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TESSA LAIRD
pink eye: is this whitefella dreaming?

A review of ALBINO, Francis Upritchard and Rohan Wealleans
Ivan Anthony Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand, April 2004.

The first thing I see when I step inside the door of Ivan Anthony Gallery is London-based New Zealander Francis Upritchard's Baboon Head on Rug. It's a semi-simian 'Untitled', (Baboon Head on Rug) by Francis Upritchard, 2004.relic, casually displayed on a square of fabric on the floor. With a stripy face that apes Picasso's Les Demoiselles D'Avignon (which in turn mimicked African masks), Mandrill Head on Rug would be a more specific moniker. The rug is ragged red, like an Afghani swaddling cloth, or the outer layer of a shaman's "bundle." (I was actually, in all seriousness, shown a Native American shaman's bundle along with his clothes and his book of spells, at a rare books and art dealer's in Los Angeles, where it was being sold for a tidy sum. If I hadn't been so fascinated, I might have cried.)

Iretrace my steps to the start of the show, because I now realise that the big framed print at the door is part of Albino, not some piece of anonymous "stairwell" art, which it cleverly lampoons. This is Rohan Wealleans' latest stuff - and he has gone all tribal - and in case you didn't get it, the work is even called Large Tribal Print. My immediate impression of the tribal print and the baboon head, seen in combination, is that I'm entering Sigmund Freud's office or some other arcane seat of power. You know the (man)drill, a white man displays the trophies of his travel, and of his benign-if-smug understanding of primitive people (he understands them better than they understand themselves).

So, why should young white artists want to emulate this language of motheaten power, which has all the currency of a dodo in a periwig? In Robert Smithson's "The Establishment", (1968) the artist rails against a "Museum of Leftover Ideologies," where you will find "in glass cases unknown lumps of something labeled 'Aesthetics.'"1 Upritchard used to specialise in unknown lumps (pinkish blobs that were part limb, part potato), but her recent work seems to owe more to Smithson's imagined "Room of Savage Splendor", where "we see a group of simulated 'primitives' made of plaster sitting around a campfire with cellophane flames beating the air ferociously." 2

'Orrey III,' by Francis Upritchard, 74.5 cm x 56.5 cm x 178.5 cm (h x w x l), 2004.The pathetic, crumbling dioramas that Smithson so despised are part of a vanishing world that Upritchard invokes in her recreations of museum mummifications (Egyptian or otherwise). In this project of perverse restoration, Upritchard shares concerns with the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. Director David Wilson says that the museum is part of a larger project of the Society for the Restitution of Decayed Intelligence - a nebulous network for the promotion of artful nostalgia. The Society willfully preserves the maligned, the obscure, the embarrassingly dotty, lest we be subsumed in a generic world of slimlines and simulcasts. Back at the Ivan Anthony Gallery, Upritchard has created a table of shonky planets in their respective orbits. The sculpture looks remarkably like one of the many models of the cosmos proposed by 17th Century genius Athanasius Kircher, which have been lovingly recreated in the Museum of Jurassic Technology's finest exhibit, The World Is Bound with Secret Knots.

Upritchard's work isn't just low-tech, it's Jurassic Tech. As the museum's name suggests, Upritchard's interests lie embedded at the primordial end of the geologic timeline. The artist produces objects that look like they could have been fashioned by her own poorly assembled simians; creatures made from scraps of fur and what looks like plasterscene (Pleistocene?). A few days after seeing this show I pick up Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, which starts out like this:

"In my grandmother's dining-room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet a piece of skin. It was a small piece only, but thick and leathery, with strands of coarse, reddish hair. It was stuck to a card with a rusty pin. On the card was some writing in faded black ink, but I was too young then to read.

'What's that?' 'A piece of brontosaurus.' My mother knew the names of two prehistoric animals, the brontosaurus and the mammoth. She knew it was not a mammoth. Mammoths came from Siberia.

