Saturday, February 25, 2012

Karl du Fresne: Maori objections cancel exhibition

There are probably several good reasons why Lower Hutt’s Dowse Art Museum shouldn’t host an exhibition by a Mexican artist in which bubbles, partly made from water previously used to wash dead bodies, are blown from the ceiling into a silent room.

The first and most obvious is that it isn’t art, at least as most people understand the term. The second is that it’s grotesque and ghoulish. But as a believer in freedom of expression, I’m obliged to support the Dowse’s right to stage pointless exhibitions that are likely to appeal only to people wearing black clothing and funny-looking spectacles.

I would not include, among the valid reasons for not hosting the exhibition, the fact that it is regarded by some Maori as “culturally unsafe”, to use a politically fashionable but decidedly sinister term. Yet Maori objections are the reason the Dowse has decided to cancel the show, which was due to open tomorrow as part of the International Arts Festival.

No one can quibble with local kaumatua Sam Jackson’s refusal to “bless” the so-called bubble installation because of Maori concerns that being around fluids from dead bodies can invite death or calamity. That's his prerogative. I would go further and suggest that the local iwi is within its rights to insist that the pataka (storehouse) known as Nuku Tewhatewha, which is housed elsewhere in the museum, be protected from possible contamination by the exhibition. After all, the pataka was gifted to the Dowse by local Maori and is regarded by them as sacred. But to insist that the bubbles installation be cancelled altogether suggests this is an instance of local Maori asserting themselves just because they can. They have learned from experience that timid public officials will quickly buckle when cultural sensitivities are raised. Never mind that it is a brazen assertion of the objectors’ rights over the right of others.

The simple answer to Maori who objected to the exhibition would have been: “Fine – don’t come”. If they stayed away, they wouldn’t be contaminated. If Pakeha wish to expose themselves to the risk of death or calamity, on the other hand, that’s their business. Maori are entitled to live by their own beliefs but not to impose them on others.

There is another important angle to this. In 1998, devout Christians were outraged when Te Papa hosted the Virgin in a Condom exhibition. Despite angry protests Te Papa stood firm, and was applauded for doing so by the very same people who I suspect are now nodding their heads in solemn approval of the Dowse’s decision to back down rather than upset the local iwi. It’s okay to antagonise mad white God-botherers, but we mustn’t get offside with the tangata whenua, or - perish the thought - be accused of breaching Treaty obligations relating to art exhibitions.

If there’s any consolation in this, it’s that the Dowse is now thinking of placing a few armchairs in the exhibition space that was to have been occupied by the bubble installation, so that people can “spend time meditating in a beautiful, quiet environment”.

Now why didn’t they just do that in the first place? It would have made more sense than the bubbles, and no one would have been culturally offended. At least I don’t think so …

Karl blogs at


Brian said...

Karl du Fresne. Cancelled Exhibition
Is this a case of when is Art actually Art?.
Fact is I, for one do not know, however I think I can recognise it when I see it, even if only from a personal view point.
If I were in Paris somewhere in the vicinity of the Pont des Arts it would be the west front of the Louvre, probably the most obvious classical piece of architecture which has come down to us from the Middle Ages. In the field of painting, here again it would be J.M.W. Turner’s composition “Rain Steam, Speed” which dates from the Industrial Railway Age. In the field of the written word, Shakespeare, Goethe are stand out examples.
Since the turn of the previous century there has been a down sliding in what was once recognised as art. No one seems to have an answer to this modernistic trend, which began I suggest, with the Pre-Raphaelites?
I recall reading some years ago of an exhibition of paintings of modern art in New York, and that someone had given a tame Monkey, a variety of paints, a brush, and a canvas. The result by this unknown artist astounded the art critics, who claimed it to be one of the finest contemporary examples ever seen. Rather embarrassing when it was finally revealed, as an animal.... trying to “Ape” its betters!
A case of “Beauty being in the eye of the beholder”?
In the case Karl mentions of a Mexican artist exhibiting what can only be described as grotesque, it is probably an attempt to use art as a vehicle to shock people in order to gain recognition.
The same applies to that acme of bad taste “Virgin in a Condom” staged at Te Papa, one can but wonder whether this would have ever been seen, let alone staged by any other New Zealand Museum.
This is another example of how apartheid has become a part of everyday life in this country; which can be traced back to our politicians. Whose reluctance to stand up to blackmail by an ethnic minority in the fear of being called racist; just encourages separation and division.

Mike said...

Dear me, another snippet of Maori "culture" plucked out of the air so some Kaumatua can lecture us on what we can and cannot do. I'm wondering how they got on with this bit of "culture" when they were busy eating their neighbours.