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E n g a g i n g t h e P o l i t i c s a n d P l e a s u r e s o f In d i g e n o u s A e s t h e t i c s C h a d w i c k A l l e n He toi whakairo W here there is artistic excellence He mana tangata There is human dignity M y epigraph is a Maori whakatauki, or proverb, from Aotearoa/New Zealand.* It was composed, however, not in some mythic or ethnographic time immemorial, but more recently as a response to the 1984-1986 traveling art exhibition Te Maori, a groundbreaking showcase of 174 objects from the Maori classic period (about 900-1850), including architectural sculptures, carvings in wood, stone, and bone, weapons, tools, musical instruments, and personal adornments. Te Maori was the first international exhibit devoted exclusively to Maori art, and Maori people accompanied these objects on their journey overseas, ensuring the observance of proper protocol for taonga (treasures or prized posses­ sions) and providing an unprecedented living context for an exhibit of indigenous art. The overwhelming success of Te Maori fostered pride in the Maori artistic heritage for both Maori and Pakeha (New Zealanders of European descent), and it generated interest in subsequent exhibi­ tions of both classic and contemporary Maori art at home and abroad. The compact, parallel lines of the whakatauki capture this sense of pride and, in particular, its Maori articulation and resonance. The Maori version is a balanced juxtaposition that bonds aesthetic achieve­ ment (toi whakairo) to the mana (power or prestige) of the people or nation (tangata). Thus, situated in its specific context of the mid-1980s, the whakatauki highlights the role of traditional arts in the Maori politi­ cal and literary “renaissance” that had begun about 1970, asserting a moral victory— human dignity— within a contemporary Aotearoa/New Zealand where the tangata whenua (people of the land) were relegated to demographic sub-status and to political, economic, and social subordina­ tion. The whakatauki asserts, as well, a significant challenge to dominant Pakeha, European-derived standards of human value that historically had denigrated Maori people and their artistic traditions and that con­ tinued, in the 1980s and beyond, to marginalize contemporary Maori W e s t e r n A m e ric a n L i t e r a t u r e 41.2 (S u m m e r 2 0 0 6 ): 146- 75. C h a d w ic k A l l e n 1 4 7 artistic production, including not only carving, but also weaving and tattooing, oral and performance traditions, and the extension of these arts into other media, including alphabetic writing in Maori and English languages. Bolstered by the success of Te Maori, the whakatauki holds up the manifest power of Maori to represent themselves (whakairo [carving , or more broadly, to ornament with a pattern]) as an index of Maori intrinsic value (mana [power, prestige]). In this way, the whakatauki can function as an activist statement of the enduring distinctiveness of the Maori community despite a history of colonialism, missionary and govemment attempts to impose systematic acculturation, and both coerced and voluntary change. I begin with this whakatauki in order to make the general point that one of the aims of indigenous minority arts, within the context of resistance to multiple forms of ongoing colonialism, is the defiant assertion of enduring distinctiveness at the level of the communal.^ In asserting the intrinsic value of the Maori people— mana tangata— rather than of individual artists, the whakatauki articulates an activist, indigenous discourse that resists the proper name and the private individuality of dominant Western formations and modes of signification. A corob lary to this general point is that indigenous arts historically have been either relegated to the field of anthropology rather than engaged within the fields of arts criticism, or, when addressed specifically as arts rather than as ethnographic evidence, they have been marginalized and/or denigrated by dominant, European-derived systems of aesthetics.^ The whakatauki is suggestive, then, of the need...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 146-175
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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