Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Maori Portraits

Today I went to the De Young Museum in San Francisco, where I saw a stellar exhibition of art—frescoes, figurines, pottery, shell necklaces, carvings—from Teotihuacan (1st century–6th century) and a collection of thirty-one portraits of Māori painted by the Bohemian artist Gottfried Lindauer (1839–1926). There's an excellent website devoted to Lindauer, who worked strictly from photographs, but with imaginative variations when it came to detail.

The portraits, which were often painted after the subject had died, are variously interpreted today. As the above website puts it, "How Lindauer's portraits have been seen, understood and evaluated has . . . varied enormously, depending on their viewers' and owners' views, knowledge and needs, and on the different socio-cultural contexts of use. For many colonial Europeans, the portraits, besides representing supposedly vanishing Māori culture, functioned as ethnographic documents, providing an inventory of Māori physiognomy, moko [skin decoration, or tattoos], dress, artifacts and ornaments. For some settler colonists the portraits may well have been experienced too as kinds of trophy: emblems of settler colonial power over Māori. And subsequently Lindauer's Māori portraits have become valuable commercial commodities, financial instruments that can be profitably bought and sold. . . . For many Māori, especially the families and descendants of the portrayed, the paintings have very different values and meanings. They were and are experienced as embodiments of the presence, spirit and mana [authority, influence] of the person, as links between the past and present, and as taonga [any highly prized thing] that need to be protected, and which also protect people and culture. As the man who made the portraits, Lindauer too was held in high regard."

Here are a few of the portraits, which document "peacemakers and warriors, politicians and diplomats, tour guides and landholders, entrepreneurs and global traders painted between 1874 and 1903." The exhibition had good, thorough write-ups of each individual and the originary photograph when available. I was struck over and over by the deep humanity and spirit of the subjects, as portrayed by Lindauer. (Click on the images to view them large on black.)

Mrs Mihiterina Takamoana, Napier, NZ (1887)
Whetoi Pomare (1896)
Heta Te Haara (1896)
Rangi Topeora (n.d.)
Paora Tuhaere (1895)
Te Paea Hinerangi (1896)

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