Māoridom’s Mona Lisa

He’s been immortalised.  His features examined, debated and bidded on in the art world. 

But his identity is unknown. He’s Māoridom’s very own Mona Lisa.

A portrait of a young Māori chief, which sold for a record price of $158,000, has found a permanent home at the University of Otago’s Hocken Library.

“I think it’s part of the allure of the drawing and it’s why, when you look at it, you want to know more about him,” says head curator Robyn Notman.

The portrait was created in 1835 by German-born artist Charles Rodius.  Its subject is unknown, but the full moko on such a youthful chief suggests he was a figure of some significance.

The work was created in Sydney at a time when there were a number of Māori in the city and a stream of people moving between New Zealand and Australia on trading vessels.

After being passed by descent to a private Melbourne collection, the Hocken Library bought it at an auction in Auckland last year for a record price.

Edward Ellison, Ngāi Tahu historian, is thrilled that the painting is returning home.

“It reflects a young man, an active man who looks noble.  I think it’s a great impression of a young chief of that era,” he says.

There’s speculation that the man in the painting is Ngai Tahu chief Karetai, who signed the Treaty of Waitangi.

“It’s the inscription on the work.  So it’s Chief Atay.  All of the drawings of Māori by Rodius have the names phonetically written on them.  One reason people might think it’s Karetai because for the Atay, which sounds like Karetai.  It’s also known that Karetai was in Sydney around this time,” says Notman.

 But Ellison is not convinced and says more research is needed.

“It’s very preliminary in my view.  To try and earth and fathom who this person may be, actually will require some kind of discipline and research, across a whole range of resources,” he says.

The painting is currently stored at the Auckland Art Gallery but will return home to Dunedin later this month.  It will join 17,000 other artworks in the Hocken Library.

Artists including Colin McCahon and Ralph Hotere are also included in the collection.