An unlikely pairing

CHRISTOPHER MOORE
Last updated 12:21 20/11/2011
Marian Maguire: a series exploring an unlikely pairing of New Zealand's colonial history and ancient Greece.

Marian Maguire: a series exploring an unlikely pairing of New Zealand's colonial history and ancient Greece.

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Christchurch Arts

The Theatre Royal's rich history Court workshop all set for new era An unlikely pairing Dreaming of Electric Sheep The phantom never dies Art in river city Crunch time at CAG Art lovers eager to support artists In the flooded stream Sagnier speaks

At first glance, they are two incompatible worlds, separated by time, history and geography, but for Christchurch artist Marian Maguire, New Zealand's 19th-century colonial history and ancient Greece hold an irresistible attraction.

Maguire's latest exhibition is the third in a series exploring this unlikely pairing. The first, The Odyssey of Captain Cook, opened in 2005. The second, in 2008, The Labours of Herakles, explored the effects of colonisation.

Now comes Titokowaru's Dilemma. In a series of lithographs and etchings, she places charismatic Maori leader Titokowaru alongside Socrates and elements from the epic saga The Iliad.

Three years in the making, the 27 works currently on show at Christchurch's PaperGraphica fuse the apparent contradictory worlds into a visual commentary on war and peace.

Maguire created the first encounter between ancient Greeks and New Zealand Maori in The Odyssey of Captain Cook, with the Greeks arriving on Cook's Endeavour. Their favourable first impressions made colonisation inevitable, with Herakles, the strongest and most determined of heroes, becoming a pioneer in The Labours of Herakles.

The land becomes the focus of Titokowaru's Dilemma. The Maori prophet and war leader is the pivotal figure in a story which is partly his own and partly a modern-day commentary, and which occasionally echoes The Iliad's portrayal of the mythic struggles for Troy.

Titokowaru, commander, priest, warrior and pacifist, is shown debating with the philosopher Socrates as he ponders whether he can better save his people through a path of passive resistance or warfare.

For New Zealand art historian Elizabeth Rankin, the protagonist of Titokowaru's Dilemma, is an impressive figure who embodies the complexities and contradictions of 19th-century New Zealand history. "Titokowaru was a trained Maori tohunga, but a Christian convert; an advocate of peace, but an outstanding military strategist; a powerful and charismatic leader, but one who lost the support of his followers.

"These diverse characteristics offer a more nuanced understanding of Titokowaru than we might have of more conventional early New Zealanders. It was this that made him an absorbing subject for Maguire, whose prints, exploring colonial history, challenge simplistic readings of the past," Rankin writes in a background to the exhibition.

Living in the Taranaki district, Titokowaru was involved in battles against the British in the early 1860s, but then led several important initiatives promoting peace with settlers. When continuing land confiscations pushed Maori into war to avoid starvation, he first resorted to plunder without bloodshed then, in a situation of escalating conflict, deployed an effective combination of fear-provoking propaganda, clever field- engineering and guerrilla tactics to overcome British troops far superior in number to his own.

The unexpected dissolution of Titokowaru's army in 1869 after a series of victories, reputedly because he undermined his mana by sleeping with the wife of an ally, did not diminish his reputation among settlers as a formidable opponent, and an uneasy peace was maintained.

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Further land deprivations led to a campaign of passive resistance in which Titokowaru took part alongside Te Whiti and Tohu. Resistance was finally quashed in a big show of force by the British at Parihaka in 1881, decimating Maori power in the area and leading to Titokowaru's imprisonment several times before his death in 1888.

"In these prints, Maguire continues to develop her distinctive imagery drawn from ancient and colonial sources," Rankin says. "The bold silhouettes of Greek vase paintings are particularly evident in her black-and-white etchings, such as those depicting amorous adventures involving Greek gods, Maori maidens, satyrs and settlers, in a series entitled Colonial Encounters.

"In the large colour lithographs of Titokowaru's Dilemma, figures of similar style and clarity are set into New Zealand landscapes based on colonial paintings and photographs. In Maguire's intriguing cultural crossovers, we find such unexpected meetings as Persephone keeping company with Hine-nui-te-pa in the underworld and Zeus stalking Papa in a Whangarei landscape.