The brontosaurus, I learned, was an animal that had drowned in the Flood, being too big for Noah to ship aboard the Ark. I pictured a shaggy lumbering creature with claws and fangs and a malicious green light in its eyes." 3

Chatwin's old sailor cousin Charley had discovered the creature:

"Directly he saw the brontosaurus poking out of the ice, he knew what to do. He had it jointed, salted, packed in barrels, and shipped to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington." 4

Chatwin's recollection of playing at his grandmother's sounds suspiciously like a Upritchard installation:

"On the mantelpiece were two Japanese homunculi with red and white ivory eyes that popped out on stalks. I would play with these, or with a German articulated monkey, but always I pestered her: 'Please can I have the piece of brontosaurus.'" 5

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Upritchard has been making a name for herself in London where Charles Saatchi has bought chunks of her defiantly pathetic oeuvre. In 2003 she made a splash with Save Yourself, a small mummy vibrating and moaning on the gallery floor. The mummy was surrounded by funerary urns, and had a packet of cigarettes tucked into its bandages. A solitary eye glared balefully from the bandaged head. In Albino, Upritchard's penchant for addled Egyptology returns in the form of half-hearted godsticks fashioned from old tennis rackets and topped with the canine visage of Anubis, or some other motley member of the pantheon.

Upritchard has in the past made a series of those most emotive of artifacts - shrunken heads. Known in Aotearoa/New Zealand as mokomokai or toi moko, examples of these are on our "most wanted" list for repatriation - and there have been some success stories to date. I recently attended an address by Dr. Jose Perez Gollan, from the Ethnographic Museum of Buenos Aires, who was in Aotearoa for the repatriation of a toi moko to Te Papa Tongarewa (The Museum of New Zealand). He felt strongly that all human remains should be returned to their people, and told hair raising stories of a couple of Mapuche caciques (chiefs of the Mapuche tribe) who had first been guards at an anthropological museum in Argentina, and whose remains continued to be exhibited after their deaths.

Upritchard is quick to comment that her fictitious shrunken heads are "Pakeha" (white New Zealanders) which she says are "much funnier."6 There is a sick kind of humour in Upritchard's sticky, jaundiced human remains, with their jutting teeth, their bristling moustaches and their weepy hollow eye-sockets. But it's hard to gauge where the humour is coming from. Is it the absurdity of Upritchard's handiwork, or the racial switcheroo that's so rib-tickling? Or are Pakeha like me simply desperate for an excuse to laugh at the sanctity of tribal remains, like children fidgeting in church?

I found some more whitefella-fabricated toi moko on the Internet. Made by Andreas Detloff, a German living in Tahiti, these heads ran the gamut from Maori to Sepik to Pacific Islander. Most of them had some kind of commercial spin - one sported the fleurs de lis, another a hibiscus motif, in the typical South Pacific tourist style. The "Maori" head sported a moko that included the Coca Cola logo in its intricate pattern of spirals. According to Detloff, Pakeha New Zealanders freaked when they saw this head, scolding Detloff, while Maori who saw the head laughed uproariously. Detloff finishes with this apocryphal sounding anecdote: the Americans who saw the head asked, "Gee, did they have Coke back then?" 7

It's unfair to Detloff, but I couldn't help thinking of the fictional German lover of tribal art I had just come across in the 1968 classic Bound to Violence by Yambo Ouologuem. Set in an imaginary African country around the turn of the century, Ouologuem paints an unremittingly bleak portrait of colonialism, and of the African gentry who supported its structures. In this particular vignette, he satirises the tribal art collector, a type that was no doubt ubiquitous, and probably still is. Apparently based on the real figure of archaeologist Leo Frobenius, Ouologuem's Fritz Schrobenius makes grandiloquent statements about the ancient majesty of Africa, while simultaneously lining his own coffers:

' "But these people are disciplined and civilized to the marrow! ... It was only when white imperialism infiltrated the country with its colonial violence and materialism that this highly civilized people fell abruptly into a state of savagery, that accusations of cannibalism, of primitivism, were raised, when on the contrary - witness the splendour of its art - the true face of Africa is the grandiose empires of the Middle Ages, a society marked by wisdom, beauty, prosperity, order, nonviolence, and humanism, and it is here that we must seek the true cradle of Egyptian civilization."

Thus drooling, Shrobenius derived a twofold benefit on his return home: on the one hand, he mystified the people of his own country who in their enthusiasm raised him to a lofty Sorbonnical chair, while on the other hand he exploited the sentimentality of the coons, only too pleased to hear from the mouth of a white man that Africa was "the womb of the world and the cradle of civilization."

(...)

And, shrewd anthropologist that he was, he sold more than thirteen hundred pieces, deriving from the collection he had purchased from Saif and the carloads his disciples had obtained in Nakem free of charge, to the following purveyors of funds: the Musee de l'Homme in Paris, the museums of London, Basel, Munich, Hamburg, and New York. And on hundreds of other pieces he collected rental, reproduction, and exhibition fees.

(...)

