Throughout Shane Cotton’s decades-long career, the painter has continually used symbols of migration and containment, as well as motifs specific to Māori people, who are indigenous to his country, New Zealand—or rather, Aotearoa. His solo exhibition “Te Puāwai,” meaning “the blossoming,” has opened at The Dowse, an art gallery located a short drive from Upper Hutt, where he grew up.
Many of the nearly forty works on view are paintings of toi moko, traditional Māori shrunken heads. These heads were usually those of chiefs or other important figures, whose status was marked by moko, facial tattoos added over the course of their lives. When they died, their families or rival tribes would preserve their heads as symbols of respect or as trophies. Settlers and explorers pillaged or traded for toi moko, spiriting many of them away to Europe. As these objects have slowly been repatriated, Māori activists have abandoned the older term, “moko mōkai,” where “mōkai” means enslaved, and begun referring to them as “toi moko,” where “toi” signifies art. The reconfigured toi moko in Cotton’s paintings seem to emanate further mana, or power, from being scaled up many times—several paintings are almost four feet tall. The heads’ imposing size imbues them with gravitas, even if their provenance is not known to a viewer.
The heads are not, however, painted realistically, but in an abstract, modernist fashion: They are wild with color, and some, like Blue Black Korona (2021) and Gesture (2021), look as if they depict multiple toi moko superimposed on each other. This mode of representation makes the heads appear to be those of androids: rectangles nested in the top left of the head in Grey Sun (2019) look like silicon chips, while the moko don’t follow facial contours as they usually do, instead resembling overlapping circuit boards. Cotton seems to suggest that the troubles and anguish of the past, especially those of Māori people, will inevitably be tied to the future.
Although Cotton is known for painting on traditional surfaces like canvas and linen, for “Te Puāwai,” he has also employed wooden plinths and a dinghy. On three plinths, which rise a few feet above head height, Cotton painted his usual iconography: Waiomio (2021) depicts a tree of life emerging from a pot; Te Pou (2021) shows a stack of tiki, which are humanoid forms; and Te Pou Aniwaniwa (2021) is adorned with trees and koru—the latter a traditional Māori spiral motif based on the unfurling frond of a ponga, a native silver fern. The plinths are made from recycled beams of kauri, a native tree that is one of the largest in the world, felled in great numbers by European settlers, especially for its usefulness in shipbuilding. Cotton reclaims the material both physically and culturally. The twelve-foot-tall Te Pou requires viewers to look up and down to take in all the painted tiki—just as with the traditional carved columns the work cites, in which each tiki on the pole represents one of the carver’s ancestors, and the work as a whole symbolizes the whakapapa, or individual and tribal genealogy of the carver. As in the toi moko paintings, here Cotton riffs on a traditional Māori practice in ways that allude to the interrupting force of colonization—still evident today in, for example, toi moko repatriation efforts.
Cotton’s obsession with colonialism and his country’s fractured past stems from his own parentage (his father is Māori, his mother European) and ancestry (“Cotton” is an anglicization of “Katene,” his family’s original name). He repeatedly paints the same motifs, tinkering with the balance of these conflicting forces each time. The exhibition’s title work, Te Puāwai (2020), is a dinghy built by Cotton’s (white) father-in-law that Cotton painted with his usual symbols: stars, native New Zealand birds, and koru. Through this repetition, Cotton’s symbols, like the issues they embody, yearn to be recognized. When he paints, he’s reckoning not just with his past, but also with that of his forebears.