We continue our week-long Waitangi Day coverage of Māori issues with questions raised by a challenging portrait by Rita Angus

I struggle with this image. I know she is beloved, and to a certain extent I get it. Rutu is every sunscreen advertiser’s dream with her tanned skin and flowing blonde locks, cheekbones to slice a watermelon, eyes to pierce any admirer. She is idealised, but is she ideal? Some like to claim that Rutu is Angus’s imagining of a multicultural future. What am I meant to infer from her rendering of this future? That a Pacific identity (whatever that means) can run skin deep? Beyond her skin colour, what makes this portrait Pacific, Polynesian, or Māori?

Rutu (1951)  by Rita Angus, oil on canvas on cardboard (Te Papa)

Rutus name is in part inspired by a te reo-fication of Rita. The other part is drawn from Ruta Te Rauparaha of Ngāti Raukawa. There is little publicly available knowledge about Ruta, who, with her husband Tāmihana Te Rauparaha (son of the famed Ngāti Toa leader, Te Rauparaha), were said to have lived a life of privilege resplendent with the markings of having ‘made it’ in Pākehā society.

What was it about Ruta that so compelled Rita to name Rutu for her? Tāmihana was influential in the establishment of the Kīngitanga and was invested in ensuring a harmonious future between Māori and Pākehā. Was this the peaceful future Angus was trying to capture?

Ruta and Tāmihana commissioned portraits of themselves that reside at Te Papa, where Ruta is styled as Ruth. To compare Ruta/Ruth of the 1860s and her counterpart Rutu, who came almost a century later, is incomprehensible to me. When I look at Ruta, all I see are her playful eyes boring into me, asking whether I’ve solved the Rita/Rutu/ Ruta/Ruth riddle yet.

Beyond that comparison, I remain stuck. Still unsure of how to take Rutu. She is a beautiful, incongruous mash-up of cultures, of symbols that have been plucked out of their meaning-making contexts to serve as shrouded winks to future art historians and critics. As much as I don’t want to claim her as representative of any sort of future for myself and my uri, I also want to know her lip colour. She is no goddess of mine, but I want to be captivated by her, lean towards her and hear her intensely whispered tales. Rutu is the gorgeous nightmare of Sinead Overbye’s reckoning.

Encompassed in my struggle with the image of Rutu is my struggle to write about her. When there are so few Māori writing about Māori art, and so few resources written about Māori artists, giving my time to a well-covered Pākehā artist feels like a betrayal. Reading around Rutu, I was struck by how various Pākehā writers have stated that she represents feminism, assimilation, Pacific futures.

None of these attributions come from Māori or Pacific writers, however, yet the claims to our culture remain. Rutu is the most visible and well-known exemplar of a person of colour in Angus’s catalogue, and with that hyper-visibility should come more scrutiny. Given all that Rutu is claimed to represent, and all that Angus has appropriated (names, skin colour and iconography), Māori perspectives must also be included when discussing her, if only to say: “Rita, she is not my ideal. Why is she yours?”

Extracted with permission from Rita Angus: New Zealand Modernist | He Ringatoi Hou o Aotearoa, edited by Lizzie Bisley and published by Te Papa Press. The catalogue accompanies the landmark Rita Angus exhibition celebrating 40 years of Rita Angus’ work that opens at Te Papa’s Toi Art, which runs to April 25. A smaller exhibition will tour a number of regional galleries around the motu after that.

Tomorrow in ReadingRoom: Annabel Cooper reviews Vincent O’Malley’s latest book on the New Zealand Wars

Matariki Williams (Ngāti Tūhoe, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Hauiti, Taranaki) is Pou Matua Mātauranga Māori | Senior Historian, Mātauranga Māori at Manatū Taonga, Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Her...

Leave a comment