To an exhibition of work by Harry Watson at Aratoi, the Wairarapa Museum of Art and History in Masterton. Watson's work certainly fits the gallery's brief: it marries art and history in a stunning series of meticulous wood carvings, most of them drawing on 19th-century colonial imagery. For example:
Yes, it's our old mate Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Actually, I don't recall seeing him in the show today, though he has been used to promote it. But he's typical of Watson's cast of Maori and Pakeha characters—some of them actual historical figures—depicted either naturalistically or surrealistically as stand-alone statuettes; in beautifully framed miniatures; or, in two or three cases, as tableaux set into magnificent wooden cabinets. Some hold guns but many offer flowers or feathers of peace. Watson seems to be satirizing the Europeans in particular while relocating them in an alternative narrative. Viewers of the exhibition will each have their own ideas about what that narrative might be; to my eyes it suggests the essential absurdity of the colonial enterprise while not being entirely unsympathetic to the players caught up in it. And they were players too, condemned to act out the parts dictated for them by British imperialism. One feels that they might just as well have been made of wood, so inflexible were they in their stuffed shirts and tight uniforms, so convinced of their own rectitude. Yet Watson is not unkind to them. As the exhibition's title says, That Was Then: This Is Now.
If this superb show comes your way, or if you're visiting Masterton, I urge you to go and see it. It's on until 11 March.