If the exhibition title Te Aryan raises one or two eyebrows, this is fitting, considering the controversial text that is its inspiration.
Paul McLachlan's 2014 collection Te Aryan takes its title from The Aryan Māori, the 1885 thesis of New Zealand scholar Edward Tregear. Based on his impressions of similarities between Māori and Sanskrit, Tregear's work concludes that Māori were descended from the Indo-European 'master race'. Even at the time, this hypothesis was criticised by many of Tregear's fellow anthropologists, yet still gained popularity and acceptance over the next thirty years among both Māori and Pākehā. For a colonial nation still finding its feet, this hardly seems surprising; the human need to mythologise goes hand in hand with the search for identity. One imagines the comfort that might have been taken by two distinct groups at the possibility of sharing this common story:
I now proceed to assert—
1. That the Maori is an Aryan,
2. That his language and traditions prove him to be the descendant of a pastoral people, afterwards warlike and migratory.
3. That his language has preserved, in an almost inconceivable purity, the speech of his Aryan forefathers, and compared with which the Greek and Latin tongues are mere corruptions.
4.That this language has embalmed the memory of animals, implements, &c., the actual sight of which has been list to the Maori for centuries.
1. That he left India about four thousand years ago.
2. That he has been in New Zealand almost as long as that time.1
Despite its questionable origins, the Aryan Māori theory had some positive influence on race relations, as it allowed European settlers to view Māori as fellow members of the ‘noble race’ (ārya, the Sanskrit origin, means ‘noble’). On the other hand, the idea provided additional fuel for the racism perpetrated against the Chinese and other immigrants, who were now seen as inferior to the Māori as well as to the Europeans, in a "widely accepted Pākehā distinction between Māori and other non-white races"2.
From afar, the viewer is at first presented with a collection of portraits: classically beautiful, smoothly rendered – perhaps unsettlingly so. A closer inspection of their too-perfect contours reveals detailed adornment on the skin of the figures. These moko and tattoos are based on artworks by Isaac Coates and other artists of the period whose works were sympathetic with the Aryan Māori theory.
The images created for this exhibition have been constructed using digital sculpting software, but rendered as analogue photo-intaglio prints. The underlying sculptural form is based on photographs of classical and ancient sculptures photographed by the artist on a recent trip to Europe. McLachlan has ‘fleshed out’ these forms using textures from the photographs to create a pseudo-realistic image.
McLachlan’s bringing together of these two rich histories asks us to look more closely at our own cultural story and the stories that have influenced it. In this way, the collection is reminiscent of the recent work of two artists in particular. The most obvious parallel to be drawn, at least where form is concerned, is with Fiona Pardington’s exquisite and spiritually-powerful photographs of lifecasts made by the 19th Century phrenologist Pierre-Marie Alexandre Dumoutier during his travels of the Pacific on Dumont d’Urville’s last exploratory voyage of 1837-40. Another analogous œuvre can be seen in Marian Maguire’s lithographs blending classical Greek and Māori myth – simultaneously light-hearted and enlightening. Considered together, the similarities and contrasts that come to light in the work of Pardington, Maguire and McLachlan may prompt in the viewer some sympathy toward Tregear’s romantic notions.
By recontextualising cultural artifacts to create the unsettling aesthetic in these works, McLachlan illustrates the problems and the beauty in Tregear’s assertions on the origins and history of the first settlers of Aotearoa. These images – idealised fantasy based on dubious historical references – reflect on a curious theory that shaped race relations during the colonisation of New Zealand. The ideas of “embalmed memory”, the common human story: these may be romantic notions but is to be hoped that Te Aryan will cause not a controversy, but a celebration of the similarities that can be found just beyond the obvious differences.
Stephanie Evans, September 2014
1. Tregear, Edward. The Aryan Maori. 1885. Reprint. Kiwi Publishers, 1995.
2. Bennett, James. 'Maori as honorary members of the white tribe'. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 29:3, 33-54. 2001.