The artist has made a modern version of a mediaeval altarpiece, a device whose doors allowed viewers a gradual introduction to the full narrative more plainly seen once they were opened. Such altarpieces pictorially presented Christianity to a largely illiterate audience and were placed in sanctified spaces in churches. However, Isiaha Barlow's altar is embellished with painted references to fellow contemporary Maori artist Emare Karaka, whose work is also included in this exhibition.
This altar is part of a series of works made in a single year. They refer not to Christian saints but to what Robert Jahnke has termed 'the enthusiastic evangelism' of contemporary Maori artists. In deeply thought out interpretations of Karaka's paintings (including some of the symbols found in her work), Barlow provides a commentary not only on her art but also on the political views that are fiercely extant within them. This is not the uncritical homage of a sycophant, nor is it a caustic critique. It is more a robust acknowledgement of a senior Maori artist given by an emerging one who shares and extends similar passions regarding Maori culture. As the 'altarpiece' doors open we may see a fuller story of Karaka, one that is beautiful as well as fiercely anti-colonialist.
Mother Emare shows insightful understanding of the work of many Maori artists, including Karaka, who have been at pains to establish contemporary art on equal footing to all other art forms. This would have been a largely unnecessary battle if the superiority of European art had not been such a widely-held presumption in this country. With time, and great efforts on the part of established and emerging artists such as Barlow, that attitude may yet become as redundant as it should be. JD
Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare O Rehua Whanganui
This work, by the youngest Maori artist in the exhibition, is a homage to a senior Maori artist, Emare Karaka. Its companion works were dedicated in the same way to Kura Te Waru Rewiri and to Robyn Kahukiwa. The impetus for the series came while Isiaha Barlow was attending Te Putahi a Toi Massey Visual Arts Course in 1998. Working on an assignment, he came across the following statement by Hirini Moko Mead:
"Modern artists come from a different base, often not from a particularly strong cultural background. They are often acculturated in the traditions of western art and philosophy and have to learn how to be Maori. They are often talented, believe strongly in democracy and individualism and come to the Maori world with all the enthusiasm of an evangelist, fully prepared to reform us. Inevitably, they find that we do not want to be reformed just yet. Sometimes, the ideas they bring are embraced by other Maori artists, but they find that acceptance comes slowly."
Isiaha Barlow pays homage to his Saint/Artists for their gospel/artworks; at the same time, tongue in cheek, he rearranges and appropriates the iconography in their gospels. For him, in this work, 'imitation' of Emare Karaka is the sincerest form of flattery. PS