The Maori cultural subject matter of Angas's watercolours is intriguing. While in the past portraits of unidentified Maori people graced gallery walls and failed to attract serious engagement in scholarly texts because they somehow failed to qualify as 'fine art', these days are now gone.
The taniko and 'pom-pom' embellishment of the kakahu (cloak) that the girls E Rangi and E Tohi wear are studied with interest by modern Maori weavers as they appear to record changing weaving trends of the time, including the incorporation by Maori weavers of wool and other introduced fibres. The story of both wearers and makers remains important yet still to be fully told today.
In painting the chief Nga Tata, Angas has constructed an image constrained by the current eurocentric notion that non-European races are less refined and more savage in their behaviour than their European counterparts. This attitude is reflected in the title, Savage life and scenes, of his 1847 volume which reflected racist stereotypes that lend themselves to inaccurate caricature. Thus, Nga Tata is made to appear pathetic, quaintly yet curiously deficient in social standing, demeanour and morals, a cannibal, rather than a respected chief. Angas was able to distribute his work internationally, relying on this evocation of 'savagery'.
It is more valid to consider Nga Tata as he was: one of a long line of rangatira, whose standing, like that of many from a ruling class including those of Europe, relied more heavily on mana, political acumen and charisma than on savage atrocity. JD
The Fletcher Trust Collection
Angas came to New Zealand in 1844 landing at Port Nicholson (Wellington). From there he travelled to Porirua, where he met Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata, sailed to Mana Island then south to the entrance of the Wairau Valley. After an eight-day voyage up the North Island he arrived at Auckland where he visted Orakei and other pa. In the company of Thomas Forsaith, a Sub-Protector of Aborigines, he travelled through the Waikato to Taupo all the while making drawings and watercolours. These formed the basis for the lithographs illustrating his journal Savage Life and Scenes in Australia and New Zealand published in 1847. Angas left New Zealand at the end of 1844.
While regarded as accurate in his depiction of Maori artefacts, clothing and dwellings, he tended to Europeanise figures and to reduce his subjects to stereotypes. Michael Dunn has referred to his representations of Maori as 'misleading confections'. Despite this, they are still a valuable record of a European view of a 'savage' people.
Of the chief Nga Tata, Angas wrote that he was "an atrocious cannibal . . . notorious for his sanguinary deeds of cruelty." He also pointed out that he had six toes on his left foot, a peculiarity that, according to him, characterised Rauparaha (sic) and several other chiefs. PS