Claw of the uncanny: Identity politics in the jewellery of Warwick Freeman, Peter McKay, Lisa Walker and Jason Hall

Damien Skinner
Four New Zealand jewellers deal with the haunted history of colonialism

This talk was presented on Friday 13th July 2007 at Craft Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, to accompany the exhibition 1839 Exchanges: Jewellery by Jason Hall.

Introduction: Haunted Landscape

We live in a haunted landscape – by ‘we', I mean settlers, the descendants of the colonisers, the ones who, in an age of decolonisation, never went home. Like characters in the early scenes of a horror movie, we have become aware that there is something out there in the landscape, something unseen and terrifying that is threatening to come closer.

Well, given that this is Friday the 13th , that's the way I'd like to present it in this talk. Others have used different methods. Germaine Greer, for example, in Whitefella Jump Up , talks about the pathological binge drinking of colonial and present day White Australian culture as a response to the feeling ‘That something has been wrong from the beginning of settlement and it has yet to be put right.'1 As she continues:

In Australian literature, the Europeans' corrosive unease expresses itself in a curious distortion of the pathetic fallacy, which characterises the land as harsh, cruel, savage, relentless, the sky as implacable, pitiless, and so forth. The heart of the country is called ‘dead'. . . . In our literature vicissitudes of heat and cold are interpreted as a kind of punishment and the physical world itself given the role of an avenging deity. The vegetation is described as ‘stunted', ‘warped', ‘misshapen', ‘gnarled and twisted and ragged', another example of projection of a presentiment of evil within to the countryside without. . . . We hate this country because we cannot allow ourselves to love it. We know in our hearts' core that it is not ours.2

This, writes Greer, throws up a number of problems. It is traumatic enough moving to a new land from which you might never return, but the colonial process added another layer of ‘unremitting and inadmissible psychic pain that demands escape into oblivion . . .'3 Settlers didn't mean to destroy the Aboriginals, but it happened nonetheless. And while they might not mention the fact, it is impossible to forget, a spectre that continues to haunt nationhood. This, she argues, might be why John Howard can't say sorry, since ‘Admitting that one is sorry is tantamount to confessing that one is sad, and Australians are supposed to be happy-go-lucky.'4 Better to repress, a strategy that has made Australia the most highly urbanised population of any country in the world, in which happiness is a house with a view of the ocean, your back turned to the interior of the continent.

The same dynamics are at play in Aotearoa New Zealand. While we like to claim a position a few steps further along the path of reconciliation, Päkehä (New Zealanders of European descent) are the inheritors of a settler society equally haunted by colonialism. Like Gollum, a character from The Lord of the Rings , who loves and fears the One Ring, we love and fear the land in which we live. We struggle to articulate our sense of belonging because we know, deep down, that our claims are based on a foundation of murder, theft and oppression. Ian Wedde has identified what he calls the ‘antipodean sublime', a cultural condition that afflicts settlers. The roots of the antipodean sublime are found in the colonial experience. As Wedde says:

. . . there's no doubt that people did come here with huge hope and did have an awe-inspiring experience, sometimes a terrifying one; they encountered what was here in complex and contradictory ways, the way in which the landscape was prefigured as utopian in their hopes which were subsequently dashed when they arrived; the way that a hope transformed into a disappointment becomes a spook, a haunting, a sense of unrequited desire. Settlers on the beach at Petone looked at an impenetrable forest and a murky black swamp; it wasn't a sunlit grid of one-acre lots. All of that provides a kind of rather turbulent background to an attempt to find a place to be, a kind of home in the land. . . . That's one aspect, an antipodeal sublime whose key effect is unrequited desire rather than awe.5

Wedde names the spectre that haunts the Päkehä desire for nationhood, and which thwarts all our attempts to feel at home in Aotearoa. ‘A hope transformed into a disappointment becomes a spook', says Wedde, articulating a principle that we've known about ever since Freud gave name to the unconscious, and warned us that repression doesn't work. Yet still we try, imagining that somehow we might be a society that can find health without recourse to the ‘talking cure'.

The answer, so some Päkehä propose, is to invoke the idea of the native. The historian Michael King has done much to popularise this idea, arguing that Päkehä has become the second indigenous culture of Aotearoa. In 1999 King said that ‘[p]eople who live in New Zealand by choice as distinct from an accident of birth, and who are committed to this land and its people and steeped in their knowledge of both, are no less ‘indigenous' than Mäori.'

The politician Trevor Mallard, in his role as Co-ordinating Minister of Race Relations, has climbed on board this rhetorical bus as well. In a speech titled ‘We are all New Zealanders now', Mallard argued that if we are to create a collective sense of nationhood we must put the past behind us. Mallard's speech was peppered with phrases such as ‘perfecting our nationhood', ‘banishing the demons from our past', and ‘cheering each other on as New Zealand citizens'. ‘New Zealand', concluded Mallard, ‘has to get its British imperial past behind it. Maori and Pakeha are both indigenous people to New Zealand now. I regard myself as an indigenous New Zealander . . .'66

The search for indigeneity is driven by the guilt that Päkehä carry because we have inherited the ill-gotten gains of the colonial system. Rather than deal with the roots of this guilt, Päkehä seek a state of nativity in which we might be severed from the colonial past, and somehow born new from the soil itself. Päkehä, in this construction, are not linked to colonialism, but are instead a product of a more modern Aotearoa, and as such are no longer required to carry the burden of guilt for the history that produced us, and our current identity as settlers.