Already it had become more than difficult to procure old masks, for Shrobenius and the missionaries had had the good fortune to snap them all up. And so Saif - and the practice is still current - had slapdash copies buried by the hundredweight, or sunk into ponds, lakes, marshes, and mud holes, to be exhumed later on and sold at exorbitant prices to unsuspecting curio hunters. These three-year-old masks were said to be charged with the weight of four centuries of civilization. To the credulous customer, the seller pointed out the ravages of time, the malignant worms that had gnawed at these masterpieces imperiled since time immemorial, witness their prefabricated poor condition." 8

Oddly enough, both Upritchard and Wealleans seem to want to be caught in the act of creating poor facsimiles. It's as if deceit is more interesting to them than sincerity. The colonial embarrassments of people like Shrobenius are admitted to in Albino, rather than swept under the carpet. What is less clear, is whether or not they are being celebrated, and if so, why.

-

I have been thinking about repatriation a lot since I recently watched the 1995 BBC documentary Artist Unknown, which follows a London businessman of Trinidadian extraction on a pilgrimage to Africa. He wants to trace the origins of a Benin bronze mask he bought in London, and while his goal remains elusive, we learn about the British Sack of Benin in 1897, and about the hundreds of Benin bronzes and ivories that the British Museum still holds. The Benin City Museum in Nigeria, by comparison, is virtually empty.

When I did some Internet research on repatriation, I discovered that eighteen of the world's major museums including the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan in New York, and the British Museum in London, have signed a petition saying that they won't bow to demands for repatriation because "museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation."9 Although why, for example, the Benin bronzes can't be for "every nation" in Nigeria instead of in England remains a mystery. Tourism has been cited as a reason why artefacts shouldn't be returned to their country of origin - because European countries have infrastructures for tourism that 'other' countries don't. Heaven forbid that the enormous amount of dollars that tourism represents in Europe might be shared amongst some of the world's poorer countries! Security is also apparently a big issue, because savages don't know how to look after their own artwork (we understand them better than they understand themselves).

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In Albino, Upritchard's usual grisly fare is made even stranger by its proximity to Wheallens' inpenetrably illogical experiments. A painter's painter, Wealleans is notorious in these parts for being 'the guy that paints cunts.' His previous series involved pouring layers and layers of enamel paint onto canvas, which he eventually cut through, in order to create a labial gateway into the picture plane. The Director of Artspace Aotearoa, Tobias Berger, a German with a propensity for Fitzcarraldo-style white suits, caused a minor media furor when he selected Wealleans for the top prize at the Waikato Art Award. Berger told the press with characteristic charm, "It may be that I was just attracted to this huge bright vagina." 10

But today, Wealleans has filled the space with two large, almost person-size blobs, called Ritual Paintings which morph between granite slabs for human sacrifice and misshapen pissoires, pooling crimson paint like fake blood. Alphonso Lingis in Abuses has gotten me closer to understanding Aztec sacrifice, in which human blood was used as collateral against the sudden ceasing up of the cosmic machine. They used to do it in Tonga, too, before the King burned or hung all the wooden effigies of the old gods, on his conversion to Christianity in the 1830s.

A friend of mine tells me that Wealleans is not actually white, but an albino Polynesian. His excessively pale colouring and stocky build make this seem feasible enough, and as if to emphasise this point, Wealleans called the show Albino and wore an ie at the opening (a man's formal lavalava, worn for church and other ceremonial occasions). But then another friend told me that there's not a shred of truth to the albino myth. I'm not sure who to believe, and it doesn't matter anyway. Wealleans is now one up on New Zealand's storehouse of brownie-point hunters, such as painter Peter Robinson, who at 3.125% Maori is characterised as indigenous, not to mention performance artist Daniel Malone, who, with little more than an unsubstantiated family rumour, identifies himself as Cherokee. Wealleans' requirements for identity shift are meager indeed - someone else's misapprehension becomes instant whakapapa (Maori for genealogy). (Actually, that's a good title for a song, like John Lennon's "Instant Karma".)

