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February 21, 2005 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Toi Te Papa

In true Te Papa tradition the title for this exhibition is in Maori with an English translation, Toi Te Papa / Art of the Nation. I think a translation of the first word alone is sufficient – Art of Te Papa more accurately summarises the exhibition and its intentions.

After urging from the likes of Viggo Mortenson and Helen Clark, Te Papa have decided to display their collection of New Zealand art, which has been kept in storage. They’re doing this in two stages: Toi Te Papa is the first and From the Cave to the Temple is the second, opening in early 2006. From the Cave to the Temple will ‘feature some of the oldest items of visual culture in the collections, European heritage art, art from the period of European-Maori colonial encounter, European modern art, and New Zealand art up to 1939’.

The post ’39 component currently showing is organised more or less chronologically. There has been an attempt to break the show into sections, each section representing a key phase or movement in New Zealand art. However, the major themes under which individual works are displayed are pretty broad, presumably due to the difficult task of having to group and categorise an extremely diverse collection – so the impression Te Papa gives the viewer of the development of New Zealand art is not only extremely broad and general, it also seems moulded and catered to suit Te Papa’s collection. For instance, works by Billy Apple, Illingworth and Killeen are placed together to illustrate a ‘broadening and diversification’ in New Zealand art. The other sections are Landscape, The Movement Towards Abstraction and New Zealand Art ‘Now’.

One thing the show has really alerted me to, is the difference between an art exhibition in a museum and one in a gallery. In this exhibition the parts are subsidiary to the whole – you aren’t expected so much to stop and reflect on each work; each work is instead an example of a broader theme. Sometimes it seems the works aren’t done justice this way.

This is especially apparent in the little black hole in which the Maori taonga and artefacts are presented. They’re accompanied by a written piece on Te Maori – the 1980s exhibition of Maori art and artefacts that was the first of its kind to leave the country. Nothing, though, is written about the individual pieces themselves. Instead they are displayed collectively to represent the important exhibition that marked a shift in the Pakeha perception of Maori art. I can’t help finding this rather ironic. The pieces are there to represent a shift to a generally more appreciative attitude toward Maori art, yet they are all placed there, in their little dark, black nook, undated and with barely any attention paid to the pieces themselves, except as part of Te Maori. In fact, any Maori art in this show is shown in a context of an exhibition on the ‘shifting tastes’ of a Pakeha New Zealand. I’m still wondering about the appropriateness of the title, Toi Te Papa.

Yet as the works shown are only those owned by Te Papa, the exhibition’s emphasis is not as much on educating the public about the development of New Zealand art or familiarising us with the big names, as showcasing the ‘breadth and depth’ of Te Papa’s collection itself. So it may lack a lot as an exhibition on New Zealand’s art history, but the point really was to get the collection out of storage. Which is a good thing for sure. Some friends of mine who have an interest in New Zealand art but had never really been to exhibitions loved seeing real work by artists such as Walters, McCahon, Angus and Bill Hammond, works that are so frequently seen as reproductions.

Toi Te Papa seems to be aimed at the New Zealand art novice; the passerby. If you haven’t seen much of the art of our nation, it’s a great sample of works by many key artists. However, I didn’t find it that enlightening or beneficial. It didn’t seem to present any new ideas. In the end it is great that the works have come out of hiding and I would never discourage anyone from checking out what Te Papa has to offer – even if I personally didn’t find the exhibition that great, the art is, of course, still quality.

Toi Te Papa
Te Papa Level 5; Long-term exhibition

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