19 August - 4 September 1999
In the 1960s the guitar became a 'Happy Maori' trademark, the ultimate party instrument— everyone played. And the 'boom-chucka-boom-chucka' Maori strum, with the strumming hand damping the strings, was something distinctive. They say mimicry occurs where colonialism has done its work, but for Michael Parekowhai it was the Maori who colonised the guitar, not the other way round.
For his Ten Guitars show, Parekowhai has created ten customised hollow-body guitars, jazzed up with paua inlays reproducing classic Maori kowhaiwhai patterns, and branded 'Patriot' on their machine heads. These are flashy instruments for performers, entertainers, name artists, show-offs. The project is an obvious nod to Engelbert Humperdinck, whose song 'Ten Guitars' is an old Maori standard, having topped the Maori charts back in the 1960s. Promoting a utopian social ideal of playing together in harmony—a bicultural idea—the anthem is something Maori took to their hearts and claimed as their own. 'Sometimes I wonder if they could appropriate Duchamp in the same way', says Parekowhai.
When the artist was a boy, the model of the successful Maori - the Maori "done good" - was the performer, be it as entertainer (Dame Kiri and Sir Howard Morrison) or athlete (particularly rugby players). There's something of this concern for showmanship recalled in Parekowhai's own performance as an artist here, the consumate crafting of the guitars, their presentation as top-of-the-range—export quality. And the guitars are made to be played. In fact Parekowhai opened the project with a performance by the 'guitar orchestra' Gitbox reprising the Quin-Tikis' number from the 1960s rock-road movie Don't Let it Get You. This teddy-boy Maori guitar band exemplified the utopian play-together spirit of Ten Guitars quite literally: one person picking and another fingering the notes on the same guitar—a virtuoso performance.
For sale as individuals, available to collectors, museums and musicians alike, Parekowhai's guitars have potentially different destinies. One may be played in church or by a pop star, another kept in a glass case. However there is always the possibility—and intention—that they be reunited, played together again at a different time and place. The idea of return is crucial. Parekowhai's Ten Guitars is utterly nostalgic, not for the good old days before the Pakeha showed up, but rather for the time just before the artist's birth, the 1960s, the time of the second Maori migration—Maori leaving their tribal areas, heading to the cities, and assimilating. It was a time when Maori, at least in representations like those in Don't Let it Get You, could apparently believe in both putting differences aside and retaining their selves.