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Jonathan Mane-Wheoki: Colonial Gothic to Māori Renaissance

Colonial Gothic to Māori Renaissance: Essays in Memory of Jonathan Mane-Wheoki

Jonathan Mane-Wheoki was an eminent New Zealand art historian, academic, and curator. The scope of his work was as far-ranging as its scale, ranging from the art and architectural history of Europe and Christianity to Maori and Pacific Island culture. Born in1943 of Ngapuhi, Te Aupouri, Ngati Kuri and English descent, he was a pioneer in the study of contemporary Māori and Pacific art history by means of the Indigenous Knowledges approaches that he both developed and promoted. As Deidre Brown notes in her introduction to this splendid collection of essays, he "saw art history as its own universe, an unbounded and expanding spatial entity … [and] understood that the close study of individual artists and their work, and their immediate social milieu, could be the basis for commentary on, and criticism of, larger movements within the global story of art."

Mane-Wheoki grew up in the Hokianga, but when his family moved to Titirangi in the 1950s, he came into contact with Colin McCahon, who became his first art teacher at the Auckland Art Gallery's night classes in the 1950s. He later studied at the University of Canterbury, where he completed an honours in painting (Rudolf Gopas was an important influence) and a degree in English Literature. At the Courtauld Institute of Art he gained a BA, an MA, and a Diploma of Fine Arts (again with honours in painting). It was not all plain sailing, however, as he made clear by recounting with some relish an early episode in London when he was patronised as a colonial:

"So you're from New Zealand? And what do you do in New Zealand?"
"I teach Art History"
Wide eyed astonishment.
"Is there any?"

Mane-Wheoki returned to the University of Canterbury in 1975, where he began his academic career and became Dean of Music and Fine Arts. His partner Paul Bushnell felt that Mane-Wheoki's devotion to research was about "the thrill of the chase … he loved the detective-like aspect of primary research, thumbing through documents, making connections, discovering stuff on the fly." During his long tenure teaching in Christchurch, he was also heavily involved in public affairs and community service, acting as a trustee, sitting on committees, and doing pro bono work for a plethora of local and national organizations. Although he once referred to the "mausoleum-like" Robert McDougall Art Gallery as "not for the living" and "a place to be avoided," for four decades he was a defender of New Zealand's European cultural heritage. Even when he became better known for his work on Māori art, he never ceased his advocacy of historical buildings in the face of threats from decay, demolition, and development.

During the 1990s Mane-Wheoki's growing interest in indigenous art was paralleled by a rediscovery of his Ngaphuhi heritage. As he became increasingly politicized, he launched severe bromides against "the old art history," commenting in one lecture that "Art History imposes constructs on the material culture of the Māori which, from a Māori point of view, are foreign, and symptomatic of a continuing drive to overpower, capture, contain and control information within a larger framework of knowledge." He became a highly articulate advocate of non-Western art, confessing that he used to think "Waterloo Bridge was the centre of the universe." Now he saw that "everywhere was the centre." His public presentations made an enormous impact on the world stage, challenging dominant Eurocentric assumptions by constantly drawing attention to the absence/presence of indigenous art. In his highly informative Introduction, co-editor Conal McCarthy describes how Mane-Wheoki "recalled the astonishment of his mostly white audience when he suggested that the traditional weaver Rangimarie Hetet was the most important living artist in the country. This success and notoriety was the launchpad for a new career as a much sought-after speaker at conferences in the Pacific, Australia, Asia, South Africa, and Europe."

In 2004 Mane-Wheoki became Director of Art and Collection services at Te Papa. In 2009 he was appointed Professor of Fine Arts and Head of the Elam School of Fine Arts, but stepped down in 2012, when he became an honorary research fellow at Te Papa and assumed the part-time role of Head of Arts and Visual Culture the following year. In 2008, he was awarded an honorary LittD by the University of Canterbury and received the Pou Aronui Award from the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2012 for outstanding contribution in the development of the humanities. In 2014 he was appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the arts. After the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, he supported the retention of Christchurch cathedral, arguing that the church was an integral part of the city's identity and its "heart." He was alarmed by the over-hasty post-earthquake destruction of so many heritage buildings by government authorities who "rode roughshod" over local wishes and fumed that so may buildings which added to the "character and charm" of the city were lost. A stern critic of the Anglican church's handling of the cathedral, he believed the building should be rebuilt following George Gilbert Scott's original vision for a wooden structure. He was also a pragmatist, however, and accepted the loss of some lesser buildings, hoping that the best of those erected in the new Christchurch would become the heritage of future generations.

Mane-Wheoki not only considered himself a teacher and academic, but also a public intellectual. As an openly gay Anglican, he was highly regarded as a positive role model in the LGBT community. Professor Geremy Hema stated, "for gay Māori and gay Anglicans his mere presence provides much inspiration. He was respected, adored and revered by all in the Māori, academic, ecclesiastical, and creative circles in which he and his partner Paul existed." After a long struggle with pancreatic cancer, he died in October 2014. Having recently visited the Hokianga to see where he would be buried, he was prepared to die: "I am relaxed about it, what else can I be?"

By all accounts Mane-Wheoki was a remarkable man whose breadth of scholarship was matched only by his personal charisma. His obituary in The Times included a typical anecdote. Having just moved into William Goodenough House, a University of London postgraduate hostel, he was invited for drinks by the warden, a military gent of the old school, who commented "Good to see some white faces for a change," to which he disarmingly responded "My great grandfather was a cannibal headhunter." One of Mane-Wheoki's many virtues was that he was generous with his time and a good listener. He would hear people out, dispense wise counsel regardless of their background or status, and was always ready to give people career breaks when he spotted their ability. In his own way, Jonathan was also quietly radical, but nonetheless capable of communicating with conservative National Cabinet Ministers such as Paul East and Chris Finlayson, opening their eyes and minds to the importance of Māori art and culture. Co-editor Mark Stocker, Te Papa's Curator of Historical and International Art, recalls a moment when they were presenting a new global art course and he requested “Mark, if I’m ever politically correct, please tell me!’

Victoria University Press has produced an extremely handsome Gedenkschrift, or memorial tribute, to a much loved and respected academic and curator of broad and varied interests, who made an immense contribution to New Zealand art history over almost half a century. Colonial Gothic to Māori Renaissance is a remarkable eulogy from friends, colleagues, and former students. Its contents are as varied and fascinating as the man himself: Victorian church architecture and liturgy; mysticism; the New Zealand International Exhibition of 1906; the Toi Te Papa exhibition of 2006; traditional and contemporary Māori art; and individual artists such as Thomas Benjamin Kennington, Gottfried Lindauer, Colin McCahon, Tony Fomison, Philip Clairmont and Emily Karaka. Lavishly illustrated and erudite, yet eminently readable and free of jargon, this volume is a potent and lasting testament to the inspiration of a remarkable activist and art scholar.


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