Becoming Māori: Pare Watene

Gottfried Lindauer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It is mid-morning on my second day in Auckland (Tāmaki Makaurau), a city that I know little of. It’s the capital of a country that I have never visited, and yet, is the homeland of my ancestors.

After a long, restless night in the CBD, punctuated with sirens and homeless people screaming at each other in the early hours of the morning below, I entered the Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki seeking a calm, cultural reprieve from the chaotic inner city streets.

The three-story building is, in many ways, typical national gallery fare. Two glass bottles fashioned into a makeshift fountain sit next to an upside-down manikin with a VR headset. These hyper-modern installations – neon and primary colours abound – sit alongside dark, occasionally pastel, ‘classical’ portraits of wealthy white men in their finery. The occasional unclothed female ‘muse’ or niece of an industry of capital smile demurely nearby.

The subjects of these portraits beam with pride as the artist of the day captures their likeness for generations of school children to be bored by as their teacher enthusiastically tries to rally some kind of response..

Yet, in one room, the works of Gottfried Lindauer stop me dead in my tracks. I’ve seen these paintings before, but never before have I been moved to tears in their presence. I stare into the eyes of my grandmothers and I need to find a place to breathe slowly as to push back the tears.

Who cries in an art gallery? 

Gottfried Lindauer’s portraits of early Maori hung in the home that I grew up in. My pakeha mother had bought them as a sort of ‘stand-in’ cultural education in lieu of one from a fractured and distant relationship with a Maori father and family.

As a creative child, I was always fascinated by them, but they never felt like people that I knew. These were people in the same way that Aztec warriors or Vikings were, great caricatures of a time past. But, they weren’t me and I was not of them. 

Not until today. I’m sipping at my apple and feijoa juice in the Art Gallery cafe and trying to discern if I’m spiritually awakening or suffering from the early stages of perimenopause.

It’s weird to suddenly find yourself, in mid-life, struck by some intense connection to people who lived hundreds of years ago. To stare into the eyes of a woman who seems to be trying to communicate some kind of message to you in a language that you don’t understand.

In part, Gottfried Lindauer’s portraits are just sublime in their execution, and the portraits in which the subject stares directly ahead play a part in such a reaction. His use of light and hyper-realistic depiction of Maori people as proud and strong characters also evokes respect from the viewer.

Yet, as a group of North American retirees shuffle past, there lack of discernable chatter leads me think that I’m likely the only person having this reaction to these paintings right now. One lady’s excitement and flurry of photo-taking for a Henry Moore-esque statue in the next room confirms this to me. 

And so, as I stand before the intense gaze of Pare Watene, I struggle to understand what it is that she is trying to say. What do these nga tupuna wahine want me to know?

Kei te whakarongo ahau Pare.

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