Amnesia is part of the colonial condition, but it is not something that can be allowed to plant roots. According to Ani Mikaere,

Those who as a matter of fact benefited from their ancestors' injustice will persuade themselves readily enough that their good fortune is due to the virtue of their race, while the descendants of their victims may too easily accept the story that they and their kind were always good for nothing. To forget history is to allow myths to spring up in its place, myths which serve to ease the conscience of those upon whom history does not reflect well.7

This is a critique grounded in practical political considerations. Amnesia oppresses Mäori, and reinforces the destructive binaries of colonialism – settler good, and native bad. Yet we could also argue that such amnesia is unacceptable because of the dynamic identified earlier. The repressed keeps returning, and in the form of the antipodean sublime will poison our attempts to find home in Aotearoa. The only way to get rid of ghosts is to perform an exorcism. Moving house won't do the trick, especially if the ghost is a poltergeist that is generated by the psychic energy of the inhabitants.

All this talk of ghosts and haunting is not just an affectation adopted because of today's date. It suggests the mode of the gothic, which would seem particularly appropriate for naming and thinking about the colonial condition. As Catherine Spooner writes:

Gothic texts deal with a variety of themes just as pertinent to contemporary culture as to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Gothic novels first achieved popularity: the legacies of the past and its burdens on the present; the radically provisional or divided nature of the self; the construction of peoples or individuals as monstrous or ‘other'; the preoccupation with bodies that are modified, grotesque or diseased. Gothic . . . provides a language and a lexicon through which anxieties both personal and collective can be narrativized.8

Gothic, it would seem, is perfectly designed to address the dynamics of repression and haunting that I've suggested sit at the heart of the colonial experience. In gothic texts, writes Spooner, ‘the past is a site of terror, of an injustice that must be resolved, an evil that must be exorcised.' ‘The past', she continues, ‘chokes the present, prevents progress and the march towards personal or social enlightenment.'99 Which is, we might say, a good analysis of the contemporary political situation in both Aotearoa and Australia.

What, though, might the gothic have to do with a nice kauri villa in Auckland, or a brick Federation-style terrace house in St Kilda? I'll give the last word of this introduction to Misha Kavka, who writes:

The gothic is a term closely associated with the Old World and the detritus of its decaying aristocracies: mouldy castles on hilltops; gnarled gardens exposed to inclement weather; relatives going mad in attics while undead ones lurk in cellars. The houses of the New World just don't come in such dimensions: most family homes are nice villas on one level, and where would one find – let alone put – the decaying aristocratic relatives? Yet the gothic can be brought home here, too, in any number of Kiwi visual and literary tropes where an undead history meets unsuccessful efforts at its repression. Indeed, however short our past, it seems curiously prone to gothic metaphorisation; however short our history, it seems particularly undead. Here, the anxieties of settling a new country become uneasy stories about adolescence spent in (mis)remembered golden weather, while the past that settlement yearns to forget – the backbreaking efforts to tame the land, not to mention taming its former settlers – intrudes into those nice one-storey houses that can neither invite the outside in nor sufficiently close it out.

The result is a kind of ambivalent, permeable gothic domicile, both in the sense of the haunted house as home (to ghosts) and in the sense of New Zealand as home (to settlers). In this double meaning of gothic domicile, cannot the material history of the land be said to haunt New Zealand stories as Old World spectres haunt a house?10

Peter McKay: A Murder of Crows11

Peter McKay Dark plain 2006 10 panels sterling silver, fine gold 33 x 303 mm

McKay's Dark Plain (2006) is a ten brooch ‘landscape retrospective' that sums up the artist's representation of the landscape. The title makes reference to the myth of the Dark Plains, a kind of Canterbury Gothic that infuses artistic culture in Canterbury, tinting the endlessly flat landscape with a kind of dread. Yet this line-up is notable for its lack of haunting. In the footsteps of New Zealand artist Colin McCahon, McKay images a landscape filled with the epic struggle of light and dark, repeating waterfalls intersecting a bare land of sky, horizon and plain. Dramatic, sometimes whimsical, there is nothing creepy about Dark Plain , inhabited as it is by snuffling kiwi, soaring albatross, and the unlikely sight of a couple dancing across a landscape that folds in on itself like a paper dart.

We might be misled if we accept Dark Plain at face value. Dark Plain is a ‘retrospective' of his landscape work of the last few years, and McKay has performed a kind of exorcism, replacing the less savoury elements of his work with innocuous forms. For McKay Country has always been an uneasy place. The interest in landscape began with the Draped Forms series (1997), in which McKay presented a kind of creepy visual pun, drawing an analogy in The kiss (after Magritte) I (1997) between draped human heads and the landscape. In part a visual appropriation of Henri Magritte's surrealist paintings, brooches like Shrouded house (2000) suggest that there are unexplained things going on, that the landscape is an uncanny space.

