Monday, September 5, 2011
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“KURA KOIWI – BONE TREASURES” Brian Flintoff (Craig Potton Publishing, $39:99)
I have to admit that I approached Kura Koiwi with a little trepidation. This is a book that celebrates the art of a Pakeha who has been working in the field of Maori bone-carving for over thirty years. Scary words like “appropriation” began to form in my mind. I thought of the frequency with which non-indigenous (and usually European) artists have been attacked for daring to use indigenous forms in their art.
I needn’t have worried. Flintoff is greatly respected in the Maori world. This is clear from the generous introduction written by Tipene O’Regan, who states that it was Flintoff’s carvings which set the fashion for the wearing of bone pendants a couple of decades back. There’s also the fact that this book was launched on Te Marae at Te Papa on 28 August. At the launch, Haumanu i Te Papa played on bone instruments carved by Brian Flintoff.
In Flintoff’s own running narrative, the text of this art-book tells how his bone-carving art has developed over the last thirty years, and how it relates to, and has developed from, traditional Maori motifs.
Flintoff’s style is loose, colloquial and autobiographical. He shares anecdotes about first finding a particular style or motif in a museum or art gallery or on a marae, and about the Maori mentors and experts who have encouraged him in his art. He marvels that exquisite traditional carvings were produced with what we would now consider the most primitive of implements. He says he has had no formal training in art, but it is clear that he is now an expert in his chosen field. For non-experts (like me) he explains the meaning of those traditional Maori motifs upon which he has modelled his work. There is always a combination of the utilitarian and the purely decorative in hei matau [fish-hooks] rakau whakapapa [genealogy sticks] tauihu [prows] pekapeka [pendants with a balanced design] and other objects.
Behind this there is the fact that traditional Maori art presents a whole world view. It is no accident that the book divides into sections on abstract design; design related to Tane (the forest); design related to Tangaroa (the sea); musical instruments and carvings from mythology. The curves and curlicues are not accidental. They blend into mythology, religious belief, tribal identity.
Yet in showing all this, Flintoff is also aware that bone carving is an international art. The last section of Kura Koiwi compares Maori motifs with Indian and Japanese and Thai bone carving, and an ivory icon of the crucified Christ from Notre Dame cathedral.
More than anything, it is the images that make this book as they make any art-book – a beautiful display of both Flintoff’s art and the traditional works that inspired him. All were caught, apparently, by a variety of photographers (none is credited individually).
Sometimes Flintoff moves into more literal representationalism than traditional Maori carving would have countenanced [look at some of his frog impressions on Page 58]. His paired pendant [page 79] comes close to modernist abstraction. He sometimes employs quite non-traditional materials [the recycled billiard ball transformed into a carving on page 82]. His school of grouper fish, carved from a whalebone [page 96], is far more naturalistic than any pre-contact Maori carving would have been.
What does all this mean?
First, that bone-carving is a living art, not chained to defunct styles. Tradition is a living thing that develops.
Second, that a good artist may legitimately work in any tradition, regardless of his ancestry.
As I read this book, I kept thinking of the poetry of Hone Tuwhare which I considered on this blog three weeks back. Tuwhare was a Maori poet who wrote almost exclusively in the English language. Flintoff is a Pakeha artist who works almost exclusively in a Maori idiom.
The comparison is obvious.
A good artist jumps over cultural boundaries.