Haki Ahi, Maori Firestick 1918

While Louis Steele's main preoccupation may have been with the technology of fire-making, his painting makes other references to Taonga Maori in this exhibition such as implements, clothing ear ornaments and moko worn by an as yet unidentified Maori man. His size compared to other elements of the painting as well as his highly detailed facial features and musculature can distract us from the activity he is undertaking. Such detailing is not given nearly as much to the female figure who appears behind him, some distance off, so Steele's motives seem related to popularising representations of Maori men, without naming them.

In spite of the liberties taken by Steele by not fully acknowledging his human subjects, we may nevertheless turn our attention to the material taonga that surrounds them, acknowledging its highly valued significance in Maori culture. Indeed, the process and technological skill of fire-making should also be given additional status beyond that of a quaint activity once practiced by Maori people. We may further imagine that once the 'fire maker' is fully identified, he may yet be, in a similar fashion to the taonga, given increased, and very long overdue, mana and respect. JD

Louis James Steele 1843 - 1918

Haki Ahi, Maori Firestick 1918
Oil on canvas

Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare O Rehua Whanganui

Steele, who taught Goldie, had a studio in Auckland's Victoria Arcade close to those of the Wright brothers and Robert Atkinson. In 1898, Steele and Goldie had collaborated on the famous painting The Arrival of the Maorisin New Zealand, a work that shows the artist's indebtedness to his academic training in Paris and his abiding interest in painting scenes from Maori history, mythology and traditional customs. Leonard Bell has observed that in such works "myths are being created about the Maori by Europeans for Europeans." It would be interesting today to know the whereabouts of the very large work called The Treaty of Waitangi that he was commissioned in 1893 to paint for the library of the House of Representatives.

Steele's primary intention was always painterly; he sought a striking image rather than an ethnologically-correct representation. Perhaps this explains his subordinate placement of the melancholy figure of a woman walking beside the shore. Looking downward, she seems to have no part in the main subject, the making of fire by rubbing wood together. She is simply there for decorative reasons to fill an otherwise empty space. PS

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