The exhibition, State of Grace, comprises of two parts, with a one hundred and fifty year interval, but recognizably the same setting.
The first part, an alternate-history, is an extrapolation on the supposed French Catholic threat to British, Protestant aspirations for Aotearoa. Henry Williams wrote complaining of obstacles to signature gathering for the Treaty that “the Popish Bishop has been endeavouring to poison the minds of the natives but has not succeeded. Many of the chiefs hung back for some time, having been told that they would be sent to break stones as the convicts of Port Jackson.” And Governor Fitzroy, after Hone Heke’s attacks on the flagpole at Kororareka, wrote to Lord Stanley; “that Frenchmen as well as Americans have instigated and encouraged the natives to resist the authority of Great Britain to treat Her Majesty’s name with contempt – is certain. The Roman Catholic Bishop and his priests, all Frenchmen, are in constant communication with the French frigate Le Rhin…these Frenchmen go about the country very secretly; they are most Jesuitical in their manner and conduct. There is always one, of much intelligence, at Auckland … “
If you take some of the bare facts, as recorded in contemporary writing, then a story can be spun from them. I was interested to read that Bishop Pompallier did in fact draw up a written deed of common ownership of land, for Opotiki, putting in writing what was already customary practice, and making land sales to prospective British settlers more unlikely. Also that Pompallier’s printing press soon became the property of the Waikato Maori and was used for the printing of King Movement newspapers.
Interesting too that in 1860, when a gathering of tribes swore allegiance to the Maori king, a Kingite flag and the French tricolour were hoisted together on the flagpole. And most incongruous, the 15 metre long war flag belonging to Te Kooti and known as Te Wepu (the whip) was made by Catholic Marist nuns. (The flag was actually made for Ngati Kahungunu, and later captured by Te Kooti). Like most historical ‘facts’, it is quite misleading without context, but these paintings are a fiction which takes it’s historical starting point as a place to leap off into a sort of colonial conspiracy theory and uses it to think about what might have happened, and to better ask what did happen.
To my mind, referencing familiar imagery of the era, with irony or humour, refocuses us critically on what we assume to be truthfully recorded history. While the story itself looks light, it touches down on difficult terrain, in the history of choices made and paths not taken.
The other part of the exhibition is set in contemporary New Zealand as Homes of National Significance. It is most obviously about the disparity of wealth, health and possibility in New Zealand now. Reading that in 1890, 1% of people in New Zealand owned 65% of all private wealth, I thought of Mark Twain’s comment that: “history doesn’t repeat but it does rhyme”. The settlements and clusters of re-purposed cars don’t just refer to a post-oil, climate-change future scenario, but also a post-earthquake, or economically precarious present day, where rheumatic fever and housing poverty are becoming dangerously normalized. Just across from my house, people rent living space in converted horse trailers and cars on blocks serving as storerooms, while we invest massively in Roads of National Significance.
In part, these images are an expression of outrage, that somehow we have got to this point, but they’re also an affirmation of people’s ingenuity, agency, and potential for community. The two bodies of work are linked through the continuity of the land and sea, and of the settlements sustained by them. There are the elements of shelter, food, heat: the way we access these without all the buffers of functioning, modern, urban life, look quite similar. Although the blue of the Union Jack from the early paintings has become the blue of ubiquitous tarpaulins, people are still dependent on the land and the sea, putting down hangi, drying meat and fish, collecting water, mending shelters, building fences and going about living.
Jenna Packer - 2014