A painting of a bare-breasted Māori leader, deemed offensive by local iwi, has been stolen from a Nelson art gallery.
The symbolic artwork shows Nelson-born tribal leader, Huria Mātenga, draping a cloak in front of her naked, pierced breasts. The storm-hit Boat Shed and the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter are in the painting’s background.
Artist and Saligia Art Gallery co-owner Nikki Romney said the piece had provoked a lot of negative feedback on the gallery’s website blog saying the picture should be taken down due to it being “offensive”, “disgusting” and culturally insensitive.
“I fight against these things: oppressing people and artists’ freedom of expression.”
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The work was hung on the side of the gallery on lower Trafalgar St on Monday evening and disappeared on Thursday evening.
Romney said it was clear the print, measuring 2400 x 1200cms, had been stolen by an individual or group opposing the art.
“There’s no doubt about it.”
Romney said the piece, Of giant steel waka and the Maori Mona Lisa, used symbolism drawn from Nelson storms, including Mātenga’s rescue of crewmen from the sailing ship, Delaware, off Wakapuaka in 1863. She and two companions swam out through the surf to bring the crew ashore. All but one survived.
Mātenga gained national prominence for the rescue. The Government gave her a £50 reward, and the people of Nelson presented her with a gold watch paid for by the public.
“[Mātenga] is part of a historic storm with the rescue of the Delaware; and then we’ve got the modern day storm which happened a year ago … we had The Boat Shed almost taken away.”
She said despite people disagreeing with the nakedness of Mātenga, she had done her research.
“I put the bare-breasted bit in there because I felt that’s true to what historically was appropriate.”
Romney reported stolen art to the police on Friday morning.
She said she wouldn’t be bullied. “I shouldn’t have to consult every time I have to do something with a Māori element.”
On Saturday they had softened their stance. Romney’s partner Alan Clarke said they had paid a signwriter for a replacement piece, but after talking with iwi had destroyed it and decided not to re-hang it on their gallery.
They would be talking further with iwi this week.
Local iwi say the depiction of Huria Mātenga is more than just historically incorrect.
Whakatu marae chair Jane du Feu said it was “artistic licence gone a bit too far”.
Mātenga would have been wearing clothes in the late 1800s, she said.
“She took to European clothes like most Māori did.”
She said showing the Māori woman naked was insensitive to Mātenga’s family, alive today.
“If it was [Romney’s] great grandmother would she do the same?”
Ngāti Tama ki Te Waipounamu Trust general manager Jaqui Ngawaka said Mātenga was an ancestor of the Ngāti Tama iwi.
She said while it supported freedom of expression, “in this instance we strongly disagree and are deeply offended with the misappropriation of Māori knowledge that diminishes the memory of our tūpuna whāea (matriarch).”
Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū assistant curator, Nathan Pohio said artists couldn’t have “free rein” when it came to other people’s culture.
“Art making is a western tradition and it needs to fall in alignment with indigenous cultural traditions … that’s the responsibility of an artist in this case.
“Huria Mātenga is of Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Toa decent, it is from this understanding of Huria’s whakapapa that the artist should have first approached her various rūnanga (tribal council), confirm who to speak with and seek advice on how to best represent Huria”.