McKay, like a number of artists in Aotearoa, works with the mode of the gothic. Rather than describing a substantive category of effects (Catholic depravity, supernatural activity, entrapped heroines, sublime raptures), treating gothic as a mode means seeing it as ‘a way of doing and seeing, adaptable across dislocations of culture, time and space . . .'12 According to Jennifer Lawn:

By virtue of its fascination with the borders between categories – life/death, sanity/madness, domesticity/monstrosity – gothic troubles definitions and spawns a proliferation of hybridisations, transplantations, hyphenations. . . . Gothic works in a manner more akin to a shifting warp of the familiar. . . . Gothic touches upon and skews the ordinary-world dimensions of domesticity, decorative form and psychological balance: it troubles them with aberation, with something that ought not to be there.13

Peter McKay Corvus mortuus 1994 sterling silver, copper, gold 35 mm slide

McKay's major contribution to the Dark Plains mythology and local gothic is his series A Murder of Crows (1997 – present). Beginning in 1997, A Murder of Crows has much in common with McKay's various Corvus Mortuus brooches, monuments to a similarly unloved bird. As McKay wrote of one of these works in 1994:

The ‘corvus mortuus' brooch is basically a mausoleum for a raven. I suppose we have all seen the poignant figure of a dead sparrow at some time or other. I hoped that by using the raven, sinister and un-met bird, and the heavy architectural surround, I would have a badge suitable for the President of the ‘Dead Raven Club'.1414

Like the Corvus Mortuus series, A Murder of Crows is also a series of mausoleums, but this time with a more local subject. The inspiration for the series was the extermination of a colony of crows that had established itself on Banks Peninsula near Akaroa, where McKay lives. Judged to be unwanted guests by the Department of Conservation, the crows were systematically exterminated. A series of brooches act as mausoleums for the dead crows, which are shown both alive (a representation that harks back to the raven) and dead, the architectural surround protecting and memorialising the now-departed birds.

In other works such as Six silver bullets (one missing) II (2007), carefully modelled bullets signify a world of gun-toting vigilantes who seek to eradicate in the most brutal ways anything foreign, stalking the Banks Peninsula hills like a local version of the woodsmen in the film Deliverance. This place is not safe; the landscape is alive with threatening people who begin to take on sinister form. A Murder of Crows , and the actual events behind it, is McKay's local and personal justification of the myth of the Dark Plains. It is the narrative around which he can both knowingly dramatise – ‘admittedly, it wasn't quite like that' – and say what he really means – there's something savage in these hills – ‘help us!'

Six silver bullets (one missing) II and Palaeocorax moriorum corvus frugilegus II

(2006) are notable for the black sky that occupies the upper portion of each brooch. A dense mass of blackened marks with streaks of silver, this is the Dark Plains sinisterly emptied of life, an inhospitable environment where nature cannot flourish.

It is a grim vision, but not as uncompromising as 60 silver bullets. In reality 60 bullets modelled in brass and sterling silver, this necklace is physically impressive, both weighty and long enough to be coiled into three strands. The bullets are quite beautiful, somehow both bullets and decorative elements at the same time. There is no reference to the crows, or the landscape, in this work. All you are left with are the bullets. Flattened and strung together, they are transformed in one sense – not quite neutered but certainly deflected. While these bullets are not aimed at anyone (or any birds), the sense of power remains, the hint of an earlier, more deadly function. An ambivalent amulet for a trip through McKay Country, it's unclear whether this necklace is the ammunition you carry as aggressor, or the bullets you attract as victim.

Lisa Walker: Sheep Tales

Lisa Walker Brooch 1997 plastic, cardboard 55 x 25 mm

The first brooches made by Lisa Walker that explore the theme of sheep are about environment. Belonging to the moment when Walker begins to plunder the wealth of model making and hobbyist shops, these brooches are grass: a small circular patch of green with muddy edges; or in the most extreme case, a brooch made from a stack of fake grass, no attempt made to hide the cardboard to which the grass adheres. In one brooch grass becomes balls of sheep shit, lightly dusted with gold paint: grass becomes shit; fake grass becomes jewellery. Sheep are present in these early works – the cardboard and grass brooch has some tiny sheep heads in red and white stuck to the surface – but it seems telling that Walker begins, so to speak, with the green grass of home.

In 1997 Walker wrote:

Every year I go back to New Zealand and I'm always blown away. It´s very present for me here that I´m a foreigner in Germany, and there´s always this homeland lust. Germans often feel they have to mention sheep when I say I´m from New Zealand. They´re often surprised when I say that we have cities too! Sheep have become my personal NZ symbol, they´ve missed out a bit on becoming big icons like Vegemite or the Edmonds cook book. Well, I'm not surprised really (they are a bit dumb).15

Sheep become a motif within the larger progression of Walker's work, subject to the same processes. The early sheep are glued to their bases, as if being slowly swallowed up by the muddy earth. It is hard not to read these as dead sheep, especially when Walker coats them with red paint or glue, like blood.

Construction and model making – the source of Walker's materials, and a key part of her process in the mid 1990s – is represented here, too, with Walker creating her own idiosyncratic version of the farmyard. A sheep, bound in wire, moves towards bundles of hay in one tableau, while in another a wooden truck trundles towards the stockyard, the sheep lined up in neat rows in the back. And unsurprisingly the sheep are also made from, and in one case wrapped in, fabric, as Walker's jewellery embraces textiles and the wider realm of domestic crafts.

