PAREKOWHAI, Michael; The Horn of Africa
From a distance The Horn of Africa 2006 appears like an exclamation mark, however, closer inspection reveals the equally perplexing sight of a life-size seal balancing a concert grand piano on its nose. While the overwhelming question might initially be its engineering, the most rewarding part of this breathtaking sculpture is its rich allusions to ideas of nationhood and culture. In particular, Michael Parekowhai questions aspects of New Zealand's history by subtly placing them with seemingly incongruous broader historical debates and unremarkable incidents.
The words 'The Story of a New Zealand River' are inscribed on the piano lid and show the work to be part of an ongoing series of the same name using Steinway pianos.1 The title of the series is taken from one of the first significant New Zealand novels to appear in the 1920s by Jane Mander.2 Set in a timber milling settlement on the Otamatea River in New Zealand's North Island, it tells the story of an educated, lonely Englishwoman struggling to maintain her moral values on the frontier. Although not credited by Jane Campion, some critics believe that her internationally renowned film The Piano 1993 was based on Mander's novel. In both film and novel, the author and director have given central place to a complex analogy between the playing of pianos and notions of civilization — an idea also called upon by Parekowhai in his sculpture.
In The Horn of Africa the shape created by the seal balancing the piano deliberately suggests the cartography of New Zealand's North and South Islands. The piano could be seen as the culturally and politically top-heavy North Island, while the South Island is playfully represented by a seal, evoking a wild and uninhabited place. The seal is a kekeno (New Zealand fur seal) indigenous to the South Pacific. Almost exploited to extinction during early colonisation, they are now an eco-tourism lure for New Zealand. Not so long ago, in the suburban gardens of 1950s New Zealand, it was common to see statues of seals balancing spherical lights on their noses, resembling welcome beacons offering a very different kind of lure.
Parekowhai's works have notoriously obscure titles. The Horn of Africa is an area of north-eastern Africa and is thought to be one of the areas from where humans originated. In relation to this history, Parekowhai is particularly interested in the work of Bryan Sykes, a professor of human genetics who proposed the idea that humans could be traced back to seven specific prehistoric women. Sykes also observed migration routes, hypothesising on the origins of the Polynesian people in his contested 2001 book, The Seven Daughters of Eve: claims of origins are inextricably aligned to those of legitimacy, particularly in indigenous politics.
On a global level, the Horn of Africa now comprises some of the poorest nations in the world, such as Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Sudan, and is allegedly a strategic focal point in 'the war against terrorism'.(3) With conceptual rigour and brilliant execution, Parekowhai's The Horn of Africa compellingly addresses the precariousness of nationhood, momentarily freezing the best, and most difficult, performance.
- The first sculpture with the same title as the series, 'The story of a New Zealand river' 2001 was included in 'The 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art' at Queensland Art Gallery in 2006 and 2007.
- Jane Mander, The Story of a New Zealand River, John Lane Co., New York and London, 1920.
- The United States Institute of Peace, Terrorism in the Horn of Africa: Special Report, no. 113, January 2004, unpaginated.