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The Contemporary Pacific 13.1 (2001) 290-292

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Book Review

Double Vision: Art Histories and Colonial Histories in the Pacific

Double Vision: Art Histories and Colonial Histories in the Pacific, edited by Nicholas Thomas and Diane Losche. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN cloth, 0-521- 64341-4; paper, 0-521-65998-1; xii + 289 pages, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, US$64.95; paper, US$24.95.

Losche and Thomas's selected proceedings of a conference in honor of Bernard Smith is something of a curate's egg. Good, as they say, in parts. The aim Double Vision sets for itself in the first lines of the preface, "a re-imagining of the art and culture of the Pacific," is an ambitious and laudable one.

The volume adopts something of a cultural studies approach in its inclusion of the writing of scholars from history, literature, anthropology, art, and art history. With the exception of two of the book's essays, one by Bronwen Douglas and the other by Dianne Losche, the methodology of each chapter remains firmly within the mainstream of its own discipline, and perhaps this is why the essays do not meld into a coherent whole. Smith's European Vision and the South Pacific (1960), which the editors seek to emulate and even transcend, produced a remarkable summation of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century material on and about the Pacific--and some groundbreaking discussion of Australian colonial painting. But most of what is presented here is difficult to compare with Smith's book in terms of either representing and reformulating the past or setting agendas and mapping a field for the future. This said, the best chapters of the book are very good indeed.

I have not read a more stimulating essay of its kind than Leonard Bell's "Looking at Goldie: Face to Face with 'All 'e Same t'e Pakeha'." This engaging meditation on spectatorship and meaning in the New Zealand artist's most famous painting plays with both the dynamics of looking and the riddles that nineteenth-century contact histories, such as that of Mâori and Pakeha, produce. Bell suggests that the meaning of Goldie's painting and the quotation in the title refer to a complex dialogue taking place off canvas between Mâori and Pakeha. The nature of the dialogue, however, is the issue at stake in this deeply ambiguous picture. Bell's contention is that "All e same Pakeha" can be read as a joke. This joke, like the best jokes, is many sided and can be read at a number of levels. Bell [End Page 290] teases out his discussion around the joke in a range of carefully nuanced arguments, whose complexity space prevents me from elaborating in full, and a summary would clearly spoil the pleasure of the intending reader. For example, while the subject of Goldie's portrait, Te Aho o Te Rangi Wharepu, can be seen to be mimicking European modes of dress, the artist himself, in the marvelous attention to detail in his canvas, also takes on the role of mimic. At the same time, Te Aho's imitation of European dress may be read as parodic in intention, following the arguments put forward by Michael Taussig on the politics of colonial dress, as a joke against Pakeha, as a sending up of the colonizers.

I cannot say how much I enjoyed Bell's discussion and how greatly it has contributed to my own understanding of Goldie's painting in particular and more generally the paintings, especially portraits, of academic artists working in a range of colonial-settler cultures in the Pacific. The existence of such a spectacular oeuvre as Goldie's, in which Mâori are represented dramatically, is a pointed reminder to art historians in Australia of the absence of anything approaching it in both quality and scope. Australian Aboriginal people were not painted in a sustained and serious way by artists working in colonial Australia after the departure of the first wave of academically trained artists such as Benjamin Duterrau, Robert...