The diversity of material and process is matched in a sense by Walker's diverse attitudes to the sheep as a symbol. In 1997 she wrote:

If the metal brooch had been plastic I couldn´t have broken the sheep‘s legs like that, so you could say the nature of the material dictated how it turned out.

This is a witty statement, hiding a huge amount of cultural ferocity behind the pretence of a modernist interest in formal issues of material and process. While it is true that Walker couldn't have made the brooch in the same way if it were plastic, she is also aware of what is not addressed here – what it means to break the legs of something as innocent as a sheep. This statement is made about the same work that Walker describes in 1998 as ‘a cast silver sheep with kaput legs, made at a time when I wanted nothing to do with casting or metal'. So much can change in a year – the intentionality and agency of a deliberate attack on the sheep's legs becomes the much more innocuous ‘kaput', which carefully avoids ascribing agency.

Walker's statement that the brooch was made during a period when she did not want to work in metal locates the sheep within a deeply ambivalent practice for her in the period directly after her move to Germany. The sheep are a response to an involuntary identification with her home country that Walker both loves and detests. Germans mention sheep when Walker tells of her place of origin; and so sheep become her personal symbol, desirable because, as she writes, they do not have the status of a bonafide symbol of national identity back home. Sheep are an in-between sign, forced on her by her particular circumstances and thus not part of a decision on her part to keep working with overt symbols of identity. Yet this acceptance is not without its own turmoil, as the jeweller finds herself in certain ways more typecast as a contemporary jeweller from Aotearoa when she has finally left home. Thus, alongside the obligation to be a dutiful New Zealand jewellery daughter, Walker feels a parallel need to be mean to the sheep.

While the sheep plays an important role for Walker as an ambivalent symbol of her own cultural situation and the tensions of being a New Zealand jeweller in Europe, this animal has been elevated from humble to horror, attaining iconic status as the visible manifestation of cloning, and the threat of scientific manipulation out of control. According to W.J.T. Mitchell:

The clone signifies the potential for the creation of new images in our time – new images that fulfil the ancient dream of creating a ‘living image', a replica or copy that is not merely a mechanical duplicate but an organic, biologically viable simulacrum of a living organism. The clone renders the disavowal of living images impossible by turning the concept of animated icon on its head. Now we see that it is not merely a case of some images that seem to come alive, but that living things themselves were always already living images in one form or another. We register this fact every time we say something like ‘She is the image of her mother', or remark on the link between the very idea of species and the specular image. With the clone, these commonplaces take on a new resonance, a classic instance of what Freud called the Uncanny, the moment when the most ordinary forms of disavowed superstition (monsters in the closet, toys coming alive) come back as undeniable truths.16

Lisa Walker Brooch 1999 plastic, silver, steel-wire 90 x 50 mm

Animated by the belief that images can somehow live – a superstition that Mitchell says we like to relegate to primitive cultures, but which lingers on in the ways we discuss images, and treat them – Walker's sheep are exact in the same creepy way that clones are. And while she might lop off their heads in an attempt to exorcise their hold over her identity as a jeweller from Aotearoa, the sheep remains standing, alive despite its maimed condition. Alive, when it should, by rights, be dead.

Why, asks Mitchell, did sheep become the global icon of cloning when they were not the first animals to be successfully cloned? Mitchell writes:

The answer may lie partly in the preexisting symbolic connotations of the sheep as a figure of pastoral care, harmlessness, innocence, sacrifice, and (more ominously) of masses led by authoritarian elites – sheep to the slaughter. To some eyes, the seemingly benign image of the cloned sheep is no less a horror than the catastrophic image of terrorist destruction. The creation of an image can be just as deep an abomination as its destruction, and in each case there is a kind of paradoxical ‘creative destruction' at work. The clone, to some people, represents the destruction of the natural order, and reminds us of the innumerable myths that treat the creation of artificial life as the violation of fundamental taboos. From the story of the Golem to Frankenstein to the cyborgs of contemporary science fiction, the artificial life-form is treated as a monstrous violation of natural law.17

Walker's jewellery trades in similar visual tropes: the sheep unnaturally fused with a branch, like monstrous fruit which parody the role of the sheep as the wealth of Aotearoa, on whose backs our society has been built, and from which we are sustained. And, in the modern world where climate change threatens us in a new form of bioterrorism, this time waged by nature herself in retaliation for our gross violation of the earth's resources, the sheep is a sinister sign of how unsustainable our lifestyles really are. Here's a horror story told by a recent Vanity Fair (May 2007):

Done with your call, you go to the closet and slip on some wool trousers, which come courtesy of vast herds of sheep belching and farting methane – a greenhouse gas that's 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. New Zealand, where there are about 10 sheep for every person, is one of the world's greatest mammalian-methane emitters.

Add in the spectre of food miles, and its possible effect on the export and consumption of New Zealand lamb overseas, and it is clear that the innocence of the sheep is now a thing of the past. Walker's piles of sheep congealed in a sticky field of glue and sticks read like dire scenes from the future, in which, literally lambs to the slaughter, the sheep are rounded up and burnt to death.

