A Māori world in Vienna

What the Māori artist George Nuku has created for the Weltmuseum Wien is truly spectacular. “Oceans. Collections. Reflections.” is the apt title of this gigantic takeover of the Weltmuseum´s entire ground floor. Seven rooms are filled from top to bottom with George Nuku´s sculptures, paintings, drawings, carvings, supplemented by items from the museum´s own collection. George is a contemporary artist from Aotearoa/New Zealand, Māori of Scottish and German descent and, as he told us, also a world traveller. 

George put this exhibition together on the invitation of the Weltmuseum, with the help of many volunteers who helped implement his concepts right on location.  The participatory aspect of his work process is important to him. (You can see some behind the scenes photos on the museum website.) I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a tour guided by George himself in December, and I learned so much from him.

I was quite excited about this exhibition, as I have family there – my brother now lives in the North Island of New Zealand, and although it was brief, I have had a very small introduction to this beautiful land, and an even briefer introduction to its Māori culture. So getting to tour the exhibition with the artist himself felt extra special to me.

I was not disappointed! The rooms are steeped in bright colours, and each room has a theme that symbolises what is important to George and to Maori culture.

I really loved the vibrance of the rooms with their popping colours and displays that integrate pieces from the museum, artworks from early European explorers, items from Colonial times, and George´s own works, often created by hand carving plexiglass and polystyrene (every painting has a carved frame that reflects patterns from Maori culture).

You can wander from room to room, immersing yourself into a hitherto unknown world, unique in George´s interpretation of Māori culture, amble through these green and blue and red spaces that speak of the importance of nature that make you mourn its loss but also appreciate its importance. And at the same time, spaces that show how human culture is linked to nature, and how really all forms of life are inseparable and touch upon one another. 

sea shells in plexiglass

I cannot reproduce here the myths and stories that George told us that evening, but even so, some of the stories are on the walls, so one is well guided through the exhibition even when visiting independently.  You can also hear George talk about it a bit on videos that the Weltmuseum has produced.

Blue, of course, represents the great engulfing ocean, the Pacific.

The shark is an important inhabitant of Te Moananui – the Big Blue, as the peoples of Oceania call the Pacific.
Waka rakau – a model of a wooden canoe from the museum´s collection, which represents the historic importance of inter-island travel – Photo Karin. Svadlenak-Gomez

The red room pays tribute to the Austrian naturalists and collectors who travelled to Oceania on the Novara. (The expedition (1857-1859) by SMS Novara was the first circumnavigation of the world by the Austrian Navy.  A bestseller scientific report published in several languages made the trip world-famous.)

Te Aonehenehe, the natural world, is represented in the green room, and specifically New Zealand´s nature, with its inseparable link to its indigenous culture.

An interesting historical detail I learned about was that in the 19th century two Māori men, Wiremu Toetoe Tumohe and Hemara Te Rerehau, visited Vienna in search of knowledge and understanding of European culture. Their visit was highly celebrated at the time, and they apparently returned with positive feelings about it, and with a working printing press, a gift from the Austrian emperor. This printing press became important for documenting and spreading news about the unjust invasion of the tribal territories by the British empire that was about to happen.

My favourite room was the dimly lit hall representing Te Rarohenga, the Underworld. Here George has created Ta Moko, Māori tattoos, which are said to originate in this Underworld,  of his ancestors as carvings on backlit plexiglass. There was something so magical about the way the light hit the carved lines, something my photographer´s heart appreciated. George himself also wears the Ta Moko of his ancestors.

Taniko, a form of weaving, is also said to have come up from this world to the earth´s surface. This room is also a metaphor for the womb and for the cosmos.

The exhibition “Oceans. Collections. Reflections.” by George Nuku is on until 31 January 2023. I actually wish it would stay for a much longer period.

By the way, a special topic of global significance – the Covid-19 pandemic – is referenced by a sculpture installation made from plastic bottles and other materials in the central lobby.

An installation by George Nuku about the Corona pandemic can be seen in the Hall of Columns of the museum. Photo Karin Svadlenak-Gomez

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