"Figures are transposed into unexpected historical settings, with Gustavus von Tempsky dying on the battlefields of Troy, Venus de Milo taken captive in a Maori pa, and the Christchurch statue of Captain Cook entangled in rata roots in the Taranaki bush. Such intriguing visual inventions continually surprise and delight us, and tease our imaginations with human connections across time," she says.

"Presenting Titokowaru more as a thinking man than a fighter, Maguire frames his story in terms of the kind of questions that Socrates asked. We discover him debating 'What is virtue?' with Socrates, or discussing 'What is peace?' with his compatriot, Te Whiti. Pictured against Mount Taranaki, these paired figures mimic the pose of Achilles and Ajax from a famous black-figure vase by the Greek potter and painter Exekias, forging links between New Zealand and ancient Greece and showing that these debates have a timeless significance.

"In A Taranaki Dialogue, the inquiry continues in a series of small etchings of the Taranaki landscape, finally focusing on two questions that seem to underpin Maguire's project as a whole: it is she, as much as Socrates or Titokowaru, who asks us, 'What is myth?' and 'What is history?' "

Born in Christchurch in 1962, Maguire graduated from the Ilam School of Art, University of Canterbury, in 1984, after majoring in printmaking. She later studied in the United States at the Tamarind Institute of Lithography.

Apart from her own work she has worked as a collaborative master printer with some of New Zealand's leading artists.

Maguire set up Limeworks print studio with Stephen Gleeson in 1987 and in 1996 established PaperGraphica print studio and gallery. From 1993 to 1996, she taught printmaking part time at the Ilam School of Art, University of Canterbury. Currently, she is employed almost full time on her own work.

Her early work was mainly figurative and gestural, but in the early 1990s, she shifted her subject to emblematic images of gates, archways and bridges.

In Regarding the Renaissance (Centre of Contemporary Art, 1997) she explored the relationship between the architects of the Italian Renaissance and the art, architecture and mathematics of ancient Greece. She became increasingly interested in black- figure vase painting and produced two exhibitions, Vases & Narratives in 1999 and Mythical Landscapes in 2000.

In this series Maguire began to set Greek heroes in the New Zealand landscape. In Southern Myths the idea was extended into a series of nine etchings threaded on an adapted plot line from The Iliad. Widely seen as one of New Zealand's leading contemporary printmakers, work is represented in public and private collections in New Zealand and overseas.

The Labours of Herakles, will end its three-year national tour in 2012.

Titokowaru's Dilemma. PaperGraphica, 192 Bealey Ave, until December 10.

Reviewed by Andrew Paul Wood.

For a while now, printmaker Marian Maguire has been exploring a kind of parallel universe mythopoeia where the Greeks of the Heroic Age meet Maori myth and hysteria and early New Zealand colonial history.

In most cases, this has been effectively presented as Greek mock black-figure vase paintings of the early classical period.

Maguire's main protagonist in this show is the 19th-century Taranaki tohunga Titokowaru, a warrior, a peacemaker, a rebel, a Christian convert - a fascinating figure. Maguire has him in dialogue with Socrates and the Rev Thomas Kendall. The cast is completed by teasing out parallels between Maori and Greek myth: Persephone keeps company with Hine-nui- te-po, Atlas assists in keeping Rangi and Papa separated. There is also a lot of humour, which makes this a fun exhibition to see.

Edwardian and Georgian poetry of the 1900s was forever going on about finding Pan's hoofprints in the kauri forests, and similar hybrids today can have unfortunate post-colonial political connotations. Maguire successfully navigates, with all traditions obviously on equal standing, or disarmed by post-modern humour. An example of this is Spoils to the Victor, a parody of Lewis John Steele's famous but patronising 1908 painting of the same name. In the redux, however, the cliche-bound Maori maiden has been replaced with the Venus de Milo.

Unless my beady little eyes deceive me, The Colonial Major and his Trusty Guide seek out the Rebel Strongholds is a double portrait of Maguire and her partner artist Nigel Buxton, with Maguire en traviste as a Maori warrior. The series A Taranaki Dialogue infuses a strong Japanese style reminiscent of Hokusai's Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, with Mt Taranaki as the stand- in, but I rather feel Tom Cruise put the final nail in that particular coffin lid with The Last Samurai in 2003.

Placing these somewhat non-sequitur individuals in unexpected settings causes us to think more carefully about what they mean. This is a good show. Treat yourself.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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