Riding the wave of controversy that has surrounded it since it was first shown in Auckland at Gow Langsford Gallery, Jono Rotman’s Mongrel Mob Portraits spent three divisive months hung in City Gallery last year. Some people I know boycotted the gallery while it was in situ, in stark opposition to friends of theirs who attended and enjoyed it. My visit was accidental as I was on a mission to see Yvonne Todd’s Creamy Psychology before it closed which happened to be just after Rotman’s exhibition opened. I was there, so I saw it. I left feeling more conflicted than I ever had about an exhibition before. In the words of one of my boycotting friends, as Māori “we can reach out and touch a gang member or family”, so why was the exhibition so wrought with discordance at what was depicted? Why did I, a Māori woman, leave the exhibition feeling angry and invisible?
The opening wall of text in Rotman’s exhibition obscured a set of portraits that stared back from the walls on which they were hung. Instead of engaging with these images first, I turned left. In the end room were two photos, the first of which, Notorious Snapshot #24, is a photograph of a photograph presumably taken in Auckland in the 1970s or 1980s. The photo itself looks like the photos my mum and dad have from their pre-kid, 1970s years. These were the years in which they luxuriously shared a 3 bedroom flat in Christchurch with dad's cousins as frequent visitors banging the door down wanting to know if dad had any kōkō or kereru in the freezer. These men, who were homesick for kai from home, were gang members, turns out there were plenty of Tūhoe gang members spread across all of the gangs in Christchurch in the 70s. Dad would go along to parties at their pads (mum always refused), and was once given the status of an honorary Mob member after preventing a fight from escalating. It is stories like this the exhibition was missing. When engaging directly with the photographs (I read the accompanying catalogue later), I found no context to the photographs. You could argue that portraiture isn't meant to need context, but I think in this case it was necessary, without it I felt there was a didactic layer of exploitation and sensationalism that went unacknowledged.
While we were walking through Creamy Pyschology, a gallery attendant told the friend I was with that there was a Mob member upstairs viewing the exhibition. This hints at what I mean by exploitation: to go up and watch him walking through the exhibition would mean that he was on show and I posit the question, should he be? I was definitely complicit in making the decision to go upstairs, and have since asked myself why I would do that to someone. Part of it was a perverse compulsion I have that makes me want to relate to every brown person I see in a gallery because we are so few. Part of it was because I wanted to see what it felt like for him to be in the gallery, a place where he’d presumably never been before and would never come again. However, to go up and watch this man looking at the portraits would mean that the context for viewing the portraits had changed, that it now had some sort of performative aspect that he hadn’t signed up for. By the time we made it upstairs, the man had already left, which was a relief.
The essay in the exhibition catalogue by curator Aaron Lister stated the steps taken by the artist to ensure that the men in the photos maintain ownership of their images, "When exhibiting the portraits the artist seeks advice as to which men should be given prominence, who should be shown side-by-side, and who should be kept apart - an acknowledgement of the relationships..." Without reading or knowing this, without there being any background about these men, their chapters, the gang, their actions, I felt the portraits weren’t as profound as they could be. I also felt it in the contrasting ways in which my friend (who is Pākehā) and I reacted to these portraits: she had tears in her eyes, and I had anger. She felt the images were powerful, she felt a sadness to them, and though I agree that the images were powerful, and inherently sad, I was angry and confused. This lack of context meant that in spite of all that Rotman had done to retain the autonomy of his subject matter in how they are represented, as the context wasn't made explicit from the outset, it could be ignored. Visiting an exhibition that provides no framework for how to view it when its content is so contentious, and has daily reverberations in Māori society, compounded my feeling of not belonging. Despite the subjects being largely Māori men, I as a Māori woman, was not the target audience. What does that tell you about the value of my viewpoint? When a Mob member walking through an exhibition in the City Gallery is such an anomaly as to be pointed out by staff, what does that tell you about the frequency of gang member’s visits? This exhibit created a framework where Māori women could feel invisible and gang members (living ones not the photographs) could inadvertently be on display.
