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Borderland: The world of James Cowan

Borderland: The world of James Cowan

Exhibition at the Turnbull Gallery, National Library Wellington, cnr Molesworth and Aitken Sts, 17 February – 26 April 2014

A new exhibition in the Turnbull Gallery showcases newly acquired papers and photos from the writer whose work inspired Geoff Murphy's acclaimed 1983 film, Utu.

James Cowan (1870-1943) grew up on a farm in the Waikato, on land confiscated from Māori who had fought against the Crown in the Waikato War of the 1860s. The farm included part of the famous battlefield of Ōrākau, just north of the region that remained in Māori control after the war – the King Country. The exhibition coincides with the 150th anniversary of Ōrākau.

The exhibition’s curator, Ariana Tikao also has a family connection to Cowan: “My personal interest in James Cowan began with the book he wrote based on interviews with my great-grandfather, Hone Taare Tikao, called Māori Folk-tales of the Port Hills” said Tikao.

Cowan wrote prolifically about many areas of New Zealand cultural life and was one of New Zealand’s most widely-read authors in the first half of the twentieth century. His story A Bush Court-Martial inspired the Geoff Murphy epic 1983 film Utu which recently had a re-release as Utu redux. Tikao sees the potential for many more new works being created, based on Cowan’s substantial output.

“Although some of his wording can appear outdated now, much of his writing is still highly readable, and the level of detail he wrote based on oral accounts is quite a feature of his writing, ” said Tikao. “Before I worked on the exhibition, I created and recorded a new waiata based on Māori lyrics I had found in Māori Folk-tales of the Port Hills”.

There is an events programme to accompany the exhibition as well as a one-day symposium co-hosted by the Alexander Turnbull Library and the Centre for Colonial Studies, Otago University on 21 February, at the National Library in Wellington.

Information about the symposium: Cultural Go-Between, Colonial Man: New Perspectives on James Cowan:

Link to exhibition webpage and other associated events:


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