Still from Black Sheep , directed by Jonathan King, 2006

Of course, they might not stay that way. As Vanity Fair notes, there are a lot more sheep than people in Aotearoa, and what if the sheep decide to get organised? Mix in the threat of biotechnology identified by Mitchell, and you have the plot of Black Sheep , a horror movie directed by Jonathan King in 2006. One brilliant shot in the movie features a sheep slowly moving down the hall of a typical New Zealand villa farmhouse. This is a scene that taps into a rich vein of the gothic in Aotearoa, playing with the tensions that animate our domestic situations. As Misha Kavka writes, ‘When nature (re)enters the new-world house, as mud or animals or a sudden chill, then the mundane space of domesticity is haunted by the ghosts of settlement.'18 The sheep is here the messenger of repressed colonial history, something familiar made unfamiliar as its stalks the corridor in search of the settlers.

Warwick Freeman: Tooth and nail

Warwick Freeman White ghost 2003 corian® 63 x 50 mm

Warwick Freeman's recent work might be presented as illustrations of the fears that settlers hold regarding the land, and their relationship to nature. Dead Set I (2003) is an excellent example – the fangs and claws, feet and wings of various animals neatly capped in silver and arranged in an artistic circle on the wall of the gallery. In the tradition of the amulet, Dead Set proclaims a triumph over nature, taking the sting out of nature's ability to bite back. But, like all amulets, it also evokes the thing it seeks to dispel. Looking at Dead Set is to see the aggressive power of nature – to confront the weapons with which even the most seemingly innocent animal is endowed. It is, in other words, less a reassuring exercise than a reminder that nature is dangerous.

We might also take note of the Ghost brooches – a series of found stones that Freeman has re-carved in plastic. As the title suggests, these are spooky forms, like faces and spectral figures that lurk unnoticed in the landscape, just waiting to be summoned forth. These might be the ghosts that haunt the settler, who cannot occupy the landscape with anything other than uncertainty. This is the white ghost, a mark of the gothic potential of the landscape of Aotearoa.

While ghosts are a general sign of the repressed refusing to stay dead, for Freeman the Ghost brooches mark a specific anxiety, which is the particular pressures of culture in Aotearoa, and the contested history of cross-cultural transactions between Mäori and Päkehä.

It is no accident that Dead Set I is deeply involved with the cap – a jewellery device that, along with the claw, belongs to the 19 th century, and is therefore a significant mark of the colonial project. Caps and claws were used to frame the spoils of colonialism – the greenstone of Mäori material culture, or the beaks of native birds – which could then be hung from a gold or silver chain on the waistcoat of the wealthy settler gentleman. The cap and claw are useful signs for contemporary jewellers – they activate a specific tradition of making which is a powerful expression of colonial or settler attitudes to the land; and they can work like technical speech marks, providing a way to talk about complex cultural attitudes and interaction.

Warwick Freeman Tiki face 1992 jasper, greenstone, oxidised silver, gold 55 x 55 mm

Freeman's most important work that engages with the claw is Tiki Face (1992). Julie Ewington writes of this brooch that:

It defies identification at the same time as it invites it. This face is not naturalistic, but is highly stylised through two sets of cultural references: the original source in magnificent Maori hei-tiki, greenstone pendants of ancestral beings, and a second source in European jewellery traditions which mounted the curiosities of other cultures as precious trophies in golden claws. Here the European cultural practices of New Zealand frame a Maori artefact, quite deliberately and self-consciously.19

The point is made clearly by the claws: this is not a hei tiki, but a representation of one, an image. Or to be even more precise, this is a representation of a settler representation of Mäori material culture. And so the brooch enters a larger debate about the history and value of such representations.

Ewington suggesting that Tiki Face :

alerts us to the uneasy relations between the races, a relationship of historical inequality which permitted a tradition of racist colonial imagery. Close to the edge, inescapably in your face, Tiki Face is not, after all, an image of identity for either Maori or Pakeha but a signal of the struggles engaging both.20

I'm not sure about this. While Freeman's emphasis on the image grants him access to discourses of representation, and therefore the chance to comment on appropriation rather than just practice it, I think Ewington's comment ignores how one-sided the discourse Freeman negotiates really is. How does Tiki Face signal the struggles of Mäori?

In 1998 Freeman gave a talk in Australia called ‘The Novelty of Our Own Situation', which tackles the question of appropriation head-on. In the published version of this talk, Freeman writes:

New Zealand is bicultural. Australians might tend to regard biculturalism as a contracted form of multiculturalism – a stage of development towards multiculturalism. It isn't. Biculturalism is about engagement between two cultures – Maori and Pakeha . . . It is not just an acknowledgment of the differences, or the need for separate development when necessary, but also calls for active exchange between the cultures. Art is a fundamental participant in this engagement. It functions well in the so-called ‘negotiated space', the space between two cultures. It is not just a space for artists with mixed blood. If Pakeha don't inhabit this space too, the negotiation doesn't occur.21

My question is: how do the discourses of representation that Freeman engages with make any space for Mäori? What is the nature of the negotiation when Freeman's jewellery restricts itself to the discourse of colonial spoils – the myriad instances of other cultures's curiosities mounted like trophies in golden claws? Ultimately, these discourses have nothing to do with hei tiki and Mäori cultural practices, which will not be represented as anything other than stereotypes within European colonial discourses. All that's available here are the spectres and ghosts of Mäori culture. To know they are shadows, the imaginings of a culture trying to forge a new identity, to have their reality as constructions pointed out, is still to get no closer to an active exchange between Mäori and Päkehä. Representation is a closed circuit, in this sense, not a conduit to exchange.

