Watercolour on paper
525 x 720mm
TE UIRA [u.r.] ; Robt. Atkinson / Tokaanu N.Z. '89. [l.l.]
The inclusion of two descriptions for this work reflects the Maori and Pakeha curatorial approaches taken for the exhibition Te Huringa/Turning Points.
Te Uira was the daughter of Te Heuheu Tukino V of Tuwharetoa. Her grandfather, Te Heuheu Tukino IV, also painted by Atkinson, had in 1887 gifted the mountains Tongariro, Ngaruahoe and Ruapehu to the nation. Te Uira’s portrait, aged six years, was made at Tokaanu, on the southern shores of Lake Taupo, by an artist who settled in Auckland in 1884. He operated a studio in Victoria Arcade but in 1890 moved to Sydney, taking this portrait with him. In 1891 he sent it to London, where it was exhibited at the Royal Academy and purchased. In 1986 it appeared in an art auction catalogue and was bought and repatriated.
Te Uira spent a good deal of her childhood in Wellington, where her father was a member of the Legislative Council. She accompanied him at official functions and took part in the apparently lavish entertainments he hosted at the family home called Tongariro, at Lyall Bay. She was a repository of much ancient Maori knowledge, an accomplished musician and an artist. A devoted supporter of the Kingitanga, Te Uira was for a time married to King Mahuta’s son, Taitu. This arranged marriage was not a success and Te Uira returned to her own Tuwharetoa people. Despite this, Te Puea Herangi had recognised her unique qualities as one who could bridge Maori and Pakeha cultural worlds and saw to it that she continued to play an important role in political affairs.
In opposing conscription during World War I, Te Uira, a woman of intense conviction, publicly aligned herself with Tainui against her Tuwharetoa people. Painted in an interior, replete with dilapidated detail, the subject gazes out at the viewer with a curious mixture of charm and determination. Her carefully elegant pose, involving foreshortening of crossed feet at the ankle, has caused the painter some difficulty.
What a service Atkinson provides with this depiction of a renowned female ancestor of Tuwharetoa, conveying homage to a rangatira, Te Heuheu Tukino, and all his whakapapa. Te Uira’s youthfulness in this painting portends the life she led during an era of dramatic change for many Maori of her day. Nevertheless, there are potent ambiguities represented by taonga Maori in this picture. Most notable are the large tiki pounamu and the huia feathers she wears in her hair and around her neck. Such signatory elements, undeniably an essential part of Maori culture, sit rather ambiguously with Te Uira’s distinctly European dress with its pleated skirt. Unlike the misshapen kete she leans on or the fraying whariki on which she sits, matching the worn tukutuku panels behind her, the feathers and pounamu appear timelessly intact.
The child has an air of fragility, despite her youthfulness and perhaps because of the surrounding damaged items. These shabby remnants of Maori culture appear to signal a decline in the face of the spread of European influence, something that is symbolised by the child’s pink dress and possibly by her reclining pose, which is quite uncharacteristic of Maori children. Is this an imposed European-based styling or does it indicate something in the subject’s personality? I delight in the fact that the mature Te Uira Te Heuheu is recorded as leading a full and influential life that retained much mana. Here, the youthful resolve in her face heralds the struggle against the possibility of Maori cultural decline that is ‘voiced’ in the dilapidated cultural vestiges that surround her and which it was her life’s work to overcome.