Carving out a different path

Senior lecturer and alumna Ngarino Ellis (LLB, 1993; MA, 1997; PhD, 2012) is in a unique position to transform global art history.

Ngarino Ellis

“The really gratifying thing is that people who write about Māori carving don’t usually look like me, they don’t wear red lipstick; it’s a beautiful thing,” says Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Porou art historian Dr Ngarino Ellis.

We’re talking about her warm reception on the East Cape, where last year she had a special launch of her award-winning book, A Whakapapa of Tradition: One Hundred Years of Ngāti Porou Carving 1830-1930.

Referred to by Ngarino as “a 17-year PhD”, the handsome book won the 2017 Ockham Judith Binney Award for Best First Book, Illustrated Non-Fiction, as well as the Te Mahi Toi/Māori Arts Award at the 2017 Ngā Kupu Ora, Celebrating Māori Books and Journalism, and the inaugural Best First Book award from the NZ Historical Association.

“It was five years in production and I’m so pleased it got the critical acclaim; it was great to have that validation,” she says. Even better, Ngāti Porou, whose rich tradition it documents, is delighted with it.

“We launched it on the Cape with 100 local people and a catered lunch and unlike a ‘coffee table book’, they tell me they’re actually reading it and liking it; our people like books. They don’t have access to those boutique journals that we’re often encouraged to publish in.”

A senior lecturer in art history in the University’s Faculty of Arts, Ngarino focuses in her research on Māori art history, particularly Māori art and culture from c800 to the present day, and including both marae and gallerybased art practices.

She has concentrated on pre-1900 art, especially tribal carving, moko signatures, personal adornment and identity, with an emphasis on Māoricentred methodologies.

“Māori approaches to art history prioritise the personal, the role of the artist, and their relationship with their community. They use terms like mana, tapu, whakapapa and korero to understand art practices across time.”

Being a Māori art historian, however, can be “a lonely place to be”, she says. “There aren’t many people writing about Māori art history. You need your own people around you; I’d really like some colleagues.”

Ngarino is currently the only Māori art historian employed at tertiary level in New Zealand. There used to be others, but they’ve since left the field; although being on her own has meant she’s fostered fruitful collaborations with colleagues in other disciplines like fine arts, architecture and history.

One of the main problems is the feeder system into the subject from high schools, and the general ‘devaluing’ of the arts in schools and universities, she believes.

“There are only 108 high schools teaching art history as a subject at all; there used to be more, and there’s not one Māori art topic in NCEA Level 3. Why is there not Māori art history? By the time art history students come to us, they’ve had three years of hardcore European art and we can’t compete with that. It’s so frustrating and difficult. Where is the Treaty of Waitangi in all this?”

One of her specialist areas, always intriguing for the media, is art crime. She is a founding trustee of the Art Crime Research Trust, whose main aim is to hold annual symposia in the field in Wellington.

“I’m particularly interested in art theft within Māori culture. I’ve spoken in the media about the pair of valuable Lindauers stolen from a Parnell art gallery in 2017, and more recently, about the idea of their being sold on the dark web.”

This semester, one of her favourite courses is called The Art of Gender Politics.

“We focus on art made by Māori, Pacific, Native American, Canadian, and African-American women – film, textiles, tattoos, adornment, photography. The students are so engaged in the paper and really want to learn. I love teaching it.”

In her role as the University’s Convenor of Museums and Cultural Heritage, which she held from 2012 to 2017, she examined different approaches to the world of museums theory and practice.

“In particular I’ve been promoting the idea of writing and teaching about this field using only indigenous sources, which has been very exciting for me as an indigenous scholar.”

Last year, the programme had 21 students, including the first cohort of Master of Heritage Conservation students. The numbers have tripled since she started in the area.

Thinking back, a life combining her commitment to her people and her interest in art seems inevitable, but it almost didn’t happen.

“My mother Elizabeth comes from the North – the Bay of Islands – and was one of the first Māori women to study at Elam; she did a degree in Fine Arts, which is where she met my father, Professor Robert Ellis. He taught painting at Elam and was a notable artist himself, and still is.”

She grew up immersed in the Auckland art world, “there were exhibition openings to attend every week”, but also had a unique chance to experience life in the northern hemisphere.

“Every five years, our family (my father, me, my mother and twin sister Hana) went back to my father’s home in the UK, when he had a sabbatical.

“We went to a little village called Kingsthorpe in Northampton, where our Granny and Pappy lived; I’m very  familiar with all of Northampton and very close to my whānau there.” She left school – Westlake Girls, where her own daughters now attend – at the end of sixth form.

“I actually wanted to be a diplomat; I got some help from Margaret Taurere, an adviser in Māori Studies at the University in 1987, who advised me to do a conjoint BA/LLB. I wanted to do something to help my people.”

She completed her conjoint degree, got admitted to the Bar, practised a little, but wasn’t really enjoying it.

“While I was practising law, I studied a day a week for my masters in Art History, which I really liked, but I had to ask the question, ‘How can I still help my people as an art historian?’ ”

Māori approaches to art history prioritise the personal, the role of the artist, and their relationship with their community.

A key mentor, Māori feminist academic Emeritus Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku (University of Waikato), offered her a tutoring position in Art History at Auckland and she found herself at a crossroads.

“Should I stay in law or go over to art history?”

In the end she says, art history was her path, and anyway, she couldn’t have raised her family on a lawyer’s hours. “I wanted to be the prime caregiver for my children, as my mother had been for my sister and me. That was very important to me, my family were my main priority.”

So things have turned out pretty well. Her husband and their three children have been able to travel with her on her own sabbaticals, and enjoyed the experience.

“We all went to Europe and the US earlier this year; my children are now very well-travelled, they get to see the benefits of what I do, and in fact, I’m hoping my oldest daughter might want to become an exchange student somewhere overseas. I think they’re proud of me; they’ve seen me lecturing to 180 students in a lecture room and they get it.”

The University of Auckland has been a hub for her family across a couple of generations.

“My sister Hana is a family lawyer based at Manukau, my mother’s sister Helen has an MA in English, my cousin Liz has a Bachelor of Engineering and works in that field. I do value this University for its breadth of courses, and the quality of its teaching; and it’s great to have our meeting house and our lovely Fale Pasifika.”

However, she feels there still isn’t enough support for Māori and Pacific academics.

“We’re left to make our own connections. We live in New Zealand’s largest city with a large Māori population – we have to recognise the presence of Māori.”

Her most ambitious project to date, “which has to be with Auckland University Press by the end of the year”, is Toi Te Mana: A History of Indigenous Art from Aotearoa New Zealand, a Marsden-funded book she’s been working on with the late Professor Jonathan Mane- Wheoki (CNZM) and Professor Deidre Brown from Creative Arts and Industries.

“It will be the first comprehensive history of Māori art, investigating the relationships, continuities and commonalities between the art of the ancestors and their descendants, using specially-developed art history and Kaupapa Māori methodologies.”

Internationally, she says, art historians have begun to dismantle boundaries around Western European fine art that have “purposefully excluded indigenous making and makers,” and this coincides with a time when Māori are leading research into indigenous knowledge.

“We are ideally placed within these discussions to help transform the discipline globally through the development of an innovative Māori art history.”

By Julianne Evans

Ingenio: Spring 2018

This article appears in the Spring 2018 edition of Ingenio, the print
magazine for alumni and friends of the University of Auckland.

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