In a recent series titled Carve , Freeman has found a means to make work that operates as Päkehä emblems of self, but which doesn't rely on cultural appropriation to do their work. They are, we might say, free of the claw. Take, for example, Maori Ring (2004). The origins of Maori Ring are in fact in Germany, in a jade stone with a circular hole cut through it, that was purchased from a Munich antique shop by a friend of Freeman's and sent to him in Aotearoa. The stone was labelled as ‘Maori Ring, collected early 20th Century'.

This is, on one level, a fake, since there is no evidence that Mäori made finger rings. But it is an interesting fake in its appeal to ethnography – the collector/anthropologist in the field, bringing home cultural treasures – and the art market – requiring the guarantee of authenticity and the sense of the exotic that will entice the buyer. It is this mis-recognition, this mis-labelling, whether malicious or honestly mistaken, that makes this humble object a sign of a shared history, of the complex flow of objects across cultures and through different knowledge systems.

As much as Tiki Face , this carving, titled Maori Ring by Freeman in honour of its found history, is an exploration of cultural struggle, but it does not require cultural appropriation of Mäori material culture in order to do its work. Julie Ewington writes of Tiki Face , ‘Here the European cultural practices of New Zealand frame a Maori artefact, quite deliberately and self-consciously.'22 The same is true of Maori Ring , but when Freeman remakes it, he avoids giving offence to Mäori – he avoids colonizing a symbol with other potent meanings in order to construct signs with meaning for his particular practice and the audience who supports it. Because Maori Ring is actually a blank cipher – the attribution leads nowhere – the object casts light on the frame of knowledge and history that has brought it into being. Freeman articulates the complexities of culture and objects, but he does not trample of any cultural sensitivities to do so. Maori Ring is, paradoxically, a Päkehä ring in the most interesting sense.

What Freeman has achieved is perhaps best represented in the Souvenir Necklaces. These necklaces are an example of whittling, Freeman paring back pieces of wood until he has produced a pleasing shape. Whittling is what might come closest to being termed an ancient Päkehä practice, but it is meaningful because of Mäori carving. It isn't, though, an instance of Mäori carving itself. In the peculiar pressures of Aotearoa, the Päkehä practice evokes its other, gathers force because of this relationship, while all the time maintaining its own clear identity as a practice.

The Souvenir Necklaces are firmly grounded in a Päkehä conceptual and process space, without relinquishing any of their sharpness in negotiating the culture. The objects evoke Mäori, thereby speaking of the relationship that is a critical part of Päkehä identity, but they do not appropriate Mäori signs. The weird ebbs and flows of culture, the unique factors of this cultural context are made central, but without recourse to the old practices of settler society – appropriation, say, or the adorning of the settler self in signs of the dispossessed indigenous culture.

Jason Hall: 1839 Exchanges

Which brings us in conclusion to 1839 Exchanges: Jewellery by Jason Hall . This exhibition is a kind of jewellery sequel, extending Hall's investigation of the relationship between contemporary jewellery, identity and the historical responsibilities of Päkehä first explored in Jason Hall: Ornaments for the Päkehä (2004).23Ornaments looked at the way in which jewellery has been crucial in the articulation of a post-war Päkehä identity. Asking what might be appropriate ‘ornaments for the Päkehä', a settler ethnicity deeply implicated in colonialism and the oppression of Mäori, the exhibition was both an argument about craft history, and a larger discussion of the instabilities that affect settler populations in countries like Aotearoa.

1839 Exchanges develops the argument by travelling back in time. One of the difficulties for contemporary Päkehä identity is the unequal exchange between Päkehä and Mäori, in which Päkehä control all the resources and institutions of power. This hasn't always been the case, and if we look back to earlier moments of colonisation we find situations in which cross-cultural contact and exchange was not necessarily tied to exploitation. 1839, the year before Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi) was signed between Mäori and the British Crown, is a period when relations between Mäori and Päkehä were radically different. Mäori outnumbered Päkehä, who needed to engage with Mäori cultural, social, political and technological structures to survive in a new land. The title also points to the multitude of exchanges between Mäori and Päkehä, which were conceptually different to present day interactions: Mäori, who were early adaptors of European technologies and economics, exchanged from a position of strength. Päkehä adapted to Mäori culture and politics from a position of necessity.

Jason Hall Boundary 2007 pine, whitewash, polyurethane, pigment, charcoal 2400 x 120 x 30 mm

Yet our encounter with such an historical moment is necessarily affected by the present. We live, so Jason Hall's work makes clear, under the shadow of the fence line. Boundary (2007) invokes the reality of being Päkehä in Aotearoa. We know that there are cultural boundaries that cannot be breached – to do so is to be guilty of appropriation, of causing offence. Hence the power of Hall's work with gates and pickets, reinterpreted for this exhibition. Hall's work is powerful because it recognises that borders can be tricky – false signs of commonality that in fact mark irrevocable difference.

