A surrealist, a forger and the return of ancestral remains
In 2019, a work in the National Gallery collection was identified as both inauthentic, a forgery, and sadly created from Māori ancestral remains.
The deaccessioned Tupuna (ancestor) was previously titled ‘Hei-Tiki’ and was once in the personal collection of Max Ernst (1981-1976), a noted member of the Surrealists and founding member of the Dada movement. Acquired by the Gallery in 1985, the small bone pendant was one of 96 objects from Ernst’s collection with works from Africa, Peru, Canada, Costa Rica, USA, Papua New Guinea, West Papua, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Research indicated the object could be attributed to the hand of Frank James Robieson, a New Zealander, who at turn of the 20th century was taught basic carving styles by Māori associates. He then turned his hand to creating faux artefacts with items of bone and ivory appearing at UK auctions by the 1920s.
National Gallery Curator for Pacific Arts Crispin Howarth worked with Te Papa Tongarewa, National Museum of New Zealand’s, Head of Repatriation Te Herekiekie Herewini to ensure the Tupuna was returned to the Karanga Repatriation Unit (based at Te Papa) according to best practice in cultural protocol.
In May 2022, Crispin Howarth travelled to New Zealand with the Tupuna in his care to ensure its safe return.
Wellington, May 2022
Early one Sunday morning the repatriation process was formalised with a Powhiri (welcoming ceremony) held at dawn. The Powhiri is a welcoming ceremony that both upholds and weaves connections between past and present. An integral part of the Powhiri is to acknowledge the living and the ancestors.
The arrival of the ceremony attendees is announced by Pūkaea horns signalling permission to enter the Marae (meeting ground). The Marae is a space in front of an impressive contemporary meeting house designed by Māori artist Cliff Whiting named Rongomaraeroa. This is the national meeting place where major Māori cultural events are conducted.
Large stained-glass windows were lifted upwards to form the gate to the meeting ground and house where attendees entered the space. The meeting ground had explicitly been designed so the sun rose and shone illuminating the meeting house dramatically.
Crossing the meeting ground the attendees placed their respective charges, the Tupuna, on special woven mats at the threshold of the meeting house. During the same Powhiri, Hawaiian ancestral remains were returned from the Canterbury Museum to Hawaiian community. All the ancestors were then covered with traditional flax and feather cloaks (Kakahu) for the morning’s events.
Across the morning members of the gathered attendees, Māori and Hawaiian community members and representatives from Te Papa, Canterbury Museum, the National Gallery of Australia and Toi Māori Aotearoa gave speeches to acknowledge the historical events that led to the removal of these ancestors, the collective work between individuals, community and institutions in the present to pay respect to the ancestors by returning them home.
To conclude the Powhiri, the formal signing of transfer papers with the Kaihautū (Māori co-Director) of Te Papa Arapata Hakiwai was conducted. After this all present at the ceremony showed their unity through the act of hongi (nose pressing). The Tupuna were then lifted by their original bearers and walked back to the Wahi Tapu (sacred keeping place). With the Powhiri ended, the Tapu (restrictions connected to the ceremonial events) were lifted through coming together to eat a meal. The meal and the following Koha (reciprocal gift giving as marks of respect) completed everything and marks the beginning of new relationships between Te Papa Tongarewa and the National Gallery.
The National Gallery has a commitment to the highest standards of due diligence regarding its collection.
An essential part of responsible collection management is to continuously review the works in our care. This work involves on-going research in the areas of provenance, authenticity, applicable laws and conventions, cultural protocols and sensitivities and ethical and professional practices.
Find out more about provenance and repatriation projects at the gallery here.
This story has been published as part of the National Gallery's 40th Anniversary. For more visit 40 Years.
Ceremony images courtesy of Mark Tantrum.