Jonathan Mane-Wheoki (1943-2014): An Appreciation

Jonathan Mane-Wheoki (1943-2014): An Appreciation

By the Art Curators at Te Papa:
Sarah Farrar, Athol McCredie, Lissa Mitchell, Chelsea Nichols, Justine Olsen, Rebecca Rice, Mark Stocker and Megan Tamati-Quennell

Jonathan Mane-Wheoki (1943-2014), 2009 (Michael Hall, Te Papa)
Jonathan Mane-Wheoki (1943-2014), 2009 (Michael Hall, Te Papa)

The recent passing of Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, CNZM, (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kurī, Te Aopōuri, Pākehā), the national museum’s Head of Arts & Visual Culture, leaves not only Te Papa but the wider art world of Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific a sadder and emptier place.


From art student to art historian

Jonathan’s remarkable achievements over his 50-year career reveal a truly ‘Renaissance’ man. He turned his hand to whatever he did with intelligence and grace. Don Peebles, the significant New Zealand abstract artist, admired Jonathan’s student work at the School of Fine Arts at Canterbury. Bill Sutton, Doris Lusk and, particularly, the pioneering Expressionist Rudi Gopas, were further important influences on this talented young artist. Moving to London, Jonathan did a master’s degree in the history of art at the exclusive Courtauld Institute of Art (attending upper-class cocktail parties, hosted by the chilly seventeenth-century art scholar Sir Anthony Blunt, later unmasked as a Russian spy!) Here he made the exciting connection between Gothic Revival architecture at the core of the British Empire in buildings like the Houses of Parliament, and the remarkable wooden churches on the supposed colonial ‘periphery’ in New Zealand.

Running through his life was a profound and intelligent understanding and appreciation of Colin McCahon, whom Jonathan had known personally since his childhood in Titirangi in the 1950s, as well as a thorough appreciation of modernism. Then, in the late 1980s, Jonathan came to terms with his own Māori ancestry, learnt Te Reo and went on to teach modern and contemporary Māori art. His articles (amongst others) on the Māori ‘Renaissance’, Arnold Manaaki Wilson, Robin Kahukiwa and Ralph Hotere that appeared in Art New Zealand over the years cogently explained their significance to a wide readership. At the end of his life, Jonathan was a key member of Toi Te Mana, an ambitious Marsden Grant funded project that promises to rewrite Māori art history since 1840, giving it both a scholarly foundation and increased public accessibility.


An inspiring teacher

Much of Jonathan’s working life was spent at university, and this is where he inspired the curators of the future. Past and present art team members at Te Papa (or the earlier National Art Gallery) who, over many years, were Jonathan’s students include Elizabeth Caldwell, Joanna Cobley, Sarah Farrar, Claire Finlayson, Hubert Klaassens, William McAloon, Conal McCarthy, Justine Olsen, Claire Regnault, Sarah Rennie and Kate Woodall. The Victorian art and architecture course and its energetic field trips are fondly remembered by Jonathan’s early students; they inspired several of them to become professionals in the heritage and decorative arts fields, including Te Papa Curator Justine Olsen. New Zealand modernism was equally important. Mark Stocker, currently Curator Historical International Art, was for many years a colleague of Jonathan’s at the University of Canterbury. A memorable series of public lectures that Jonathan gave on McCahon in 1990 convinced him ‘far more than some of McCahon’s wordy champions, that his art matters’.


A champion of the arts in Aotearoa

Jonathan was equally at ease in the museum world; he worked at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, forerunner of the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu in the 1970s and again from the 1990s in an honorary position, when he was its kaitiaki Māori. This was followed by two stints at Te Papa (2004-9; 2012-14), where he did much to give the national collection the prominence it deserved. Toi Te Papa Art of the Nation highlighted the art history of this country; it was a highly persuasive narrative and was the curatorial counterpart to Jonathan’s decades of art history teaching. Jonathan was also in charge of things when the Constable, Monet and our own Rita Angus exhibitions were hosted at Te Papa. In retrospect it seems amazing that he had to argue hard for a big, one-woman centenary exhibition of Rita Angus. History, as so often happened, proved him right. More recently, Jonathan warmly supported Ngā Toi Arts Te Papa, which moves on from the narrative flow of Toi Te Papa; he recruited members of the current curatorial team; and, poignantly, he championed exhibitions that he knew he would never live to see.


Staunch advocate for indigenous art

Jonathan was a figure of more than national importance. His status in the area of indigenous art worldwide was reflected in his invitation to deliver a public lecture several months ago at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, on the 25th anniversary of the exhibition Les Magiciens de la Terre. This certainly merits posthumous publication. Jonathan probably did more than any other individual to get people thinking not so much in terms of ‘New Zealand art history’ as ‘Art’s Histories in Aotearoa New Zealand’. He did so in a way that was liberal and intelligible; proscriptive political correctness or jargon-ridden language and prose were certainly not for him!


