In this article I explore what art as text can mean. I also present a couple of examples that you might actually find interesting to explore with your students.A couple of years ago, a wise friend gifted me the curiously named “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (Herzog, 2010). This beautifully made documentary is about some of the oldest surviving examples of visual art we have today – in the cave of Chauvet in France. The drawings are over 30,000 years old. I’d never seen the cave and I was so transfixed by what were for me, images so fresh and so simultaneously direct and complex that I felt tears prickle at the corner of my eyes. I’m a mum, and easily moved to tears one could argue, but moved I was. Moved, not only as a painter and drawer, but also as a person. Our ancestors reached out to me over 30,000 years through these drawings that looked like they could have been made yesterday. The arts are intricately woven through the fabric of our daily communication. Our world is enveloped in these visual, aural, kinesthetic, and performance based communications that are as old as speech itself. Visual communication in forms of artifacts and images have been found dating back 100,000 years. The community in that cave would have watched as the images took shape around them. How many people participated in making them? What did it mean for them? Did they share stories about the animals they had drawn as the flames of the hearth cast dancing shadows up the walls and across the images, making them dance too? Whatever they talked about, those images surrounded them in their life, in that cave. They would have accompanied children as they lay down to sleep, slipping stealthily into their dreams. 30,000 years later, in a small New Zealand town… One day, out of the blue, Grandma came to visit me at the museum where I worked organizing education and public programmes. “Grandma come in. Look around!” “No thanks love, I’ll wait for you at the door.” She never came in. We had a chat outside and then she went off shopping. In many cultures today, the “fine arts”, despite many attempts to break down perceptions, are often pigeon-holed and associated with a somewhat elitist world. My grandparents were never comfortable in a gallery. Museums were possibly a little more accessible. The arts in general baffled and intimidated them. They viewed them all with suspicion, with their revolutionary political views, or alliances with “society” and patrons. The arts were out to make them feel stupid. The arts were found inside uncomfortable places, places that were irrelevant to them. So they remained outside. Art School was the last place they wanted me to go. Unlike my grandparents, I had another cultural experience of the arts.I was lucky enough to live some years in a community that was predominantly Māori. The arts were woven throughout daily life to such an extent, that one couldn’t see where one “art” ended and another began. The arts belonged to everyone and they were an important wider text for reading what was going on. The ability to decode them formed part of the multi-modal and multi-dimensional literacy required to meaningfully navigate that culture. Tattoo as a multi-dimensional text As an example of this multi-dimensional quality, I will use the case of the tattoo. In New Zealand, tattoo is a sacred art form. Recently, a member of the New Zealand parliament, the Labour MP for Hauraki-Waikato Nanaia Mahuta, took part in a traditional moko (tattooing) ceremony that paid tribute to both the former Māori queen and the current king. It was held at his marae (tribal meeting place), called Waahi Pā. She had a tattoo put on her chin, which is a traditional place for Maori women to wear a tattoo. The following story has been adapted from an article by Mihingarangi Forbes (2016), Māori Issues Correspondent for Radio New Zealand . I have added translations of Māori concepts:
____Ms Mahuta is the niece of the late Māori queen, Te Arikinui Te Atairangi Kaahu, and a close relation to the current Māori monarch, KingiTuheitia. Over the weekend, she and fourteen other women had lines of lineage etched into their chins, called the “moko kauae”, by four well-respected tohunga (Tā Moko–tattoo experts). Her reasons for doing it and what it represented for her were many: “…my walk in life and kind of the way I want to go forward and make a contribution. That’s the main thing for me.” While having the moko etched into her chin, she thought of those who’d worn them before her. “My tupuna [ancestor] – the one that comes to mind was Piupiu, my great-grandmother. She was a strong woman in her own right, a contemporary of Te Puea [Princess Te Puea Herangi, CBE (9 November 1883 – 12 October 1952) a Māori leader from New Zealand’s Waikato region]. So, on my Maniapoto [tribe] side I draw a lot of strength of character from there, and my Ngāpuhi [tribe] side, so she came to mind immediately.” The design, which is unique to her, also replicates patterns from the wharenui [meeting house], called Tane-i-te-pupuke-at, the marae [official meeting place of a tribe], where the ceremony took place. And it was someone very close to Ms Mahuta who inspired her to take part. “Actually my daughter was the one that put the challenge out there so I embraced the challenge and she saw it and said ‘Mama, I love your moko [tattoo], I love your moko'”.
____As you can see, this tattoo isn’t just a text on her chin, an art work separated from other things to be read. Time and timing, space and place, carving, building, tribal ground, community, kinship, connection, ceremony, meditation, honour, recognition, duty, humility. These concepts, seen and decoded in a Maori context, make the tattoo, her moko kauae, a text that reaches out and joins into much more than itself. You need to be literate in all the parts of that ecosystem to understand that tattoo. There has been a lot of debate over the years of cultural appropriation. That is when someone, more commonly from a colonizer state, takes the cultural artifact of another group and makes use of it for themselves. Think of how the Mexican flower skull, used for ancient celebrations during El Día de los Muertos, has become a fashionable Halloween costume. As a New Zealander, I see “tribal tattoos” frequently on the arms and legs and backs of people here in Europe. They are found on unknown arms, all mixed up and decontextualized. A Maori tattoo artist would say that this type of “Maori Tribal Tattoo” is no longer a tribal tattoo of theirs. It is profaned. Appropriated. A meaningless set of squiggles. The questions to ask are:
- Is a Maori tattoo still tribal art if it hasn’t been done by a Maori artist?
- What about a non-Maori artist respectfully following the protocols. Is it a Maori tattoo? Is it “traditional”? Does this mean an art form can only be done by someone who has the genetics of the people who traditionally perform or make it?
- What if the design is changed and no longer reads “correctly”? Does it matter?
- Or if a traditional men’s leg tattoo from the Pacific, considered a sacred thing, is printed onto some Nike lycra leggings for women?
- How do Museums typically categorize objects?
- Who collected these objects and put them in a museum?
- What is the history of the area where this Museum is?
- Who typically makes decisions about what is displayed in a Museum? Whose point of view might it embody?
- Consider who the artist is: Fred Wilson is an American artist. He describes himself as of “African, Native American, European and Amerindian” descent.
- How does the artist’s identity inform what and how you see this exhibition?
- Dillon, G. (1999, July). Art and the Semiotics of Images: Three Questions About Visual Meaning.[online][accessed on 1/2/2017]. Retrieved from http://faculty.washington.edu/dillon/rhethtml/signifiers/sigsave.html
- Forbes, M.(2016, August 9). Mahuta in MP tattoo first.[online][accessed on 2/2/2017]. Retrieved from http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/political/310409/mahuta-in-mp-tattoo-first
- Lledó, E. (2000). El Surco del Tiempo. Barcelona: Critica.
- Herzog, W. (Director & writer). (2010). Cave of Forgotten Dreams [Documentary].USA: IFC Films.
- Return of the whipping post: Mining the museum. (2013, October 10). Retrieved from http://www.mdhs.org/underbelly/2013/10/10/return-of-the-whipping-post-mining-the-museum/
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