Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

A Second Reflection: Presence and Opposition in Contemporary Maori Art

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

A Second Reflection: Presence and Opposition in Contemporary Maori Art

Article excerpt

Contradiction and context

In an important essay on Maori art, Michael Jackson interpreted one of the classic forms of carving in terms informed by the Levi-Straussian thesis that tensions and contradictions in social life 'tend towards their resolution' in myth and art (1972: 35). He suggested that pare, the elaborate lintels which generally combined human figures, the lizard-like manaia, and the double spirals that make Maori carving instantly recognizable, displayed a threefold structure. This form expressed a logic by which opposed or differentiated elements could be synthesized or unified through a third term. The upraised arms of the human figures, which in some cases seem to strain against a superior plane, themselves suggested the well-known myth of genesis in which the male sky (Rangi) was locked in embrace with the female earth (Papa), stifling their six sons, until one, Tane, succeeded in pushing them apart, opening up the world of light and creating the precondition both for his own subsequent exploits and for human life in general (Jackson 1972: 47-48) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].(1) The artefact would seem not only to recapitulate the myth, but to augment and particularize its meanings in the patently liminal space of a house's threshold.

From the perspective of a poststructural anthropology, the strength of both Levi-Strauss's original formulation and Jackson's application of it might lie not so much in the seductive analysis of oppositions and their resolution, but in the dynamism signalled by the point that the workings of myths and art forms 'tend towards' the resolution of contradictions. This is not to say that the contradictions are resolved; Jackson noted that the relationships he sought to identify were not static but 'dynamic and emotionally powerful, the results of continuous stresses to which man as a social person is put, of the intellectual contradictions which all human life creates' (1972: 72). The stresses here posoited are, as for Levi-Strauss, universal, and it might be objected that the tensions and contradictions that frequently preoccupy artists arise from cultural and historical particulars, rather than from predicaments of life or sociality as such. For a people such as the Maori experiencing colonization, dynamism does not derive so much from 'continuous' stresses as from radical changes, impositions and innovations: land is expropriated, new exchange relations emerge, new forms of violence are confronted, and messianic resistance emerges. Levi-Strauss claimed that the artist's 'genius consists in uniting internal and external knowledge, a "being" and a "becoming"' (1962: 25), and this is suggestive for colonial circumstances. The process linking becoming and being can be understood as one of explication, as a production of explicit oppositions out of implicit tensions; what has been revealed can be reflected upon and transformed. Art may therefore be understood not merely to mediate or ameliorate problematic relations that already exist, but as an effort that presents and produces what is problematic.

This essay deals not with traditional Maori carving but with the recent work of one Maori artist which appears at least superficially to belong more to an internationalized contemporary style than a Polynesian tradition. Robert Jahnke's art is concerned above all with contradictions in colonial relationships, but apparently entails no dynamic of synthesis or resolution. The assemblages I discuss in detail below can be seen, rather, to insist that an opposition possesses an irreducibly contradictory character; complementarity creates no reassuring sense of balance or coherence, but an unsettling condition of tension. This condition appears permanent rather than temporary, and necessary rather than contingent, yet its formulation in these terms does not so much reinforce a deadening sense of inevitability, as empower a subversive and trans-formative historical imagination. …

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