Maori girl by Wilhelm Dittmer, Te Papa art collection.

Māori girl: unnamed but not forgotten

Curator matauranga Māori at Te Papa, Matariki Williams, introduces the woman that watches over the Ngā Tai Whakarongorua exhibition at Te Papa, known only as Maori girl

Tēnei wahine. When I first met her, she stopped me in my tracks. I was back of house at Te Papa, in the art store room and my colleague, Rebecca Rice, and I were viewing portraits for an upcoming exhibition. After having looked at many portraits, most of whom look directly into the eyes of the viewer, her portrait was pulled out of the racks. Her eyes never met ours. Her body, her stance, her āhua, never needing the gratification of a viewer to give it mana. She was on another kaupapa.

Her institutional and artist-defined name is Maori girl. She is one of two portraits painted by German artist Wilhelm Dittmer in the Te Papa collection that are imaginatively titled Maori girl. If you search Māori girl in our collections online portal, you will find over a hundred results of photographs and other artworks featuring young kōtiro, wāhine Māori, whose names were never recorded. Any number of variations of ‘untitled’, ‘kotiro’, ‘wahine’ can be repeated to show just how many of our tīpuna had their likeness captured, but not their identity.

For someone working in an institution that has been described as a ‘memory machine’, there’s a lot of amnesia going on. And it is such that Māori girl has come to represent for me not just those gaps in institutional memory and cataloguing, but the way in which the mana of these unnamed wāhine has endured. She represents to me the way in which whakapapa, this great connector of people, this mnemonic carrier of our histories, carries too our losses. To me, whakapapa has always been a connector to people, with connections branching out even broader than whānau. It connects iwi together, our histories, takes us back all the way to Te Kore.

Maori girl has affected me on both a work and a personal level. I’ll explain her impact in the context of a current exhibition shortly, but first I want to explain what I mean by a whakapapa of loss.

In a concrete sense, whakapapa links me to people from marae I’ve never stood on, to awa I’ve never swum in, and to maunga I’ve never walked on. I know I’m lucky that I have strong links to some sides of my family, but I also have links that aren’t as strong, that for those people, whakapapa connects me instead to loss. Loss that occurred through marriage and movement, raupatu, and urbanisation. This also led me to think about how we inherit and pass on that loss.

Here’s a little story…

Just off State Highway 1 in Ōhingaiti, there is an urupā. It is the urupā that my Nanny Enid, Koro Harpur and Aunty Maria are buried in, alongside other members of Ngāti Hauiti iwi. It is the urupā that my family would always stop at when travelling down the country from Tauranga where we lived. As a child, I remember this as the place we’d get out of our van, run around, and look at the names and the dates on the headstones.

These three people – mum’s mum, mum’s sister, mum’s uncle – were three people I never knew but who we continued to memorialise, continued to pull off the highway and take flowers to. Even as my siblings and I became adults and travelled up the island without our parents, we’d stop in at the urupā.

A few years back, the road was moved. The new stretch of highway was widened to account for faster travel and more cars. Stopping became a small chore travelling with small children as our stops were governed by their sleeping, so instead, we would beep as we zoomed past. And just like that, almost completely, we stopped stopping.

A couple of years back, our mother died and she is buried in an urupā that is further off the highway, down alongside the river that claimed her sister at the age of 12 – the aunty we never knew but for the youthful face, frozen in time, smiling back at us from our mantelpiece as we grew up, and eventually, grew older than her.

It is with mum that we stop now, where she is buried alongside our Koro and another sister of hers. We repeat with our children what our mother did with us, taking them to their Nanny, bringing them to remember. My own children were so young when mum died that they have tenuous memories of her, if they have them at all.

It hurts to wonder, one day, will my children stop stopping?

Clearly, I place a lot of feelings on this one woman, whose identity I don’t know.

At a museums conference in 2016, one of the keynote speakers, Moana Jackson, said that museums were dangerous. He spoke about how museums have the power to create histories, to be the namer of names, to be the hook upon which kōrero are hung, and he posited that for indigenous peoples, for the majority of time, we have not been in these institutions. So how do we approach a woman whose name we don’t know? A woman who is but one of many tīpuna Māori, whose history has been obfuscated through institutional forgetting.

We can subvert the power structure.

One example of how to do so comes from the Wiradjuri museum worker Nathan Sentance. Often in museum labels, if the maker or artist is unknown this is stated as just that, as “maker unknown”.

Seeing this alternative, which explores the way in which museum labels privilege their own knowledge over that of the object, is inspiring. This small change in language shifts the focus from privileging an institution’s absence of knowledge, to a taonga’s enduring grasp of that knowledge. One way in which institutions can divest the power we have in constructing histories is by acknowledging the knowledge imbued in our collections. I know that this can sound like a very curious notion, that inanimate objects can hold knowledge, but think of it this way: every pākati carved into a piece of wood, every whatu woven into a kākahu, every moko carved into skin, was done with purpose, was done with meaning. Te ao Māori is visual, and if people are fluent in the visual languages used to create our taonga, then maybe some of the meanings that the taonga holds will someday be understood again.

Another way that we can subvert is through exhibitions. If you go to level 5 at Te Papa, you will come to a red room that is hung in what is known as a salon hang. A wall of portraits looks back at you, and yet the gallery, titled Ngā Tai Whakarongorua | Encounters, co-curated by myself and my colleague Rebecca Rice. The gallery is bookended by two taonga. The first is a pūtātara called Te Umukohukohu from Tūhoe. It has a known history dating to the 1600s, and the reason for including it was to reflect the idea that taonga, like portraits, can represent people, that specific taonga can become synonymous with a person or peoples and their histories. Taonga puoro like pūtātara were also, at times, used to signify that danger was coming, so Te Umukohukohu plays a role in letting visitors know that the wall of historical portraits they are looking at involved contested histories. These histories cover the period of time from Captain Cook’s first arrival in the Pacific to the early 20th century in depictions by Charles Goldie. Te Umukohukohu and its long history also represents the fact that the story of this country, this whenua, does not begin with Cook.

Maori girl by Gottfried Lindauer (left) c. 1874, oil on canvas, and Portrait of a young Maori woman with moko by Louis John Steele (right) 1891, oil on canvas. Images: Te Papa Online Collections

Travelling along the wall, over and around and in these histories, brings you to Maori girl. Her gaze casts back around the room and we are reminded to look at these histories and to look again. There was no real contender for this wall, Maori girl was the only person who could do this. And if I can speak about this in another way, it is to say these two taonga represent the realities of Māori experiences: some Māori have a strong sense of whānau, hapū, iwi identity and history, while many others don’t. What Maori girl shows me is that where iwi connections have been dropped or dormant and language and whenua lost, our people endure, our mana endures. It is also an institutional duty to surface these women in the hope that their descendants may help to identify them so I also want to acknowledge the two other unknown wāhine Māori on the wall: Maori girl by Gottfried Lindauer, and Portrait of a young Maori woman with moko by Louis John Steele.

Lastly, because I have been so inspired by the Merata Mita documentary which everyone should see, I wanted to remind people of the latent power of the archive. These collections need people to bring stories to light and to construct histories from diverse perspectives. Merata Mita talked about decolonising the screen and indigenising it, well, the same can be said for our museums and archives.

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