Ngapuhi, Ngati Rangi, Ngati Hine Stack 1991

It is quite a liberty to take an artist's early work and liken it to current issues about genome projects in existence today. These join earlier, much-debated attempts to determine our Maori genetic origins. In one respect, they amount to a further colonisation of our identity in terms of a Western scientific set of biological maps and definitions. A counter view reminds us that, in Maori whakapapa, genes and genealogy are inextricably linked. Indeed, they have equal status as 'taonga'.

Shane Cotton's theme of o chromosomal formations reminds me of this. His later themes concerning Maori identity and recent history are closely connected with his early scientific/artistic exploration. Today, thanks to political actions by numerous Maori scientists and activists, such a connection is a given. Our genes, like those of other indigenous groups, should not be stolen away for scientific research.

Stack, with its beautiful stamen and petal forms based on microscope observations, may be free of overtly political intentions but Cotton's obvious interest in microbiology within this painting is a portent for his later and much more extensive interest in Maori social issues. At this moment, early in his career as a painter, a seemingly innocent interest in forms beyond the naked eye suffices. Those forms stand seed-like, awaiting the fertile ground Cotton leads us towards in his later, more overtly political paintings. JD

Shane Cotton b.1966
Ngapuhi, Ngati Rangi, Ngati Hine

Stack 1991
Oil on canvas

The Fletcher Trust Collection

Shane Cotton was born at Upper Hutt. After completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Canterbury University in 1988 he steadily gained recognition as a painter in Australasia. He held the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship at the University of Otago in 1998. In 2003, a large-scale exhibition curated at the City Gallery, Wellington, toured the major public art galleries in New Zealand.

This is an example of what has come to be known as Cotton's 'biomorphic' period, in which he explored the aesthetic possibilities of living organisms. Preceding the more obviously political paintings that he made after 1992, they show images of cells, threads of chromosomes and biological processes floating against murky backgrounds. There are also references to aspects of Maori mythology, something Cotton at first found difficult to incorporate into his work as such issues had not been explored as part of his art school training. A hint of this interest can be seen in the group of interlinked koru submerged in the surrounding dark, watery environment. Light is subtly filtered through, adding texture and atmosphere to the painting. PS

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