Challenging colonial perspectives through art

By Te Kuru o te Marama Dewes

A contemporary Māori art exhibition is drawing attention to the historic and current colonisation of Māori and indigenous people's around the world. Melanie Tangaere Baldwin of Ngāti Porou, who is completing her Master of Professional Creative Practice at Toihoukura, says that there is an illusion that colonisation has been reconciled when it has not.

“The illusion of colonisation is that it's this kind of nice space that's been kind of reconciled but actually it's extremely horrible and uncomfortable and oppressive, and that's the mood I want to evoke from being in a room with all of these heads," says Melanie Tangaere Baldwin. 

The work responds to a portrait of early colonial soldier Horatio Robley, who had a collection of over 30 mummified Māori heads.

“It was kind of to take ownership of that lack of empathy towards mokomōkai so I made mokomōkai based on the faces of real people of the colonial past or the colonial present," says Tangaere Baldwin.

She then painted the faces of the colonisers with the flags of the indigenous people they impacted.

“The tino flag is on the face of George Grey, I've got Donald Trump and a Pan-Native-American flag, as well as Gaugin and the Tahitian flag because for me we're still giving heaps of credit to the people who raped and pillaged our peoples and our ideas and our culture. So the over-sexualisation of South Pacific women, Māori women.”

“There are so many people that have been affected by colonisation and are still affected I want that to come across by the overwhelming amount of heads in the room.”

Expanding on Gaugin, Tangaere Baldwin depicts her mother with the whakairo from her ancestral whare Rākaitemania.

"It's a self-portrait which is the easiest way I could explain whakapapa to non-Māori is that we are everything that we have come from, so then I could tell the story of colonisation from my point of view."

A video shows her 3-year-old daughter, empowered by knowing language and culture, dancing nonchalantly before the mokomōkai of colonisers.

“They're our redemption, they're our fight, if we have any chance of overcoming the colonial structures that have been put in place it's through our children. They're confidence and their mana will overpower the past.”

The 'Whakawhetai' exhibition is showing at Tairāwhiti Museum.