Perhaps my most memorable inauguration into the Christchurch art
scene was the day I met Peter Robinson, who, with uncharacteristic
zest, insisted I escort him to Scorpio Books where he began leafing
through international art magazines. As if by chance, the copy of
Frieze he was thumbing fell open at a page featuring an illustration
of one of his own works. When I gave him his due congratulations,
and even offered to buy a copy, Robinson insisted on signing the
page with much aplomb in front of a rather bewildered teller.
I enjoyed this impromptu performance. After all, I wouldn't be interested
in art if I didn't appreciate egoism as an endearing form of self
expression. In the course of this morning, the artist was deliberately
dropping major hints about his art practise, and as a would-be reviewer,
I was rabid for clues. Later, though, alone with my Frieze, I found
a clue to the Robinson oeuvre with perhaps even more relevance than
this unscheduled reconnaissance. That was an article called "A colouring
book" and subtitled "Niru Ratnam charts the shift from race to colour."
A photograph of Freddie Mercury as the young Gujarati boy he once
was provided a poignant encapsulation of the idea that artists change
races to satisfy audiences.
Robinson has done this at least twice in an effort to satisfy an
audience who like to mix a little cynicism with their PC. What made
his work work in the past were the layers of irony he encrusted
into paintings with the texture of severe dermatitis. Turn back
the clock a little more, though, and we see a much more earnest
representation of what a Maori artist ought to be and produce.
Robinson's latest move to reclaim his Pakeha heritage out of the
debris of first a serious and then a "virtual" Maori identity leaves
a lot to be desired. One of his debut forays back onto the other
side from the "other" side was a window work at Teststrip, Auckland,
in March this year. Robinson filled the Karangahape Road window
with a large black painting. In the centre of the dark rectangle
was a white swastika, and at the bottom was Robinsons signature
along with the words "Pakeha have rights too."
It seems a large part of this "becoming pakeha" involves exchanging
formerly bustling surfaces which resembled tribal and/or 'naive'
art, for white cube minimalism. What worked so well before, the
sense of being overwhelmed by language and its never ending implications,
has been superseded by a series of one-liners. Seen in each others'
company, in the erudite cocoon of the Peter McLeavy Gallery, Wellington,
the works might have struck me as clever. Obviously, Jenny Harper,
Head of Art History, Victoria, was enamoured enough of the work
that she bought the original smaller swastika piece to hang in her
office. Seen in the context of a seat of intellectual power, the
work is no doubt intended to be an ironic comment on the dominant
discourse of white art history the world over. But it can also be
read as supporting and being supported by that very domination.
It is highly unlikely that Harper would have bought the work had
it been executed by an all-white artist. Robinson gives kudos to
racist sentiments by brandishing a bogus Maori identity.
In its isolation on K Road, Pakeha have rights too looked like nothing
more than Robinson plumping for a role in Dumb and Dumber. Within
a day of this work's appearance, the window had been graffitied,
the white sign and white words crossed through with white spray
paint. While a politically correct vandal silenced a wilfully perverse
artist, K Road's coloured population wandered past with characteristic
I was one viewer, though, who found it difficult to slough my personal
baggage when confronted by this bold if facile assertion from one
of the country's "ones to watch." If the degree of effrontery given
is the yardstick of good art then I guess this work was just smashing.
It certainly had me fuming months after viewing, and, on picking
up a copy of the Listener, April 19, I saw that it had thrown Justin
Paton into a similar conundrum. Paton, though, despite the fact
that he mentions the word "career" four times, still portrays Robinson
as if he were the protagonist of an Alan Duff novel, with "pugnacious,
back-against-the-wall despair," Robinson "shakes on his chains loudly,
angrily." Paton is talking about a small town South Island boy who
now teaches at Christchurch's most exclusive school, and gets called
"sir" all day everyday. If having a 32nd of Maori blood is a cause
for pathos, then lord help the real ones.
