We all know portraits can be of ancestors, but can a portrait be an ancestor?
In Te Ao Māori, the Māori world, they can. Paintings like this one—and even photographs—do two important things. They record likenesses and bring ancestral presence into the world of the living. In other words, this portrait is not merely a representation of Tāmati Wāka Nene, it can be an embodiment of him. Portraits and other taonga tuku iho (treasures passed down from the ancestors) are treated with great care and reverence. After a person has died their portrait may be hung on the walls of family homes and in the wharenui (the central building of a community center), to be spoken to, wept over, and cherished by people with genealogical connections to them. Even when portraits like this one, kept in the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery, are absent from their families, the stories woven around them keep them alive and present. Auckland Art Gallery acknowledges these living links through its relationships with descendants of those whose portraits it cares for. The Gallery seeks their advice when asked for permission to reproduce such portraits. This portrait has been published in the Google Arts & Culture project, which is why we can look at it here.
Tamati Waka Nene
Māori are the Indigenous people of New Zealand/Aotearoa. The subject of this portrait, Tāmati Wāka Nene, was a Rangatira or chief of the Ngāti Hao people in Hokianga, of the Ngāpuhi iwi or tribe, and an important war leader. He was probably born in the 1780s, and died in 1871. He lived through a time of rapid change in New Zealand, when the first British missionaries and settler-colonists were arriving and changing the Māori world forever. An astute leader and businessman, Nene exemplified the types of changes that were occurring when he converted to the Wesleyan faith and was baptised in 1839, choosing to be named Tāmati Wāka after Thomas Walker, who was an English merchant patron of the Church Missionary Society. He was revered throughout his life as a man with great mana or personal efficacy.
In his portrait, Nene wears a kahu kiwi, a fine cloak covered in kiwi feathers, and an earring of greenstone or pounamu. Both of these are prestigious taonga or treasures. He is holding a hand weapon known as a tewhatewha, which has feathers adorning its blade and a finely carved hand grip with an abalone or paua eye. All of these mark him as man of mana or personal efficacy and status. But perhaps the most striking feature for an international audience is his intricate facial tattoo, called moko.
Gottfried Lindauer and his patron
Painting Tāmati Wāka Nene
If you’ve been paying attention to dates you will have noticed that Nene died in 1871 but Lindauer didn’t arrive in New Zealand until 1873, and didn’t paint his portrait until 1890. It is likely that Lindauer based this portrait on a photograph taken by John Crombie, who had been commissioned to produce 12 photographic portraits of Māori chiefs for The Illustrated London News. There are several other photographs of Nene, and in 1934 Charles F. Goldie—another famous portrayer of Māori—painted yet another portrait of him from a photograph. So Nene didn’t sit for either of his famous painted portraits, but clearly sat for photographic portraits in the later years of his life. These were becoming more common by 1870, due to developments in photographic methods that made the whole process easier and cheaper. Many Māori had their portraits taken photographically and produced as a carte-de-visite, roughly the size of a playing card, and some had larger, postcard-sized images made, called cabinet portraits. Lindauer is thought to have used a device called an epidiascope to enlarge and project small photographs such as these so he could paint them.