Shannon Te Ao, island, archival digital print, Avondale, Auckland (2008)

The problematic legacy of Colin McCahon

The paintings of Colin McCahon convey dissonance and uncertainty, writes Shannon Te Ao. So what does this say about us? And why are we maintaining this Pākehā male narrative at the expense of more inclusive representation?

Ka pōraruraru ahau. I am troubled.

Colin McCahon would have turned 100 on August the 1st. If you keep one eye on visual arts coverage here in Aotearoa, it’s been difficult to miss. Over the past couple of months, events commemorating McCahon’s birth and body of work have been taking place across the length of the country. Major exhibitions, discussions, bus tours and even auctions have reminded us of McCahon’s legacy. I’m compelled to consider the significance of our ongoing engagement with his body of work and his iconic image.

Installation of Colin McCahon’s Gate III, 1970, Ten Big Paintings exhibition, Auckland City Art Gallery, 1971

Remembered as New Zealand’s foremost painter, McCahon is arguably our most celebrated artist. His body of work has become inseparable from grand narratives of New Zealand art. His work is attributed with commencing our own artistic modernity, and plots a visual arc that is often positioned as counterpoint to our contemporary bicultural era. Images of his works endure far beyond the context of their making and now more than 30 years after his passing.

I’ve been intrigued rather than captured by McCahon’s iconic status. While at art school in the early 2000s, I found him a bemusing cultural figure and artist. McCahon’s Gate III and Victory over death 2, two of the well known ‘I AM’ works, were completely audacious to me. Bold and fragmented at the same time. His work, as I saw it, presented a disarmingly transparent insight into his very personal, evolving relationship with Aotearoa. Pastoral landscape, religious motifs, spiritual refrains, along with excursions around te ao and te reo Māori are all pitched within his oeuvre as existential devices. Nonetheless, I feel that McCahon’s vision — his place — was never fully reconciled. In light of this, his work evokes a lot of tension. Angst is literally the subject matter in so many of his paintings and perhaps not surprisingly, was a constant within his life. As the title to a 1976 work goes — Am I scared? On manifold levels his work conveys dissonance and uncertainty. Yet despite this turbulence, McCahon’s cultural position appears steadfast. I have always wondered what this actually says about us.

Shannon Te Ao, Untitled (McCahon House Studies), 2012, Single channel video with colour and sound, 4:34min, Cinematography: Iain Frengley.

My first visits to the McCahon family’s former home in Titirangi were revelatory. I was compelled to make my own artwork about the experience which, for me, fundamentally disrupted the myth. In 2011 I created an ambiguous persona in response to the history of the house – as a place where art and life continue to collide. A short video depicts a series of scenarios around the house, actions reminiscent of mutated domestic duties, looking like a household shaman, appearing as if blindly navigating the space. The work is not intended to be funny — and is perhaps more uncomfortable than humorous.

I felt immediately conflicted by the House Museum in French Bay, which, by today’s standards, resembles a weekend bach. On a bright summer’s day, nestled within the backdrop of the west Auckland bush setting and with many of McCahon’s DIY improvements still visible, the place exudes a palpable charm. It’s easy to romanticise about the period the McCahon family spent here. But for a different perspective, I recommend you also visit on a rainy day in July when the elements turn against the architecture. It’s impossible not to imagine how tough a setting this would have been for Colin, Anne and their four children. This toughness undoubtedly fuelled the struggles and alienation that are well documented.

Colin McCahon: On Going Out with the Tide City Gallery Wellington 2017

In 2017 I was invited to present Untitled (McCahon House Studies) alongside a survey of McCahon’s work. Colin McCahon: On Going Out with the Tide, curated by Wystan Curnow and Robert Leonard at City Gallery Wellington, presented for the first time an overview of McCahon’s work in response to Māori subject matter. Nowhere else is McCahon’s artistic and cultural dissonance more explicit. The experience sparked a real-time assessment of my relationship to his work. This body of work stretching across the 1960s and 70s  is appropriately unceasingly criticised for its naivety and problematic integration of te reo Māori and whakapapa. Even the ‘simplest’ works within the exhibition present a tenuous position. Works such as Koru, 1, 2, 3 and Caltex 1 reference crude koru-like forms but ultimately alienate a Māori audience. Described by the curators as “piecemeal and partial”, McCahon’s lack of understanding and sensitivity is telling. Other works in this exhibition engaged histories and whakapapa with a freedom that is not his to wield. I’ve had people who are tied to some of these histories point out errors and usage that belittles the tūpuna named throughout these works.

What was once excusable in light of good intentions and the avant-garde ethos is now culturally and politically incorrect. It is no longer acceptable to legitimise appropriation, misuse or misrepresentation. What narrative does McCahon’s legacy serve? In 2019, I struggle to see how his work can truly embrace all that Aotearoa has become.

Shannon Te Ao, Untitled (McCahon House Studies), 2012, Single channel video, Cinematography: Iain Frengley. Installation, City Gallery Wellington, 2017

This is not intended as defamation. I’m not trying to sully McCahon’s memory. His commitment to his own practice can’t be faulted. And as an artist I respect the ambition. I think we should let McCahon off the hook. But his work maintains a position and cultural outlook that no longer serves his presumed audience, or the true fabric of discourse here in contemporary Aotearoa. McCahon is our most celebrated artist because those with the power and privilege continue to attribute this honour to him. This in itself is not inherently problematic. But the default referral to McCahon underlines the need for more appropriate, contemporary and diverse cultural representation.

Alongside ‘McCahon 100’ events, a number of exhibitions currently on view in Wellington highlight works by McCahon’s contemporaries. Gordon Walters and Theo Schoon have major surveys at art institutions. Unsurprisingly, I’ve heard numerous criticisms from peers in response to the timing of these exhibitions and what they might say about artistic values — or our valued artists. With a current snapshot of the local art scene, one could be forgiven in accusing us of obsessing with the era of McCahon, some kind of “Ol’ Boys Club” and a narrative that privileges settler experience.

The timing of these exhibitions paints a picture that reveals an apparent collective complacency; a reticence to disrupt and overturn longstanding narratives that marginalise all but the Pākehā position. To me, this dissonance feels palpable.

Installation view of On the Last Afternoon: Disrupted Ecologies and the Work of Joyce Campbell, Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, Victoria University of Wellington, 27 July – 20 October 2019. Photo: Shaun Matthews

The maintenance of a dominant, male Pākehā narrative no longer satisfies any inclusive representation of our collective consciousness or being. If you are like me, this will not be news to you. In the same month that we celebrated the legacy of McCahon, here in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, we’ve also seen exhibitions that counter this narrative. A major survey exhibition by Joyce Campbell, and a solo exhibition by Ayesha Green — two formidable projects that do just that but have not been afforded even a blip of attention in comparison.

Both of these exhibitions have real currency, bringing forward a raft of issues born from our colonial imprint. Environmentalisms, feminisms and our bicultural register are treated within these projects with an intelligence and sensitivity that are responsible to our present, not just our past.

Installation image of exhibition Elizabeth the First by Ayesha Green, Millers O’Brien Gallery, 2019. Image: Sorawit Songsataya

The same could be said of HERE: from Kupe to Cook currently at Pataka in Porirua. All three of these projects confront the social schema with a healthy criticality and a sophistication befitting the complexities of our time. One has to wonder what might be different if exhibitions like these were at the forefront of our thinking? What would public opinion look like in a context that accepted artistic contributions like these as testament to our culture, with the same fervour that we maintain an artistic canon that we have, arguably, outgrown?

What’s stopping us from painting a more current picture of ourselves?


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