematic of theory and political correctness as well as what or why a person makes art or whatever; as well as the fact that the debate involves so many issues.

The class issue is one (Handscomb is not entirely wrong but it is hard - and I can see that Panoho has had a good look at these issues, and of course there has to be theory - but it sometimes obscures things). As well as the complex of class (inter and intra), ethnic relationships, and nature of the way the art market is swayed (more or less) by that theory (in fact as you know there is also the Institutional Theory of Art, which may have been part of things in your MA thesis (?), but Reihana herself as an artist will have a complex of emotions and motives. It is almost impossible for an artist-writer etc to avoid getting involved, for better or worse, in the politics of the production and marketing of that work. I dont think though there is a heirarchy of Maori over Polynesian artists, if that's what was being inferred: there may be some 'political correctness' that helps Maori and others. Also it is impossible for us and or Hanscomb to know what Reihana's 'motives' or deeper thoughts feelings etc are about these things. I would say they are ambiguous. The Fatal Impact concept has some validity but has been overdone as you point out, European influence and contact was not always negative (perhaps in the wider sense maybe).

The trouble with quoting philosophers is that not everyone has read them all, it is better to keep focused...although I can see that philosophy is inherent in art practice...

But there was so much written there it was overwhelming? I (and probably others) seemed to have lost the wood for the trees! But such it is...

12:16 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every nation has its traitors.

12:17 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I may have a look at that book by Panoho time permitting.

12:17 am  

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