11 Aug 2019

Problematic, controversial, racist? Discussing the art of Theo Schoon

From Standing Room Only, 12:30 pm on 11 August 2019

Problematic. Controversial. Difficult. Racist. These are words even the curators of the first major exhibition in a long while of Theo Schoon use to describe the 20th century artist.

The show is called Split level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand Art and has opened this month at City Gallery Wellington. It has already been the subject of physical protest from art students, in the gallery wearing t-shirts that read 'Theo Schoon is a racist' on one side and 'Fletchers supports this exhibition and we stand with Ihumātao on the other. The protestors says the exhibition may re-traumatise Māori and have concerns about the exhibition being curated by two Pakeha men. They spoke with RNZ and with Lana Lopesi of The Spinoff this week, who also spoke to the gallery.   

So, who was Theo Schoon?  Theo was a genuine outsider ruffling the feathers of many he met. In 1939 he left Java Indonesia as war loomed to join his parents in Christchurch.

Baulking at the conservative cultural climate and finding a great friend and protege in the better known artist Gordon Walters, Theo championed the Māori rock drawing of Southern Canterbury, but had the audacity to draw over them and look to improve them.

He spent time in Rotorua creating stunning photographs of geothermal natural features and contributing a kowhaiwhai inspired mural to the post office (now marae). He carved gourds and then greenstone.

Of his appropriation of Māori art, the exhibition curators Dr Damien Skinner and Aaron Lister say Schoon claimed to be making “authentic Māori art the equal of any of the taonga preserved in local museums”.

And yet with his carved gourds he was the only Pakeha artist featured in a first Māori Festival of the arts at Turangawaewae marae Ngaruawahia in 1963. Schoon passed away in 1985. 

But why an exhibition now? On 17 and 18 August there is a weekend of talks, lectures and conversations about Schoon at City Gallery. The MC is Hamish Coney the founder of auction house Art and Object and now an independent arts advisor and writer.

On RNZ National Hamish joins Mark Amery for discussion, alongside Reuben Friend, a Māori curator and writer, former senior adviser for treaty relations at Wellington City Council and now director of Pataka Museum Porirua.

For more on the current debate RNZ's The Panel also had commentary from Auckland academic Dr Ngarino Ellis and the report on The Spinoff on the protest spoke to the organisers and the gallery, where they drew attention to the sponsiorship of The Fletcher Trust. Here also is a recent essay by Martin Rumsby (who worked with Schoon) on  eyecontactsite.com.

And to hear from Schoon himself here is a 1982 Kaleidoscope TV documentary.

Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand Art is on at City Gallery until November 3.