1839 Exchanges is predicated on the awareness that we cannot escape the fence line, the boundary line, and indeed that we don't want to do so. The truth of the fence line is what powers an engagement with being Päkehä. Since 2003 Hall has been working with the picket, a ubiquitous sign of Päkehä or settler culture. There have been three versions of the pickets – Home , in which the pickets are carved from bone on a brooch scale; Stake , in which Hall made actual-sized pickets in pine; and Boundary , first exhibited in this exhibition.

Oversized, the pickets of Boundary loom over the viewer. The three colours of white, red and black make reference to the classic colours of Mäori köwhaiwhai patterns, curvilinear designs painted on the heke, rafters of whare whakairo, meetinghouses. This enforces the visual similarity between Hall's work with pickets and the palisades that surrounded pä, fighting villages, and were intended to repel attackers.

Yet Hall's colours have a particular resonance within local histories of colonialism. Whitewash is an obvious reference, its main ingredient, lime, a quickening agent that speeds up decomposition – hence its use in the mass graves of genocide. Red pigment set in polyurethane is like blood, the pickets coated in repeated layers that congeals and pools over the surface of the pine. And black, achieved by actually setting the pickets on fire, has resonance on many levels: the fires of destruction that colonialism set in play; clearing the land for cultivation through burn-offs; the ashes of history and the past.

1839 Exchanges draws some of its power from the cultural phenomenon of the Päkehä Mäori, a group of European men and women who came to Aotearoa and adopted Mäori tribal life. As Trevor Bentley writes:

Pakeha Maori were the foreigners who became part of the tribe and were treated by Maori as Maori. Some were kept as exotic curiosities or trading intermediaries. Others were designated traditional roles as slaves, artisans and fighting men. A handful became white chiefs and priests.24

According to Bentley, the Päkehä Mäori of the early 19 th century never fit easily into categories of class or race, and they have suffered in a kind of historical ‘no-man's land' ever since. As Bentley writes:

They are portrayed in the primary and secondary literature as unsavoury, promiscuous characters, overfond of alcohol and violence. Yet close scrutiny of the contemporary evidence reveals a unique class of men (and women) possessed of the knowledge, skills and courage necessary to prosper among a warrior society rent by intertribal gun warfare. Missionaries, temporary visitors and early settlers cast them as renegades, outcasts and outlanders while hiring them as guides, interpreters and bartering agents. Colonial governors and their officials considered them troublemakers, obstacles to progress but employed them as ships' pilots, military scouts and mediators between the tribes and government.25

Päkehä Mäori provide a framework through which the complex period of the early 19 th century can be organised, and 1839 Exchanges focuses on the life and writings of F.E. Maning, the most famous of the Päkehä Mäori, using his story as a vehicle through which to tackle the questions of exchange, power and identity that are at the heart of this project. In this sense, 1839 Exchanges is ‘ornaments for Maning, and for the Päkehä Mäori'.

The heart of the show is a series of amulets created for Maning, an Irishman who arrived in Aotearoa in 1833 and became a trader. Advising Mäori not to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, and generally antagonistic to the colonial authorities, Maning later became a Mäori Land Court judge in the 1860s, and a member of the European colonial gentry. Maning is fascinating because in the 1860s, the period when he wrote his famous account of early colonisation titled Old New Zealand: a tale of the good old times , he had become increasingly alienated from Mäori and their struggles to resist Päkehä settlement. Old New Zealand is as much an attempt to distance Maning from his past as it is an account of the early days of Päkehä Mäori contact. Maning writes as a Päkehä aspiring to leave his past behind him, increasingly contemptuous of the people and events he discusses in the book.

It is no surprise, then, that contemporary writers find this aspect of Maning's life the most difficult to deal with. It tends to be skipped over, ignored, explained away as a kind of later fall from grace that doesn't deserve as much attention as Maning's earlier identity. Päkehä find this aspect of Maning difficult because it points to the inherent racism and oppression of the colonial experience. Rather than being pregnant with possibility for a kind of bicultural and cross-cultural identity, this period represents the refusal to engage and the strong possibility that such cultural communication can't and won't be achieved – that colonisation cannot be escaped.

1839 Exchanges takes the amulet as a jewellery touchstone. Most cultures have made use of the amulet, in which some part of that which is feared (a tooth or claw, for example) is strung up and worn in order to ward off the object of fear. Colonial jewellery in Aotearoa had a strong tradition in which examples of Mäori material culture were set in silver and gold claws and caps, and then pinned to clothes as brooches or hung on chains from gentlemen's waistcoats. While this jewellery was concerned with finding ways to create a local identity for the settlers who wore it, there is also a strong sense of the amulet. These adornments are a mark of the success of the colonial project and a sign of fear – the tension that sits at the heart of settler societies around the question of native and indigenous, and how settlers might construct a convincing claim of belonging to a land they have stolen. In 1839 Exchanges the claw and cap are also a sign of the fence line or boundary, and the border that cannot be escaped and which necessarily regulates contact between cultures and identities.

