William Dunning is known for a post-modernist realism that appropriates earlier artistic styles into a slightly changed and somewhat surreal form. In this extraordinary drawing we can see multiple references to Maori culture. These include references to colonial watercolours of Maori pa (such as those seen elsewhere in this exhibition), to photographed records of Maori people in the first half of the twentieth century, to a waka similar to those miniatures found in tourist shops, to a mamaru (sail) with rigging often seen illustrated in books, and also to a marble sarcophagus, like those found in museums.
Multiple interpretations of this work are therefore possible. As the figures on top of the sarcophagus suggest, their history has been one of struggle for Maori people to defend customary titles to land, including pa sites of the Whanganui River region. There is parody in this picture as well, in that the various representations of Maori people on which this drawing is based can still be found in public institutions such as museums, national archives and shops. Often these act as poor substitutes for full understanding, acknowledgement and respect for Maori people. Has the representation of Maori become such a cliché? Although Dunning may be pointing to this possibility, his careful rendition of Maori references undoubtedly seriously acknowledges the indispensable position of Maori culture within the history of this country and Maori customary rights to land and other resources. JD
Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare O Rehua Whanganui
William Dunning is interested in locating cultural fragmentation and identity within specific landscapes in New Zealand. Often adopting a Maori perspective, as here, he does not shy away from commenting on the more negative effects of colonization. This is quite clear from the postures of these western-attired people of the river, who stand on what is effectively a tomb, their pa unpopulated, their empty waka drawn up on the sand. They are looking back into their own past. PS