'Large carved tribal painting no.2,'by Rohan Weallean, 90cm x 120cm, (w x h), 2004.Wealleans' sudden identification with Polynesia clutters the rest of the available exhibition space with a range of hackneyed Pasifikan motifs. His former brand of deliberate doltishness - a man making paintings of pussies big enough to climb into (I think of Mia Ou's photograph Untitled (Your favourite place to go is where you came out) 2003) - has been replaced by a whitey carving tapa-cloth clichés into painterly surfaces. There are even a couple of big-tit, big-ass women gyrating on his canvases, like those abominable 'African' cocktail stirrers I remember seeing in my youth. Wealleans likes to provoke - there's an abundance of 'tribal jewellery' here. From a distance, it looks like misshapen chunks of fimo strung together, but close-up I realise it's more of Wealleans' trademark layered paint. Some of this jewellery is modeled by a paint-bedaubed white woman in a forest, photographed by New Zealand's best perverted portraitist, Yvonne Todd. It's as offensive and as ingenuous as Dadaist Hugo Ball intoning Karawane, a poem he cobbled together from various Oceanic languages because they appeared to the audience at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 to be gibberish. The entire sorry Primitivist project is unwrapped like a mummy in Albino - both artists have a stab at its naked corpse.

The sin of appropriation, as committed by Picasso, Gauguin, et al, is here reappraised and perhaps resuscitated. The two young white artists have grown up in an art world obsessed with the reclamation of imagery and identity by indigenous artists, if only in penance for its formerly foul behaviour. The catfight between William Rubin and Thomas McEvilley, which filled the pages of Artforum in the mid-eighties following Rubin's Primitivism show at MoMA, was the last time that white people nominated themselves to be at the centre of this debate. Since then, they have been too polite to trespass on this "other" territory. That is, perhaps, until now.

Cross-cultural appropriation within the New Zealand artworld has formed its own koru (spiral). Pakeha artist Gordon Walters appropriated Maori kowhaiwhai imagery to fashion modernist masterpieces in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. In the 1990s, young Maori artist Michael Parekowhai re-appropriated Walters' imagery, as well as that of a host of other canonical artists, both from New Zealand and abroad. These relationships continue to complexify - we now have white-boy Wealleans echoing the most pedestrian aspects of the Pasifika industry - stylised frangipani and chunky jewellery, some of which he even displays in shoebox lids, they way they would be sold at the Otara market (the biggest Pacific meeting place in Auckland, the largest Polynesian city in the world). The tokenisation of the Pacific is big business here in Aotearoa. As Auckland-based Samoan hip-hop artist King Kapisi sarcastically puts it in "Screams from da old Plantation" off his brilliant 2000 album Savage Thoughts, "Come into my life, I've got coconuts to show you!"

Perhaps Wealleans is making a brave statement about cultural stereotyping, and warning us to be wary of tokenism, essentialism, and all those other isms that plague the indigenous artist? Or maybe this art is truly reactionary, and Wealleans falls in line with the current right-wing revival in New Zealand politics, spearheaded by the National Party's Don Brash, who wants to do away with any form of "race-based" funding, and to put an end to the Treaty of Waitangi claims process once and for all. Is Wealleans, then, a kind of Brash of the brush, making indigeniety look dumb and unsexy? Whatever Wheallens' intentions, I would like to lock him in a room with New Zealand-based Pacifikan jewellers and see what they make of his deliberately bumbling brand of primitivism, his chunky tribal pastiche.

For now, it's enough to enjoy the sheer audacity of the artists, their absolute lack of pretence towards having any intrinsic connection with their objects of fascination other than as disembodied trophies. Between Uprtichard's elegant mank and Wealleans' dodgy sludge, there's a strange kind of energy which I would characterise as a-moral. And for some reason, despite, or perhaps because of my own attempts towards a kind of cultural morality, I find this aberrant work exciting.

Footnotes:

1.Smithson, Robert, "The Establishment", from The Collected Writings of Robert Smithson, Ed. Jack Flam, 1996
2.Ibid
3.Chatwin, Bruce, In Patagonia, Penguin Books, USA, 1977, p 1
4.Ibid
5.Ibid, p 2
6.Upritchard, Frances, quoted in Dunn, Megan, 'Mummy Dearest,' Pavement, February/March 2003, p 54
7.Detloff, Andreas, Kunstler ohne Grenzen, (Artists without borders), http://www.passe-partout.de/passe-partout/docs_de/fartdetd.htm, accessed 6/6/04
8.Ouologuem, Yambo, Bound to Violence, Heinemann Educational, London, 1971, pp 95-96
9.The British Museum Newsroom, Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums, http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/newsroom/current2003/universalmuseums.html, accessed 10/6/04
10.Berger, Tobias, quoted in Bywater, Jon, 'Take off your Clothes', New Zealand Listener, October 4-10, 2003, http://www.listener.co.nz/default,807.sm, accessed 10/6/04