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Rare Māori portraits on display for the first time

Rare Māori portraits on display for the first time

For the first time since their creation 160 years ago, 22 fragile watercolour portraits of Māori will be displayed as a set in the newly-revamped National Library’s Turnbull Gallery in Wellington.

Mystery surrounds artist Isaac Coates’ Head and Shoulders: Portraits of Māori (1808-1878), but fragments of information about their creation suggest a fascinating series of encounters between the artist and his subjects, according to Alexander Turnbull Library Māori Curator Paul Diamond.

“The people painted by Coates were living through a time of fundamental transformation, as the Māori and European worlds bumped up against each other. You can see this in the portrait of Pikiwati, who has a partially tattooed face, drawn in exquisite detail, but is also wearing European dress: a blue jacket and neck scarf.”

Handwritten notes below the portraits record the turmoil and rapid change characterising these peoples’ lives. Some of these comments refer to the ‘Wairau Affray’ on 17 June 1843, a confrontation sparked by a land dispute in which 22 Pākehā and at least four Māori died.

“It may seem incongruous that these fine portraits should emerge from a time of tense relationships between Māori and Pākehā. A closer look at what happened to Coates after he left New Zealand gives some clues,” suggests Paul Diamond.

In 1845 Coates abandoned Nelson for Adelaide, where he chaired the New Zealand Club, which was made up of colonists who saw themselves as involuntary exiles from this country, saddened by the ‘ignorance and cupidity of an ill-directed’ New Zealand Company and the government’s ‘infernal administration’.

“Are these portraits a poignant record of a colonist’s dream turned sour?” Paul Diamond asks. “Head and shoulders: Portraits of Māori gives visitors a very special chance to come face-to-face with these beautiful, compelling likenesses of the people of mana who fascinated Isaac Coates over 160 years ago.

The exhibition takes place in the Turnbull Gallery, on the first floor of the Molesworth Street National Library, from January 21 to March 16. Entry is free.

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