Urban Whitescapes in W[h]anganui

David Batchelor’s Chromophobia starts with a chapter titled ‘Whitescapes’. It is a treatise on the long history of the expulsion of colour and the triumph of white in various fields of artistic endeavour. Batchelor points out how active the denial of colour has been. He writes “To mistake the colourful for the colourless or white is nothing new. But it is one thing not to know that Greek statues were once brilliantly painted; it is another thing not to see colour when it is still there. This seems to speak less of ignorance than of a kind of denial. Not perceiving what is visibly there: psychoanalysts call this negative hallucination.” (p.12)

This art theory resonates with an Environment Court battle that took place in Whanganui. Local Maori wanted to establish an iwi tertiary institute as part of what the Wanganui District Council calls the ‘Old Town Conservation Zone’. Achieving this required the demolition of an old Maori Land Court building – a regional vestige of a ‘veritable engine of destruction’ when it comes to alienating land from Maori. To iwi the existing unused building was nothing special, serving simply to remind them of more than 170 years of colonial activity. What was special was the area surrounding the Court – Pakaitore pa – which had been occupied for hundreds of years (well before the town was there, but also site of important Maori activity since Petre (as Whanganui was known) was founded – including the signing of the Treaty by Whanganui iwi).

Maori Land Court Building

Former Maori Land Court building in Whanganui viewed from Pakaitore (Moutua Gardens)


Pakaitore Pa, Whanganui, with Whanganui awa flowing by

To the non-Maori population of Whanganui the old Maori Land Court building was of historic value. It represented coherence of the Old Town, which is to say it represented the settler town. The urban fabric of Wanganui city is European in style (and ownership) and the District Plan protects this. The proposal to demolish a piece of this European-style fabric was met with calls to ‘make the new function fit the existing fabric’ (as though there was no need for fabric to fit identity) or even to ‘go put it outside the Old Town’.

Wanganui  (without the ‘h’ – this is how the District Council prefers it) wanted a whitescaping of its urban enrivonment. Or more correctly, it wanted to maintain the existing whitescaping. As Batchelor describes it, “There is a kind of white that is more than white, and this was that kind of white. There is a kind of white that repels everything that is inferior to it, and that is almost everything. This was that kind of white. There is a kind of white that is not created by bleach but that itself is bleach. This was that kind of white. This white was aggressively white. It did its work on everything around it, and nothing escaped.” (p.10)  Maori existed in the urban environment, but you couldn’t tell that from the urbanscape.

The Environment Court’s decision confirmed that the identification of the old town as an area of high conservation value was an active instance of denial. Preserving the cultural significance of the Old Town Conservation Zone (which had value due to its European, mostly Victorian, style buildings) effectively meant repelling anything else, maintaining its whiteness. But the Court did not see this disadvantaging Whanganui iwi, stating in its decision that “even if there may be a Eurocentric colour to the provisions, that will not disadvantage Maori save that their reported preference for a new, rather than adapted, building on this site will not come to pass.” Yes, you can be part of our urban environment, but only if you keep the whiteness.

You’d almost be able to understand this if this occurred in 1913. But it didn’t, this occurred in 2013. Just as Maori across New Zealand are gaining the financial ability to participate in the economic life of their regions (which will always involve cities), the Environment Court handed down a decision that supports the continued locking out of Maori from our urban environments. There are special zoning circumstances in Whanganui that made this decision possible, but it isn’t a big stretch to see similar battles playing out in other urban centres. For the last 170 years New Zealand’s urban centres have been dominated by European values and this is represented in the built form. Maori will increasingly seek to change this – to have their identity represented in the urban fabric, to bring some colour into the whiteness as Batchelor would say. It seems that our planning and resource management frameworks is a long way off understanding, let alone facilitating, the shift that is occurring.

National Library image references:

(1) Smith, William Mein, 1799-1869. [Smith, William Mein] 1799-1869 :The town of Petre on the Wanganui River in September 1841. Day &Haghe. [London, Smith, Elder 1845]. Wakefield, Edward Jerningham 1820-1879 :Illustrations to “Adventure in New Zealand”. Lithographed from original drawings taken on the spot by Mrs Wicksteed, Miss King, Mrs Fox, Mr John Saxton, Mr Charles Heaphy, Mr S. C. Brees and Captain W. Mein Smith. London, Smith Elder & Co, 1845.. Ref: PUBL-0011-05. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22872042

(2) A crowd of protesters singing in Moutoa Gardens, Wanganui. Dominion post (Newspaper) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP-Ethics-Demonstrations-Moutoa Gardens-04. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22480220

Petre Low Res

The town of Petre on the Whanganui River, 1841, before the ‘Old Town’ was new.

Moutua Gardens Low Res

Continuing ahi ka. Occupiers of Moutoa Gardens singing in 1995


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