Lacquer on wood
1600 x 1000 x 100mm
This sculpture is one of a series of four related but different works to carry the title Ātārangi (‘shadow’). This piece formed part of the 1995 touring exhibition Nervous Systems, which explored tensions between conflicting patterns of identity in Aotearoa.
In an article in Art New Zealand 59 (winter 1991), Robert Leonard describes the work’s minimal form and uninflected surfaces as being magnified versions of brightly coloured Cuisenaire rods, which were introduced into New Zealand schools in the late 1960s to teach basic maths. Parekowhai has stacked his Cuisenaire ‘blocks’ in such a way as to depict a figure with arms raised, or the word ‘he’ viewed from the side.
Although Cuisenaire rods were originally used in the teaching of mathematical concepts, they have long since been superseded for this purpose and instead have become an effective tool in the teaching of te red Māori. In this context, they serve as props around which conversations are conducted. The rods can thus be understood as a recuperation of Pākehā educational devices and an assertion of Māori culture and strength.
This sculpture poses a number of puzzles. Is the suggestion of a figure participating in a haka an indication that Māori identity is triumphant? Is the word ‘he’ to be read as the indefinite article (‘a/an’) in Māori or the singular, masculine, third-person pronoun in English? Does the turning of the word on to its side imply that Pākehā education has been an emasculation for Māori?
While each of these meanings is plausible, none is clearly preferable. In relishing such interpretative pluralities, Parekōwhai simultaneously asserts and displaces his identity, expressing a sense of ambiguity that was a significant issue in the 1990s for a number of younger artists of Māori and Pākehā heritage.