Academic journal article Oceania

Marae Artworks and the Reproduction of Maori Ethnicity

Academic journal article Oceania

Marae Artworks and the Reproduction of Maori Ethnicity

Article excerpt


The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand and a rapidly increasing proportion of the national population, comprising 12-15% of the total depending on who is counted as a Maori. The increase is due primarily to a birthrate which is higher than a high mortality rate, but also due to the success of ethnic politics in the Maori Renaissance which began in the late 1960s. While many previously assimilated Maori are identifying with Maori culture, liberal Pakeha ('Europeans' or white New Zealanders), pressed or at least awakened by the Renaissance, are accommodating or even encouraging it. However, the social and cultural situation is riven with contradictions and often with conflict (Webster 1993).

A marae is traditionally an open space for Maori gatherings and ceremonials. Marae are usually associated with a meeting house which is often decorated with wood carvings (whakairo), woven panels (tukutuku), and paintings (kowhaiwhai and other forms). Marae are also traditionally associated with particular ancestral locations and hapuu, kin groups. Urban marae with no such established affiliations became common after World War II, and since about 1970 various 'Pakeha' institutions and especially educational institutions began to construct marae. Most universities in New Zealand now have a marae or some symbolically equivalent place for Maori students. Since 1976, Maori students have increased from about 2% to about 8% of The University of Auckland enrolment.

Plans to build a marae as part of the University had been proposed earlier but began to take persistent shape in 1976. Twelve years later after much delay and confrontation, Tane-nui-a-Rangi - one of the most spectacular whare whakairo (carved meetinghouse) in the country - was finally opened formally in 1988. By this time an expanding Maori Studies was housed in the new academic wing of the marae, led by a new Professor and Chair and, riding the crest of the Maori Renaissance and their new political influence, soon to become an independent University department (Webster 1989). Although the twelve years of struggle were by then already forgotten by many, they were a microcosm of more general developments in the University, the Maori Renaissance, and New Zealand society which merit remembrance and study.

In this essay, I want to (i) document the specific history of this marae and especially of the meetinghouse and its decoration, treating the whole marae complex as 'artworks'; (ii) examine the particular ways in which a struggle for control over the definition of authentic Maori culture emerged in this context; and (iii) trace the background of this struggle over meaning in a wider and less visible struggle to control the production and work processes and thus the values and opportunities arising from them.

I have drawn upon a well-known thesis of Walter Benjamin's as well as theoretical issues in contemporary political economic anthropology (e.g., Roseberry 1989). In addition to reclaiming a specific history liable to become obscured, I think that the example of artworks clarifies the often ideological role of the notion of culture in ethnic political movements, and that a focus upon work and production goes to the root of the problem of authentic or essential meanings of a culture. I also want to suggest that the reproduction of ethnicity in contemporary contexts happens somewhat like class consciousness happens, poised between an inert and often ideological consciousness of culture in itself and a more potentially historical consciousness of culture for itself. Until some such transition is truly made, ethnic movements 'do not fight their enemies, but the enemies of their enemies... every victory so obtained is a victory for the bourgeoisie' (Marx 1977:214,228).

Following Benjamin, I want first to evoke the particular situation of the University marae. Although it is in most ways unique, certain key features can be extended more generally to other marae in New Zealand and to Maori culture in general. …

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