Jason Hall Turning the table 2007 stained bone, silver 50 mm (tallest)

Central to the work of 1839 Exchanges are the turned bone pendants that Hall calls Turning the Table (2007). Imagine Maning as he sits at his table, writing Old New Zealand . These turned bone pendants are amulets, warding off strange and unspoken fears as he returns to the past and attempts to distance himself from it. But what amulets are these, representing as they do Victorian table legs, and thus the very culture that Maning strives to become part of?

These pendants are the baggage that Maning brought with him to Aotearoa in 1833, the furniture of his mind. They make light of the fear that a well-turned table leg could engender in Victorian society, requiring table clothes and coverings. They make reference to hospitality, to food, to the dynamics of early colonial history when Mäori fed Päkehä and helped them survive in a strange land. (Some of them are stained with brandy and kumara peelings, both items that were traded across cultures.) And finally they make something of the idea of turning the tables, which is what Maning did in Old New Zealand , a gamble to leave behind his porous past in favour of an identity that upholds irrevocable difference.

Maning, it seems, gets the last word on what his past represents. Chained and diminished, these teeth-like forms that are the identifiers of a rich moment of historical possibility that ultimately became tame decorations for the victorious Päkehä and his waistcoat. But this may not necessarily be true. Linda Hardy has proposed a ‘settler poetics of colonisation' which she calls the concept of Natural Occupancy. As interpreted by Misha Kavka, Natural Occupancy:

refers to a set of stories – about shipwrecks and Natives, cook-outs and golden weather, even a piano sinking to the bottom of the ‘deep, deep sea' – all of which willingly ‘surrender the furnishings of a culture both European and bourgeois [in order] to come into the sensuality of a ‘natural occupancy' of the new land'. . . . In such fictions, the workings of colonial power are displaced onto a right of ‘natural occupancy'; the prior history of the land, never adequately articulated, is buried alongside the settlers' own European bourgeois history, now seen as deficient because it's unnatural, over-civilised.

In the mythos of Natural Occupancy we can identify the fear that these amulets represent. The settler must not only overcome the native in order to take possession of the land, but they must bury the evidence of their own origins in Europe. This ‘furniture of the mind' is sunk at the bottom of the ocean, as the film The Piano famously suggests, or interred in the soil like corpses that no longer have life in the stories that settlers desire to tell each other. But if the gothic has taught us anything, it is that the dead don't always stay buried.

Imagine Maning, then, sitting at his desk in a warm study, writing his yarn of the old days in a desperate attempt to reinvent himself as a settler native. Will these amulets be enough to ward off the shadows and spectres that lurk in the darkness beyond the lamp's glow?


1 Germaine Greer, Whitefella Jump Up: The shortest way to nationhood . London: Profile Books, 2004, p.5.

2 Greer, pp.10-11.

3 Greer, p.11.

4 Greer, p.12.

5 Ian Wedde, interviewed by Laurence Simmons, in Laurence Simmons (ed.), Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand . Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007, pp.214-215.

6 Trevor Mallard, quoted in Ani Mikaere, Are We All New Zealanders Now? A Mäori Response to the Päkehä Quest for Indigeneity . Bruce Jesson Memorial Lecture 2004. Accessed 8 July 2007.

7 Ani Mikaere, Are We All New Zealanders Now? A Mäori Response to the Päkehä Quest for Indigeneity . Bruce Jesson Memorial Lecture 2004. Accessed 8 July 2007.

8 Catherine Spooner, Contemporary Gothic . London: Reaktion Books, 2006, pp.8-9.

9 Spooner, pp.18-19.

10 Misha Kavka, ‘Out of the kitchen sink', in NZ Gothic , p.57.

11 This section of the talk is an edited excerpt from Damian Skinner, Metaphysical Heart: Jewellery by Peter McKay . Auckland: Rim Books, 2007.

12 Jennifer Lawn, ‘Warping the familiar', in Misha Kavka, Jennifer Lawn and Mary Paul (eds.), Gothic NZ: The darker side of Kiwi culture . Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2006, p.15.

13 Lawn, p.15.

14 McKay, unpaginated.

15 Lisa Walker, in Lisa Walker . Munich: Lisa Walker, 2002, unpaginated. All quotes, unless otherwise stated, are from this publication.

16 W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The lives and loves of images . Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006, pp.12-13.

17 Mitchell, pp.15-16.

18 Misha Kavka, ‘Out of the kitchen sink', in Misha Kavka, Jennifer Lawn and Mary Paul (ed.), Gothic NZ: The darker side of Kiwi culture . Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2006, p.60.

19 Julie Ewington, Owner's Manual . Auckland: Starform, 1995, unpaginated.

20 Ewington, unpaginated.

21 Warwick Freeman, ‘The novelty of our own situation', in Given: Jewellery by Warwick Freeman . Auckland: Starform, 2004, p.72.

22 Ewington, unpaginated.

23 For more information see Damian Skinner, Jason Hall: Ornaments for the Päkehä . Porirua: Pataka, 2004.

24 Trevor Bentley, Pakeha Maori: the extraordinary story of the Europeans who lived their lives as Maori in early New Zealand . Auckland: Penguin, 1999, p.9.

25 Bentley, p.10.

26 Kavka, pp.58-59.


Last modified 31-Oct-2007

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Craft Victoria.