[Mis]appropriation

Vanya Steiner, “(Mis)appropriation in New Zealand Architecture: An Incriminating Cite”, Interstices 4, 1995, see here.

Appropriation of Maori signs and symbols was once a hot topic in art circles. Gordon Walters’ modernistic abstractions of koru patterns are probably the most famous, but there are many other examples of such appropriation. It is also wrong to assume that appropriation has been banished or overcome – just that it is no longer the issue de riguer, perhaps overtaken by the fascination in intellectual property rights.

Vanya Steiner’s article has appropriation as its theme, in particular its negative connotations of improper use or unauthorised taking, which she defines as (mis)appropriation. This definition allows many different readings or positions to exist rather than a straight appropriation that takes from one context and places in another. (Mis)appropriation is uncertain, unclear, ‘a complexity…which continues to puzzle’.

John Scott’s Maori Battalion War Memorial building serves as the illustrative object for Steiner’s concept of (mis)appropriation. The taking of Maori architectural elements and placing these as part of the latest European modern forms creates a dialogue between the two – each being denied their ‘proper’ place and instead being forced into conversation. Steiner writes, “To read the Maori Battalion Building as a harmonious bringing together of two discourses, is to repress the many complexities and entanglements that problematise such a reading.”

An example of such a complexity is the reading of the carved panels on the front of the building. Viewing these as appropriations, Steiner argues, leads to them being a superficial use of Maori elements, subordinate ornament and decoration to the ‘proper’ European elements. However, reading them as subversive elements that threaten and transgress the Modernistic elements. Steiner writes that “Repelled to the exterior, the carvings sit like tattoos on modernism’s purified body.”

I wouldn’t call Steiner’s article an easy read, or one that is easily understood. Grappling with the concept of (mis)appropriation is a must early on, else the remainder of the article can be seen to wander. But it is the potential wanderings (or subtexts perhaps?) that are of equal interest in examining John Scott’s building – the pervasiveness of violence in Steiner’s reading of the Battalion building, permission, or an architectural concept of correct and proper use, and the place of ‘Maoriness’ in John Scott’s work.

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