Mana and charisma

This leads us on to Jonathan’s personal qualities. Where does one begin in listing these? You could call him ‘a mighty totara’, a man of mana and charisma, indeed (to be rather old-fashioned) a ‘gentleman’ – and you’d be right each time. He exuded grace, warmth and a generosity that was both intellectual and emotional. His wonderful speaking voice might have made him a highly successful actor or indeed a clergyman. Talking of which, Jonathan’s High Anglicanism, closely related to his passion for Victorian Gothic, was devout and learned yet unstuffy. Although politics are not our concern here, Jonathan could speak to conservative Pākehā art lovers and get them thinking. He made the biculturalism that Te Papa enshrines appear completely reasonable, not strident, and never narrowly exclusive of multiculturalism or the European cultural legacy. Although there is immense sadness at Jonathan’s passing, and tears will certainly be shed at the Requiem Mass held for him at Holy Trinity, Parnell, on 18 October 2014, part of him will live on in many of us. To paraphrase Colin McCahon, here I give thanks for Jonathan Mane-Wheoki.


  1. I met Jonathan in 1975 while a student in London. His course “Art and Architecture in Victorian England” was inspirational. He took us field trips- I saw the original Pre-Raphaelite paintings with him at the old Tate, and he made the paintings, their background, and the artists come alive. We had a high tea, he was “mother” and then took us to see Dicken’s home. It was only years later, visiting me in Philadelphia, that he confided ours was his very first class teaching. You would have never known it, given with the authority and masterage of the material. Whenever I see a building with “constructional polychromey” I think of him.

    We spoke of my emigrating to NZ; it didn’t happen, but we maintained a correspondence and he visited me twice in the US, the second trip being his 50th birthday, I believe. My son, family and friends bought me a ticket to NZ for my 60th birthday, and today is April 5, 2015. We miss each other by only a few months. I came to Wellington purposely to see the art at Te Papa; this and all the good he did in the world are a fitting memorial to a remarkable, kind human being.

    1. Author

      This is a nice tribute and I like the reference to ‘constructional polychromy’, which was as central to him for the 19th century as the ‘irreducible essence’ was for memorably teaching 20th century modernism and minimalism. In his final interview Jonathan told me about how special this first ever course had been. Students from his subsequent New Zealand years say remarkably similar things, and recall with great affection the field trips and walkabouts in Christchurch, Dunedin and – in the early years – Melbourne and Sydney. But he was also passionate about Victorian London and you were lucky to benefit from this.

  2. I was served a term on the Board of Te Papa and became hugely impressed by Johnathan in his role leading the Department of Arts and Visual Culture. After his move to Auckland we regularly met at the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra concerts. His breadth of intellect, warmth and humour will remain as a cherished memory.
    Nga mihi nui

  3. I first met Jonathan in 2008 for the Rita Angus Centenary. As with everybody else it seems, he became an instant mentor and friend. There was always time for a quick catch up, even if it was a drink at the airport in the 10 minutes he had spare. Whenever I met him, he always managed to teach me something! I find it hard to be sad though, I always left him feeling so positive, even when we were dealing with something seemingly insurmountable. Jonathan’s main lesson to me was to live it to the full as he did. The only problem is that I need my sleep.

    1. I appreciate your response, Bill, and I get you about not being sad. If we feel that way it is because we will miss his benevolent presence a lot. I wish I could still say ‘I must tell Jonathan about the Pre-Raphaelites at the Metropolitan Museum and how they got the name of the sculptor I did my PhD on wrong, what was it all in aid of?!’ and hear his laugh…

  4. Sorry to hear the sad news.

    Inspirational person

  5. Jonathan had a great influence on me at Canterbury University in 1982-5. He taught us the importance of scholarship and the craft of art history, but always with a keen eye on content; was what we were saying interesting? He was gentle but determined in his criticism. He also had a mischievous side that provoked curiosity. At the close of a tutorial, I remember him sending us off to see the 1982 film Querelle directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder; a controversial film in the Christchurch Film Festival at the time. He said it might widen our view of life (and followed this statement with his characteristic laughter)! On that note, his attentiveness to the sacred and profane (a conflation of the experience of love with religious belief) was embodied in his Anglo-Catholicism. I will always be indebted to him for exemplifying that breadth of belief.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the comment Chris. I haven’t seen ‘Querelle’ so you have a 30 year lead on me!

  6. Yes, a superb presenter in so many ways. I always made time to hear him, whenever I got the chance – inspiring.

    (My grandmother described Te Aupouri in Litho for ‘Tale of the Fish’ back in the sixties; I grew up with these wonderful images so Te Aupouri is part of me.)

    1. I know you were one of his ‘original’ students, Michele, and he was proud of you (and others too!)

  7. I always left Jonathan’s lectures thoughtfully inspired. Jonathan’s admiration for Gordon Tovey, the gifted educationalist who encouraged a generation of Maori artists into Contemporary practise, seems parallel with his own teaching and influence. Jonathan empowered us to find a place in the world through an understanding of art that was both personal, relevant and motivating. He taught with generosity and integrity. I feel very privileged to have been one of his students.

    1. Nicely said, Stephanie, thank you.

  8. We continue to be inspired by what Jonathan was as much as what did.

    1. Your tribute to him in the special ‘Off the Wall’ is heartfelt.

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