George Nuku merges the modern with the traditional in Scotland

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The fusion of contemporary Maori craftsmanship with a historic canoe from the South Seas is creating one of the centrepieces of the new displays at the Royal Museum of Scotland, in a project hailed as a unique artistic achievement.

The finished work, half modern Perspex, half ancient wood, will form a centrepiece in displays entitled Facing the Sea, when the refurbished galleries open in 2011. Curators who have been working with George Nuku, the Maori artist helping to complete the work, describe the likely outcome as exquisite, and a perfect counterpoint to works of contemporary art commissioned recently for the National Museum in Edinburghs Old Town.

GeorgeNukuCThe original canoe is a hybrid, part river boat, part warship, and was probably assembled from two boats in the early 19th century by a craftsman who had every intention of selling it to a wealthy European settler, according to Chantelle Knowles, curator of Pacific collections at the museum. Its relatively small hull was typical of craft which might have been used for fishing, but the ornate carvings of its prow and side strakes are taken from a boat built on twice the scale, and designed to be shown off in battle.

Some of the most elaborate carvings from the original are missing, and it is these that are being replaced by Mr Nuku, who wears his identity on his body. In the 1980s, he was one of a group of Maoris to revive the custom of Ta Moko full body tattoos including the marking of the head and face. He said it was important not only to keep traditions alive, but also to recreate the world of the early British explorers. The indigenous people had adapted very quickly to the arrival of the colonialists, he said.

We felt, with all due respect, that European superiority was entirely technological, said Mr Nuku. The tribes had been prepared to trade with the newcomers, as soon as they encountered the first European adventurers in the form of Captain Cook and the crew of the Endeavour, he added. They were paddling out without fear to what must have seemed a huge boat, holding things up and presenting what they had, he said. It would be totally in vain if we chose to forget it all. As an artist, I am concerned with fighting the globalisation of mediocrity. Museums, history and craftsmanship are needed more than ever, especially to encourage young people.

Researchers believe that the Edinburgh relic is the largest Maori canoe to be held in a museum outside New Zealand. It was acquired by Lord Thomas Brisbane, the governor of New South Wales between 1821 and 1825, essentially as a souvenir, according to Ms Knowles. He brought it home to his wifes estate at Makerstoun near Kelso and later it was donated to the old Edinburgh University museum, passing into the founding collection of the Royal Museum in the 1850s. It has not been on public display for at least a generation.

Collaborations between artists and museums have proved successful in the past. Eduardo Paolozzi and Andy Goldsworthy were commissioned for artworks in the archaeology galleries of the Museum of Scotland, which opened a decade ago. What sets the canoe apart from similar projects is the melding of artefact with contemporary artwork, said Ms Knowles.

It is a real experience for us. We dont usually make things, or remake them. We curate, we research, we conserve. Its a real tussle to move beyond that, but so rewarding to work with an artist of such brilliance, she said.

Mr Nuku believes that the process of adding to and reviving existing artefacts fits with the Maori world view, that all carvings are living things. He added that he often worked in Perspex. I love this material, he said. The plastic tells me what to do.

Source: Times Online

8 COMMENTS

  1. Ora George, Love your carving.....I also art in ancient timbers fron Aotearoa and Aussie hardwoods which are great whaku .

    Ora George,

    Love your work,,My negelt of late really is not good.

    Your show on TV this morning has impressed me massively.

    Kia Ora

    Wiremu

  2. LOLThe good thing associated with Lords …is that they are either famed fighters that we like to see our rangatira as being or foolish errants that live in castles. Lord brings adventure into the meaning over God the glorious and untouchable.

  3. I'm going to take George's lead and translate all my refs to nga Atua into a better english equivalent now – like you suggest, when we have to use english it would be so much nicer not to have to align with christian words. Still not totally sure about "Lord" sounds very english upper class LOL – but it's a great start

  4. VEry uplifting article … George Nuku work and 'korero' just what I needed. Yes Robyn, Like the Lord word to the God word if English has to be the language in essay. Say God and our people automatically think Christian!

  5. Love George's description of Tawhirimatea, I've been looking for a pakeha word other than "god" for our "Atua" for ages. His version – "Lord of the Tempest" beautiful.

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