Given the way in which Māori have been portrayed in popular portraiture, Goldie’s view of a dying culture as one easy example, I am again cynical at the choice of medium. Without the markings of social history that would have been present in more candid photos, Rotman’s message more is palatable to his target audience in that they’d look into the eyes of these men without having to think to deeply about what they have done in their lives. Lister wrote that by taking the portraits without any markers of time and place that viewers would be forced to view the men not as stereotypes or caricatures but would instead be forced to acknowledge them as men that do exist. I'd be intrigued to see whether or not Pākehā who attended the exhibition felt similarly to my friend, and Māori would feel more of what I felt. It is true that viewers are forced to acknowledge the men but it is how they acknowledge them that matters: do they care where they come from, what they have done, what they will do? Viewing them from my cultural context is different to my friend viewing them from hers, and I left the gallery feeling an imbalance as to which of these cultural contexts the portraits were addressing because to acknowledge the men in the portraits “as men that do exist” is different for both of us as we have both had different experiences with men like those in the photograph. The scale of the portraits expose the images as an impressive spectacle but for me, they were nothing more than that as they were not unfamiliar.
In regards to sensationalism, I question why gang members were chosen as the subject matter for a photographic series by a Pākehā in the first place. Is this how we as Māori are seen, or to be seen? Is this our enduring image of strength? Give me the warrior image any day, no matter how problematic a cultural signifier it is. Where are other Māori lives, why are gang members what Rotman decided to focus his project on? Call me cynical but controversy courts press. I don't know what drove Rotman to think of the Mongrel Mob as subject matter (and if “exposure” wasn’t mentioned then I doubt that I’d believe him) but this is a continuing frustration that I have with the way in which Māori are presented in media and the arts. Have a think, what is the most enduring Māori film that comes to mind? Once were Warriors? What about the most recent Māori films that gained widespread commercial and critical acclaim? Boy, The Dark Horse and Deadlands? How do they portray Māori and how did they leave you thinking about Māori? Where were the Māori women in these stories? Where were the successes in these stories? Where were the women in these photographs and where were the successes in these photographs? Compounding this is the limbo that the Deane Gallery has been in since the departure of Reuben Friend, a point that has been mentioned to me many times now. Would this exhibition ever have shown had there been a curator in that vacated position?
Perhaps the most insightful antidote I found to my rage spiral, came from two photographs in the catalogue from an earlier series by Rotman called Lockups. The first is titled Magistrates Court #01 and is of a decommissioned Magistrates court in Auckland that has been spray painted with cunts, pig, fuck, shit, fuck piggy, a giant swastika (the ubiquitous and seemingly illogical symbol utilised by the Mob) and a giant GUILTY across the dock. The second is titled South Wing, Mount Eden Remand Prison and shows the prison wing with the Lindauer portrait of Heeni Hirini with a moko kauae and carrying a baby on her back reproduced in lofty view of the inmates. These images immediately produced a context that I did not see in the exhibition: the way in which the justice system has failed Māori, and the enduring negative connotations it has, how people can either maintain, repair or sever ties with their culture, and how it can be evoked to symbolise a path of rehabilitation. What is more important is that I didn’t feel like this second set of images were trying to manipulate me into feeling a sense of empathy, I just felt it. The most disappointing aspect of this exhibition is the exposure it receives for something that is ultimately a negative portrayal of one aspect of Māori society. Sure, most Māori would be able to say they have gang members in their whānau but many also have people in their whānau who have PhDs or Masters, are community workers, world-class kapa haka exponents or have represented their country in sport. This exhibition does not show the breadth or diversity of contemporary Māori society, but since it was not made for us, why would it need to? Because, to put it simply for all the galleries in Aotearoa: brown people like art too, and we want to be brown in your gallery.