Meanwhile, Robinson's rudely over-simplistic art work had me nursing
my own bloodlines. Just who, did he suppose, fell under the rubric
of "Pakeha"? Artists who have drawn the short and plain old vanilla
straw? As one of these nebulous "Pakeha" creatures I roundly if
predictably objected to being associated with the swastika.
I take the term Pakeha to be specifically applied to the white natives
of this country, most of whom have British heritage. The Union Jack
as a signifier of colonialism would have made more sense than the
very symbol so many New Zealand patriots died fighting against.
(Old prejudices die hard; only this year the Christchurch RSA voiced
indignation at the council's plan to plant cherry trees, for reigniting
memories of that old enemy, Japan.) And while fascism employs many
guises, I feel it is at least worth making an Anglo-Germanic distinction
as it is, say, making the distinction between various iwi and hapu,
a game Robinson has played to the hilt, albeit with his wananga
firmly in his cheek.
For me, the swastika is much more complex than an iconographic summation
of all that is evil via its brief appropriation by the German Nazi
Party. It also enjoys much more frequent reproduction and veneration
as a symbol of good luck among Hindus, who no doubt have always
outnumbered Nazis and contemporary artists put together, and probably
That the work in question so patently ignores these complexities
and instead settles for the most guaranteed-result shock-tactic
in the book adds up to an intellectual insult, both to Robinson
fans and general passers by. What grates most is I feel Robinson
is only operating on an art-political, rather than social-political
platform. No great crime, but given the window space and the propaganda
aesthetics, I'd expect to be hearing more than "keep watching me!"
The work only works, in effect, if you are conversant with Robinson's
oeuvre extant and understand the break he is making from self-imposed
exile as an Artist Of Colour. The painting's outsize signature,
and the seeming complete about face from his earlier crowd-pleasing
ironic-polemics, all scream "career move" rather than of using art
as a conduit for social ideas. Robinson, having gone just about
as far as he possibly can with 3.125% gas in his tank, so now he's
switching to a different fuel, and this one is branded "KKK."
Robinson is enjoying a renaissance as being an enfant terrible after
being every curator's ideal (Claytons) Maori artist. He also enjoyed
playing a game of chicken with the Teststrip gallery, which has
a reputation as being 'cutting edge.' Would they have the guts to
display such fascistic sentiments in the middle of a multicultural
boulevard? Yes, they would. But would Robinson have the guts to
make a trip up to Auckland for the opening? Would he, effectively,
stand by his work, be available to answer for it and be prepared
to take responsibility for damages, verbal or physical, incurred
because of his artwork? No, he wouldn't.
As an act of bravery, the work becomes roughly equivalent to a crank
call...fun for the perpetrator but ineffably juvenile. Unfortunately
the response of the spray-canned censor didn't manage to up the
ante of an already base set of sentiments, and effectively closed-shop
on further debate. The simplistic level of the protest reflected
the level the work itself managed to engage the viewer on, and that
was one of reactionary behaviour all round.
Living in a town where racist attacks on immigrant groups is a regular
item in the newspaper, I wonder how exactly Robinson can get a good
joke out of artistic use of the swastika. Certainly, it makes an
apposite regional export, but this is assuming we all have the good
fortune to be in a position to read the piece from an ironic perspective.
If I were a Somali with a worse case of baseball-bat blues than
Derrick Cherrie, the chances of this would be NIX.
My final observations continued in a juvenile vein, as I wondered
if Peter Robinson's residency in Aachen might have scrambled his
brains to the extent that all white people seem German, at least
to the 'black boy' Robinson still insists he is. That, and working
in Christ's College, seem to have affected both his politics and
his palette (the uniforms are black and white stripes, like early
Frank Stella paintings with all their fascistic connotations). Beyond
that I can only hope that Robinson's formerly astute works are on
a temporary vacation, and that we will shortly witness his return
to a more complex cunning.