Fiona Pardington: Portrait of a life cast of Matoua Tawai, Aotearoa New Zealand 2010

Museums, archives and libraries are the repositories of stories. Collections around the world hold material imbued with multiple histories, and often the historical objects in these collections have a powerful contemporary resonance. New Zealand artist Fiona Pardington has photographed museum objects since 2001, and continues this practice in her most recent series. The Ahua: A beautiful hesitation series, 2010, comprises photographs of life-casts made by Frenchman Pierre-Marie Alexandre Dumoutier of people living in the Pacific region in the nineteenth century.

In 1837, French explorer Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville set out on his third and final voyage across the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere. One of d’Urville’s aims was to collect information about the peoples of the Pacific Islands he visited, and he included Dumoutier in his crew to further this goal. Dumoutier was a skilled anatomist and cast maker, and he made more than fifty head casts on the voyage with d’Urville. These casts, which today are held in museum collections in France and New Zealand, faithfully rendered the facial and cranial features of his subjects. Dumoutier used these casts to interpret character and intellect on the basis of the now discredited nineteenth-century pseudo-science of phrenology.

These casts were revisited 170 years later by Pardington. The series of photographs that she subsequently produced are not about d’Urville or Dumoutier, but rather draw on the complex histories of the casts themselves. Pardington first learnt of the existence of these casts, and of their original purpose, around 2007 and was inspired to seek out the examples held in the Musee de l’Homme, Paris.

Portrait of a life cast of Matoua Tawai, Aotearoa New Zealand 2010 is a key work from the series. The large colour image depicts the cast of a young Maori man, and is marked by beautiful, intricate lines created by the grooves of the Tā moko, or tattoos, that adorn his face. Although the subject of the cast is identified on the accompanying nineteenth-century label as Matoua Tawai, this may not be accurate as the information gathered at that time was often incorrectly recorded, and in this instance the original nineteenth-century documents are no longer extant. Consequently, identifying the sitter remains problematic. Irrespective of this, the casts are a particularly poignant expression of colonial objectification of the people of the Pacific.

Pardington’s photographs take these likenesses out of the archive and reposition them as portraits of power and beauty. Her works breathe life into the inanimate head casts, achieving what she describes as ‘a radiant point of encounter – a punctum or a tear in the real from out of which steps “a life” revived, reconstituted or transubstantiated’. Portrait of a life cast of Matoua Tawai, Aotearoa New Zealand 2010 is a portrait in which there is an uncanny sense of a living person, long gone, and a powerful connection to the past.

Susan van Wyk, Senior Curator, Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2013).