Maori kainga (villages) have attracted Pakeha artists ever since the early colonial days. Some of these are displayed under the theme Manawhenua in this exhibition. This lithograph based on Gilfillan's original watercolour, however, is placed under the related theme of Taonga, because it refers not only to Maori architecture but also to motherhood and infants. In Maori culture, childbearing, children and nurturing are very highly valued taonga. While the lithographer has sought to provide architectural details of a kainga, including the maihi and tekoteko of whare and pataka, he has chosen to add an air of domesticity with suckling infants and mothers, both human and canine.
The lithographer makes up for inaccurate scale and perspective by his possibly unwitting depiction of a much-cherished aspect of Maori social life, one so often ignored by other artists. The scene is peaceful, sheltered and ordered; the ideal of safe, well-nourished childhood and mothering. Apart from its title, it is now only the palisade that gives a clue that this village is most likely a fortified pa. Nature and enemies are kept at bay, it would seem, and yet the artist has gained the privilege of capturing the scene from within its secure circle.
There remains then the unnerving realisation that the lithographer, E. Walker, possibly with the original artist Gilfillan's supervised approval, has recorded this moment exclusively for outsiders' eyes. It may be that this lithograph is based on Gilfillan's lost oil painting. Whatever the case, with the production of these fifty lithographs the taonga that Maori people value so highly was opened to public display. Initially, and for numerous decades later, this display would have only reached non-Maori eyes. It is most unlikely that those Maori mothers and children you see in this picture had any say in determining both the quality and nature of their representation, as well as its eventual destination. One can only reflect on how difficult it would have become for Putiki Pa to protect its children and its architecture from momentous changes wrought by the colonialism that informs this image. JD
Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare O Rehua Whanganui
This important watercolour of Putiki-whara-nui is the original of a well-known, but rare, New Zealand print called Interior of a native Village or Pa in New Zealand, published in London in 1852, shown alongside. It is also said to be the origin of a now-lost oil painting of the same subject .
The artist John Gilfillan arrived in New Zealand in 1841, having learned carpentry and engineering to fit himself for the rigours of colonial life. He and his wife and children went immediately to Petre, now Whanganui, taking up land at Mataraua, near Putiki. It is most likely that the land, provided by the New Zealand Company, had not been purchased. Despite this, Gilfillan became friendly with local Maori and made many drawings of them. Resentment at the growing presence of Pakeha grew, and in 1847 a travelling group of Maori killed his wife and three children and wounded Gilfillan and his eldest daughter. With this daughter and surviving son he left for Sydney, where he made a large painting of the pa at Putiki. This work was said to have been chosen by Prince Albert and the Duke of Wellington for exhibition at the New Zealand Court in the great Exhibition of 1851 and is rumoured to have been lost in Paris during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. PS