Taking tikanga to the world - a personal view
Updated: Jun 1, 2020
By Alan Clarke, Saligia Art Gallery
The above painting by my partner Nikki Romney, Taking Tikanga to the World, has provoked an extreme response over the past week.
There has been a torrent of hateful commentary online, abusive phonecalls and threatening visits to our gallery, which we have closed in the meantime as a result.
Much of the accusations against Saligia Art Gallery and Nikki Romney in particular have been made out of incorrect assumptions treated as if truth. They have been not only hurtful but also incite hatred, violence and other criminal acts - and I find it extraordinary that social media allows, even seems to encourage, the publication of such commentary without restraint in public and influential forums.
We don't usually comment on our artworks, Nikki preferring to let her paintings speak for themselves, but in this case I want to respond to some of the wilder accusations.
Probably makes no difference, people see what they want to see, but here goes.
I'm not racist. I loathe racism and sexism above all else. I would not be with someone who had either of these abhorrent non-qualities.
Apart from being born in Aotearoa, I was not born into an atmosphere of privilege at all. My main male role model from my mid-teens on was a lovely Maori man who became my father-in-law. I loved him dearly, and he was very influential - a genuinely humble man, a great husband, father and provider, and wise. Some of his stories about life as a young Maori man in Southland were heart-breaking.
The intent of Taking Tikanga to the World was not to abuse cultural appropriation but to comment on a topical issue ... the digital moko app produced by the Maori University, which has sparked a rift over its appropriateness. The structure of the painting says that quite clearly: A wise kuia with legitimate tā moko above. In the foreground, a global group of young women taking selfies of their fake designer moko, thinking they look very cool but oblivious to the true meaning of the moko, the traditions and the wisdom represented by the image of Ina te Papatahi. To me, she is frowning down on their fickleness and the selfie-culture of today.
Taken at face value the painting actually supports the views of its many detractors. I wonder how it might be viewed if it were created by my son or daughter - of Ngati Mamoe/Ngai Tahu descent. If the issue is solely about the race of the artist, then that is deplorable, in my opinion.
Nikki painted the backdrop to this work some 14 years ago. She had long admired the techniques of C F Goldie, and was granted special backroom access to this particular masterpiece, plus numerous other Goldies, at Christchurch Art Gallery. She copied the above portrait of Ina te Papatahi, painstakingly over three months, as a learning exercise. She regards Goldie as her primary teacher.
She received special treatment from the Gallery both because her interest was genuine and due to her acknowledged skill as an artist.
Nikki is accused of seeking to make money off Maori culture. As soon as the storm broke she removed this painting from the gallery. It was not her intent to offend. And if people think there is money in being an artist in today's environment, they are deluded! She paints not to make money but because it is what she needs to do. Some works sell, some she refuses to sell, all are precious to her.
She paints to express an opinion on issues she sees, and should be able to do so free of threats, harassment and bullying. It's truly not ok to threaten to assault someone, to burn down the premises they lease, shut down their business, or steal and/or destroy artwork. Much of her work has sought to take a stand against group thinking, control or abuse of women - and the reverse of that, to encourage individuality and freedom.
Cultural appropriation is an important issue. Plastic tiki made offshore and sold in our tourist shops ... artworks like the Mickey to Tiki series ... such forms of exploitation offend me also. Perhaps I'm biased, but I don't see Nikki's latest work in this category at all. However, many of her detractors do, which I also acknowledge.
We have had a number of tourists, Americans, Germans, Dutch, visit our gallery over the past year and proudly showing off their non-traditional Maori-style tattoos, received from tattooists in tourist areas. That was one inspiration for the painting, along with the app created by Te Wangana o Aotearoa.
The issue has been divisive and even members of my own whanau have expressed anger and sorrow about it in response to the online outrage. My final point is that I love and support Nikki and admire her creativity and skill as an artist. Neither I nor anyone else should try to exercise control or rein in the work of any creator, unless perhaps their work is deliberately being produced to incite hatred. That may have been the result of this work from those who chose not to understand it, but it was definitely not the intent.