William Dunning

Aotearoa New Zealand, b.1959

Colonization Triptych

  • Purchased, 1999
  • Acrylic on canvas
  • 1804 x 1556mm
  • 99/321.1-3
  • 1999

William Dunning’s Colonization Triptych presents history as an uncomfortable place filled with cracks and stains. In a gallery of paintings within a painting, it places colonial Prime Minister Julius Vogel in the same room as Waikato Māori leader Rewi Maniapoto, each flanking an adapted version of Giovanni Bellini’s circa 1487 Transfiguration of Christ. Dunning’s reworking, however, replaces Jesus with early colonial governor William Hobson and Moses and Elijah with deed-bearing settler and Māori chief, substituting Bellini’s startled disciples with generic Māori figures. In dealing with displaced, changing authority and rulership, Colonization Triptych tells of the artist’s abiding awareness of the government-led injustices of the colonial past. The stiff awkwardness of the figures recall waxwork museum dioramas or early photographic studio portraits, and echoes the discomfort still easily enough associated with this past.

(He Waka Eke Noa, 18 February 2017 – 18 February 2018)

See the Transfiguration of Christ by Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.

earlier labels about this work
  • Keeping Time, 23 May – 31 August 2008

    A fascination with history is at the heart of William Dunning’s work, but the past he presents here is oddly lifeless – the kind preserved, even imprisoned, in worthy museum dioramas. Colonial politician Julius Vogel and famed Māori leader Rewi Maniapoto sit uncomfortably in a stuffy Victorian room, hemmed in by images of capitalism and colonisation. Between them is Dunning’s secular interpretation of Bellini’s 15th-century Transfiguration of Christ, re-styled for a colonial New Zealand context. Governor William Hobson takes Christ’s place, while a Pākehā settler and Māori chief, each holding a land deed, stand in for Moses and Elijah. Dunning uses this traditional setting to depict a watershed moment in New Zealand history – the formalisation of the partnership between Māori and the Crown – but any sense of promise is undermined by cracks and stains that mar the paintings and wallpaper. Like the waxwork-still Vogel and Maniapoto, we can only watch and wait as the composition begins to crumble under the strain of unfinished business.

    (Keeping Time, May 2008)