Honoring Ancestors • The Māori Portraits

staircase 1
A voice sang out from the staircase of the de Young Museum in San Francisco, calling the assembly of Māori elders and Auckland Art Gallery delegates to begin their ceremonial procession. Accompanied by ritual song, the group ascended to the upper galleries with an air of dignity reserved for those entrusted with a legacy.

He kitenga kanohi, he hokinga whakaaro
(Faces seen, memories stirred)

The procession stopped at a gallery freshly painted in pounamu green, where 31 portraits of esteemed New Zealand ancestors were placed on exhibit, all of them 19th century indigenous protagonists. To honor the deceased, whose images were painted more than a century ago, a single frond of fern was laid at the foot of each portrait.

Maori 1
Māori elders dedicate an exhibit of ancestral portraits • de Young Museum

The Māori Portraits are the work of Bohemian artist Gottfried Lindauer, who sailed to New Zealand in 1874 to avoid the military draft. He was immediately inspired to capture the indigenous island lifestyle, including scenes of everyday tribal life that are not on exhibit here. His Māori portraits (1874 to 1903) serve to chronicle a vibrant culture that was to be disenfranchised and forever altered by European colonialism.

Ana Reupene Whetuki and Child (1878) Oil on canvas
Ana Reupene Whetuki and Child (1878)

I find it interesting, and perhaps unusual from this era, that many of the portraits were commissioned by their subjects. Lindauer’s clientele included Māori chiefs, portrayed in traditional dress, with traditional weapons, and tribesmen-bureaucrats, depicted in European dress. Some of the paintings were derived from photographs.

Wi Tako Ngātata (1880) peacemaker and politician

A striking element is the meticulous detail of body and facial markings, known as Tā moko. A variation of tattoo, Tā moko was chiseled into the skin, creating permanent grooves that represented tribal affiliations, genealogy, and social standing.

Pāora Tuhaere (1895) tribal leader

Some ancestors are depicted with adornments, tools, or weapons made of pounamu, the jade or serpentine stone of New Zealand.

Para Watene (1878)
Para Watene (1878) with pounamu (greenstone) amulet and club
this one
Chief Tāmati Wāka Nene (1890) detail

Lindauer’s portraits have been shown in Berlin and the Czech Republic, on loan from the Auckland Art Gallery. The paintings on display in San Francisco will remain at the de Young Museum through April 1, 2018.

A lengthy but compelling documentary can be seen on-site, narrated by descendants of the portrait subjects. Thier stories bring historical context to this exhibit of warriors and peacemakers, treaty promises made and broken, and a bit of cannibalistic history that is shared with a decent sense of humor.

More of Lindauer’s works can be viewed on the Auckland Art Gallery website Lindauer Online.

Maori Dance 1
Māori dancers sing “E ngā iwi” welcoming visitors to the de Young exhibit

Posted: November 1, 2017

© 2017, Cynthia Albers, All Rights Reserved


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