Miss Appropriate

Recent Photographs by Vicky Thomas


VICKY THOMAS Miss Appropriate 1986
Colour photograph

Photography’s relationship with Maori is a complex and compelling one that nonetheless has seldom been explored in much depth. Of course, images of Maori have figured conspicuously throughout New Zealand’s visual history, and over the last couple of decades their origins and meaning have been much debated, often generating more heat than light. The rising number of images by Maori artists today creates, among other things, a wider re-evaluation of those historical origins and meanings.

William Main’s 1976 Maori in Focus, Michael King’s 1983 Maori: A Photographic and Social History, and the forthcoming survey of the Maori-subject carte de visite Negative Kept by Michael Graham-Stewart all primarily address the imagery rather than investigate the place Maori played in its production or the significance the photographs may have for them. Despite some reservations about having wairua stolen, nineteenth-century Maori embraced the new medium with enormous enthusiasm and respect. There are throughout this country very few wharenui without walls dedicated to photographs of tupuna.

Vicky Thomas is one of a recently emerging generation of Maori women artists embracing video and photography rather than traditional painting, not only as vehicles for their own personal concerns but also to kick-start a re-examination of our visual history from a Maori viewpoint. It might be assumed that this would be invariably critical, but it’s often celebratory too. These confident younger women know where they stand and so operate from a position of strength ― they’re consciously wahine-toa, determined about the job needing to be done.

With utmost economy and style, Thomas’s Miss Appropriate sequence describes a rich arc, from historical stereotypes to contemporary aspirations, the sequencing itself suggesting stills from a movie (there is an associated video) that, in its very action, downplays the static nature of a timeless, ‘classic’ culture.

The often anonymous ‘Maori Belle’ of nineteenth-century photography is here savagely depicted headless in the ultimate anonymity, a cropping that decapitates a whole tradition of European notions of female beauty in the process. Why mess with feminist theory when you’re holding a conceptual axe?

Likewise, the tradition of Maori women as touristic performers, cementing Pakeha beliefs of a culture locked in a classic past, is dealt a hearty but light-hearted blow.

Clad in her swirling piupiu and elegant black stilettos, this belle’s ringin’!

Vicky Thomas (Ngati Kahu, Nga Puhi, Irish, Welsh) was born 1964 in Auckland and completed a Bachelor of Design (Hons), majoring in photography, in 2005 at Unitec there. With three other Maori women photographers she took part in Maiden Aotearoa at Wellington’s City Gallery earlier this year.

Colour photograph

Colour photograph

VICKY THOMAS Tu Waewae Takahia 1986
Colour photograph

VICKY THOMAS Putatea 1986
Colour photograph