Watercolour on paper
285 x 240mm
The inclusion of two texts for this work reflects the curatorial approach taken for the exhibition Te Huringa/Turning Points.
Robley arrived in New Zealand from Madrid in January 1864, as an ensign in the 68th Durham Light Infantry. The Governor, Sir George Grey, had sent a British force to Tauranga in the hope of preventing Waikato Maori from receiving reinforcements and supplies sent by the Ngaiterangi chief Rawiri Puhirake and others. Robley took part in the Battle of Gate Pa, which saw an outnumbered Maori force inflict a major defeat on the British imperial army in the last days of April 1864. In July, after further fighting, Maori surrendered to imperial troops.
Between 1864 and 1866, when he returned to England, Robley spent much of his spare time at Otumoetai, Matapihi, Maungatapu and Maketu. Here he made a great many sketches that formed the basis of his later role as an authority on Maori art and particularly ta moko. He was also the father of a child, Hamiora Tu Ropere, born to Harete Mauao of Matapihi.
His subject here, Tomika Te Mutu, chief of Motuhoa, a small island within Tauranga harbour, wore a highly detailed moko which, not surprisingly, attracted Robley, whose interest in the subject was intense. Tomika was also painted by Gottfried Lindauer.
The famous Maori entertainer Dalvanius Prime once used the internet to comment on the life of his direct ancestor Horatio Gordon Robley, thus giving us an opportunity to consider the convolutions not only of Maori identity but also of historical events. It is tempting to confine engagement with this painting to a discussion of Robley’s fascination with ta moko, without much focus on Tomika Te Mutu. His mana as rangatira of the iwi Ngaiterangi in Robley’s day has been perpetuated, most often stereotypically as a vivid encapsulation of the fierce and frightening noble savage that non-Maori have periodically applied to Maori men. Other stories, yet to reach the printed page, could be told by his descendants.
While a Pakeha audience may be fascinated by this image of Tomika Te Mutu, the fact is that he shared his role as tupuna with his illustrator Horatio Robley. So, despite the artistic liberties Robley takes such as posing Tomika dressed in an inverted kaitaka, with its hem used as a collar and the control over Tomika’s representation that such actions entail, both men have a more equalised status in Ngaiterangi whakapapa. The irony of their shared progenitor role should not be disregarded. Maori perceptions of people always rest firmly on whakapapa and an individual’s position within it. This was the case in Robley’s day as much as it is today. However, it remains a moot point whether the artist would have seen himself in this light at the time of his early departure from the Bay of Plenty to England.
Te Huringa/Turning Points: Pākehā Colonisation and Māori Empowerment, Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua, Whanganui, 8 April to 16 July 2006 (toured)