Displaying 'racist' painting serves a purpose - Dr Paul Moon

Morning Talk 26/04/2018

Historian Paul Moon says there is no doubt a controversial painting should be shown in Taranaki.

Taranaki kaumātua Peter Moeahu is slating a New Plymouth art gallery after it tried to secure a controversial painting, which has been labelled as racist.

The 1861 oil painting by Englishman William Strutt depicts Māori armed with rifles driving away cattle during the Taranaki Wars.

Dr Paul Moon told Mark Sainsbury on Morning Talk that any conversation about controversial art must start by asking a simple question.

Does what it depict represent something that is racist?

“And that’s what I think concerns people,” Dr Moon said.

“One option is to say we don’t trust New Zealanders, we don’t trust that they’re able to make up their own minds about what is and isn’t racist, so we’ll make up their minds for them, we’ll ban anything that might be considered a racist message.

“The good option is to say “here’s a painting it represents the views of the time”, it’s perhaps a propaganda piece, and it’s exactly achieved its purpose. It’s got people discussing it.

"I don’t think there’s a single New Zealander who’s going to say “well, yes we are going to rally around this painting because it represents the good Europeans and the bad Maoris.”

“They’re going to say “this is the view of the time.. Look how far we’ve come since then.”

Te Atiawa kaumātua Peter Moeahu says the painting is racist and colonial propaganda.

"I remember going to school and that painting being shown way back then, and how it was used to ridicule the Māori students," he says.

"I mean, we were called thieves and robbers because of that painting."

It shows Māori, armed and driving away cattle, at the foot of Mt Taranaki while a settler homestead burns.

The Govett Brewster gallery in New Plymouth recently told local Māori they were considering exhibiting the work - news that stunned Mr Moeahu.

"It represents colonialists, it represents the lie that took place in this region, in Taranaki, it represents the thieving that was perpetrated against us, but it's reversed as if we were the ones doing the thieving."

He even ripped up a copy of the painting to show how he felt about it.

The William Strutt painting was bought by Te Papa for $1.5 million in 2015. It's currently on display at the museum alongside other works, in a display centred around the New Zealand wars.

Spokesperson Kate Camp says Govett-Brewster had asked about exhibiting the painting

"Every portrait of history tends to take a lens - and this one takes a very colonial, Pakeha view on history."

She sympathises with Mr Moeahu, but also sees the painting's value in telling the story of our uncomfortable past.

"They may not be easy stories, they might not be pretty stories - but they're really important ones," Ms Camp said.

"For us, the value's around the conversations it creates - and we accept that some of those are really difficult conversations.

"That's because New Zealand has a really fraught and difficult history."

The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery says displaying the work was only a suggestion.

The exhibition it was meant to be part of has now been postponed for further consultation.

Listen the full interview with Dr Paul Moon above.

Morning Talk with Mark Sainsbury, 9am - 12pm Weekdays and streaming live on 'rova' channel 9 - available on Android and iPhone.