Galleries of Maoriland: Artists, Collectors and the Māori World, 1880–1910
By Roger Blackley
Auckland University Press
Reviewed by Peter Adds
As a Māori reader of books and journals about New Zealand colonial history, Treaty history, prehistory and archaeology, I found Roger Blackley’s Galleries of Maoriland deeply fascinating. It provides new and interesting insights at the intersections of many of my interests, especially in the crucial late nineteenth and early twentieth century time frame that he focuses on. That, of course, was the period of New Zealand history when the Māori population was at its lowest ebb as a result of disease, warfare and economic despair.
At its core, the book is about the representation of Māori in the Pākehā art world in the late colonial period in Maoriland, a term that Blackley explains is as much about the issues of transition into the twentieth century as it is about place. But it would be a disservice to describe the book as just this because, as Blackley shows, the relationship between Māori and Pākehā, especially the art and ‘artifact’ collecting space comprised a complex web of interests and conflicts.
Significantly in this book, Blackley represents Māori not just as passive models for the Lindauers, Goldies, Steeles and other artists/curators of the time, but as people with real agency and issues of their own in the transactional spaces between them. I would have liked a deeper analysis of the benefits that Māori derived from these arrangements but Blackley is careful to position himself as a Pākehā art historian, not a Māori scholar. He notes that Māori could likely provide deeper analyses and come up with other insights and interpretations, especially in relation to the Māori reception of museums and gallery exhibitions, that he pointed out have ‘been largely overlooked in Pākehā art history’. Having said this, I found Blackley’s explanations of Māori responsiveness, such as they were, to be credible and perceptive. Just as interesting, however, was the exposé of Pākehā hangups and blatant racism represented in the depictions of Māori at that time, and Blackley was not shy about outing the individuals concerned. I found myself enjoying these parts immensely.
Galleries of Maoriland is Blackley’s PhD thesis rewritten for publication. As such, it possibly wasn’t rewritten enough for a generalist audience, as it assumes, I think, a certain amount of prior knowledge about New Zealand’s colonial past in particular, but also contemporary theory relating to Māori origins, technology and cultural development over time. Unfortunately, too few of us know this background from our school years. Readers without this education may find parts of the narrative difficult to contextualise. Thankfully, Blackley’s text is relatively free of the academic jargon one might expect to find in a PhD thesis. However his style is certainly not patronising to the reader and there is enough information, critique and indeed irreverence to be thoroughly entertaining.
Like many of the artworks discussed, the book has been superbly produced. It is well illustrated on virtually every page and is also well referenced, although you will have to move to the back of the book to find the references. This book will enter the reading lists of my students but will deservedly find its way to the bookshelves and coffee tables of many New Zealand homes as well.
First published ArtZone #78