Watercolour on paper
227 x 222mm
The inclusion of two texts for this work reflects the curatorial approach taken for the exhibition Te Huringa/Turning Points.
Merrett is believed to have paid visits from Sydney to the Bay of Islands in the late 1830s. Later he went to Auckland where he sought work as a surveyor, and then as a portrait and landscape painter, enjoying the patronage of Sir George Grey for a time. He also lived at New Plymouth in 1851 and at Whanganui the following year. He died in Wellington. A contemporary described him as “ a sort of broken down gentleman who used to do a bit of watercolour drawing but who was never looked upon as an artist.”
Writing of Merrett’s specialty, pictures like these two featuring groups of Maori, Len Bell described the figures as being more like ‘figurines’. They are “often draped langorously against one another, are doll-like, with stereotyped, sweet and harmless expressions. They are little more than decorative knick-knacks — naively charming, but unrelated to the social and psychological realities of Maori life in the 1840s.”
These colourful yet rather naïve representations, one of the notable Ngapuhi rangatira Hone Heke Pokai (Heke), his wife Hariata and accompanying entourage, the other of a group of unidentified Maori women, are placed under the theme of taonga, despite their equally important relationship to other themes in this exhibition, including Mana-a-iwi.
Heke’s mana is conveyed primarily through the various taonga he and his entourage are wearing. The highly ornate kaitaka cloak with its exquisite taniko borders is one example, as is the feathered adze he is holding and the huia feather adorning his head. The hieke rain cape and taiaha borne by the figure immediately behind Heke, most likely the elder rangatira Kawiti, are also highly valued taonga.
In the other picture, such detailed emphasis on the kakahu (cloaks), ranging from korowai to hieke, is augmented again by huia feathers worn in the hair. Devoid of background scenery, these pictures document the material taonga, rather than the wearer’s biography, bearing in mind that in Maori culture both people and material possessions may be considered as taonga.
No doubt artistic license entered into Merrett’s work, determining composition style and colour, for example. None the less, these detailed and somewhat extravagant paintings provide a valued record not only of how notable Maori people dressed but also how they were remembered and frequently represented by colonial artists. Their impressive characters live on far beyond their lifetimes, thanks to Merrett’s efforts and those of numerous other artists. Most significant too is the fact that in many Maori people’s eyes these people and their material accoutrements not to mention this picture itself, all constitute highly valued taonga tuku iho (lasting heirlooms) for gaze and wonderment of present and future generations.
Te Huringa/Turning Points: Pākehā Colonisation and Māori Empowerment, Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua, Whanganui, 8 April to 16 July 2006 (toured)