By telling the epic story of the Motunui Epa, historian Rachel Buchanan creates her own Taonga – 71Bait

The celebrated art critic Ernst Gombrich identified Māori carving (Whakairo) as a triumph of human culture. Unfortunately, beautiful artifacts often draw the attention of looters, unscrupulous traders, and complicit collectors.

Rachel Buchanan’s Te Motunui Epa tells the story of a series of exquisitely carved pātaka (warehouse) panels illegally taken out of the country in the early 1970s and acquired by a Swiss-based collector. The panels were eventually repatriated at great expense to the government and returned to Taranaki in 2014.

Review: Te Motunui Epa – Rachel Buchanan (Bridget Williams Books)

Like many such stories, the facts are muddled and fictional. But contrary to the research of other New Zealand art crime experts, notably Penelope Jackson and Arthur Tompkins, the illegal removal of the Motunui panels for Buchanan (Taranaki, Te Ātiawa) is both personal and communal.

Faced with incursions from the north, Te Ātiawa hid some valuable Tōtara tablets in a swamp in the 1820s. Anaerobic sludge has a remarkable ability to preserve artifacts. When an excavator accidentally uncovered it in 1971, it was obvious to a local carver who took notice of the find that a masterpiece had been rediscovered.

Courted by a charming couple who were art dealers, the carver sold them the panels, which they then smuggled out of the country. The panels were later purchased by George Ortiz, a native of Geneva and scion of an incredibly wealthy Bolivian pewter dynasty and a leading collector of African and Oceanic art.

When Ortiz’s daughter was kidnapped, the panels were sent to Sotheby’s in London for auction to raise funds to repay the money borrowed to pay the ransom. The New Zealand government overthrew it but failed to gain possession after five years of court proceedings.

art and tutu

So far, so Wes Anderson. (Perhaps George Clooney could play Chris Finlayson, the cabinet minister who eventually got repatriation). But while art crimes often involve elements of greed, improbability, tragedy, and sometimes farce, the loss of the Motunui Tablets was a deep pain to the people of Taranaki who own them.

George Ortiz in 1978.
Jacob Sutton/Getty Images

In a European worldview, we generally believe that artists have a special psychological connection to the works they create. So-called moral rights under copyright law give this belief some legal effect. Even when an identifiable person is the subject of a work of art, their descendants may have strong emotional ties to that image.

This attitude partly explains the tenacity with which descendants of Jewish collectors whose artworks were confiscated during the Nazi era seek restitution. But I don’t think we can fully understand the meaning of certain taonga (treasures) for their hapū and iwi.

Read more: Imperial loot in a small-town New Zealand gallery? The Curious Case of Gore’s “Benin Bronzes”

However, if Buchanan examines the meaning of utu, the non-Māori reader may gain some understanding of the meaning of traceability. Utu has many meanings depending on the context. Buchanan tells us, “Utu is about relationships [… it] is a consideration or repayment, reciprocity, satisfaction, ransom, reward, prize, response, compensation”. When Taonga have been taken from a community, only returning can restore Utu as harmony.

Author Rachel Buchanan.

The broad history of the tablets is well known. Finlayson, for example, presented an inside story at the first Art Crime Symposium in Wellington in 2015. But Buchanan delves deep into numerous archives, Hansard, Official Information Act requests and even interviewed the unrepentant dealer who took the tablets out of the country.

Government attempts to reclaim the tablets began in the Muldoon era. Buchanan identifies and recognizes the many stakeholders in the public service, gallery, library, archive and museum sectors, judiciary and academia who have contributed to repatriation over many years.

Read more: The “restitution” of looted African art continues colonial politics – there is much more at stake

Tupuna and Taonga

While carving involves removing material to create, Buchanan is a skilled weaver, weaving disparate strands — the narrative, legal arguments, politics, human emotion, te ao Māori — into a coherent whole.

Buchanan writes in an unabashedly poetic and spiritual way. This doesn’t detract from the accuracy of her research, but might distance a reader who likes her story to be plain, factual, and dispassionate. Your anthropomorphization of the tablets makes sense – they are tūpuna (ancestors) – but this approach can lead to overwrought language.

Detail of the central panel.
Werner Forman/Getty Images

For example, “In this dark place our Tūpuna began to write her thoughts on the underside of the coffin lids” reeks of improbable magical realism. There is some unnecessary repetition of facts, and the respected solicitor (later judge) Sir Ted Thomas is referred to as Edward rather than Edmund.

But these are small things. A more important problem is the lack of an index. Today’s publishers may not be willing to pay for professional indexers, but this is a gorgeous, lavishly illustrated book, not a budget paperback.

Like Gombrich, I am impressed by Māori Whakairo. But as an outsider, I can’t quite appreciate what it means for the communities that make up Taonga and where they belong. For Pākehā, this book represents a generous insight into the Te ao Māori, particularly the world of the indigenous people of Taranaki.

For those most familiar with Bridget Williams Books text paperbacks, this book will be a revelation. It is beautifully designed and implemented. Judge this book by its beautiful cover. In her account of treasure lost and found, Buchanan herself created a taonga.

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