Maori Art of the Nuclear Mother

Known as ANZUS, the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty was signed in 1951. This military alliance was one of several entered into by the United States in the early 1950s, as part of its attempts to prevent the international spread of communism and to prepare for the possibility of armed conflict with the Soviet Union.

Some thirty years later, as relations between the United States and New Zealand soured – throwing ANZUS into disarray – this piece of Cold War legislation inspired Māori artist, Emily Karaka, to create a dynamic work of art. In The Treaties, Karaka presents ANZUS as one of a series of treaties entered into by the New Zealand authorities that was to have a profound effect on her community.

Emily Karaka, ‘The Treaties’, 1984. Oil and paper on hessian and wood. Courtesy Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Painted in 1984, this complex work is formed of four panels. Three equal-sized panels on the right each present a limp, abstracted figure, draped over a dark, menacing cross on a gold background, surrounded by Māori text. A panel dedicated to ANZUS sits alongside a central image featuring a figure with a bowed head and outstretched arms, in a classic crucifixion pose, representing the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. The 19th-century agreement, between the British Crown and Māori chiefs, marked the foundation of the British colony in New Zealand and has been a recurring theme in Karaka’s paintings.

On the far right, a final cross depicts a figure bent over backwards, with blue text identifying the panel as dedicated to the Gleneagles Agreement of 1977. That year, New Zealand’s Prime Minister joined other Commonwealth leaders in a pact to refrain from staging sporting events in collaboration with apartheid-era South Africa. However, only four years later, New Zealand hosted the South African rugby team, leading to protests and fierce debate about the relationship between sport and politics. The Māori community was equally divided. While some attended the games, others were bitterly disappointed by the Springbok Tour, seeing parallels between racial discrimination in New Zealand and the treatment of the segregated Black community in South Africa. Karaka has noted that while each of the agreements was “meant to protect”, they would cause untold harm – as indicated by the torn, blood-drenched treaties that lie at the base of each crucifix.

 The larger panel on the left side depicts a figure that Karaka has referred to as a “nuclear mother”. Responding in particular to the ANZUS treaty and the heightened risk of atomic warfare in the Pacific, the panel shows that Cold War nuclear anxiety spread to the Antipodes, affecting people from all backgrounds and all corners of the earth. In an interview, Karaka has recalled how the painting was made in response to a vivid dream, the first she’d had in colour, in which she awoke with the feeling of being impregnated by the fear of conflict. The painting shows Karaka’s debt to fellow Māori artists, as well as the influence of Picasso’s Guernica, and her interest in the work of Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock.

Karaka’s concerns were shared by many of her compatriots. In the year that she created The Treaties, the New Zealand government declared a nuclear-free zone in its land, waters and airspace, barring all vehicles carrying nuclear weapons or radioactive waste from entering its territory. The policy, which remains in place to this day, led the United States to suspend New Zealand from ANZUS in 1986, and remains a source of tension between the two countries.

LIKE THIS STORY?
Here are some other Espionart posts you might enjoy:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s