Quite simply, “The Labours of Herakles” exhibition by Marian Maguire now at the Hastings City Art Gallery is the most interesting and satisfying exhibition of New Zealand art that I have seen for some time. The works are lithographs and etchings, that is, limited edition prints made by the artist.
Printmaking has become less fashionable in recent years which is a pity as the processes involved give the works their unique character and, of course, it makes original art works accessible to buyers at real world prices.
Maguire has taken the theme of the labours of Herakles, (a set of daunting tasks set for Herakles, that macho hero of Greek mythology,) as a metaphor for the colonising of New Zealand. Colonists are shown as figures drawn from the black figure illustrations of ancient Greek vases, while her Maori images stem from portraits by early-contact European artists like Parkinson (Cook’s artist) and de Sainson (d’Urville). This use of metaphor gives the work considerable graphic elegance and helps us to view the trials and conflicts of colonial times objectively.
There are parallels between ancient Greece (the dominant source of Western culture) and early Maori. Both involved heroic voyages and a strong core of warrior culture in their mythology.
In “Herakles writes Home” the colonist (Herakles) sits in his slab hut surrounded by transported trappings of his cultural origins but the rough cleared bush seen through the window speaks of his new reality.
Maguire recognises the complexities of Maori – settler relationships too. “Herakles discusses Boundary Issues with the Neighbours” sees the images of Maori and colonist interchange while in a wonderfully moving “Herakles goes to Gallipoli” a colonist and de Sainson’s Maori chief are aligned, in uniform, with Herakles, in a common cause.
The artist also shows a wicked sense of humour. Look for Herakles’ hilarious attempt at rabbit control and the futility of his efforts to repulse the amazons (suffragrettes) and to make a chariot from No. 8 wire.
The technical control shown in this work completes a most engaging exhibition which runs until June 28th.
Another “must see” show at the Hastings City Art Gallery from June to August is a major survey of the works of John Bevan Ford.
Ford was a foremost member of that innovative group of Maori artists of the later 20th Century whose integration of traditional Maori themes with contemporary Western art created some of the most unique New Zealand art of the period.
Sadly, for many years they were largely ignored by the arbiters of taste in the galleries and art books of the 1970s and 80s before receiving their due recognition in shows like this.