The piano at Te Papa

Parekowhai piano use

He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: The Story of a New Zealand River (2011) by Michael Parekowhai. Photograph: Te Papa Tongarewa / Museum of New Zealand.

‘There is no object I could make … that could fill a room like sound can.’ Michael Parekowhai, 2011[1]

This week I heard two performances on this Steinway grand piano-turned-into-an-artwork. The name of the carved piano is: He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: Story of a New Zealand river – ‘Story of a New Zealand River’ is the title of a 1920 novel by Jane Mander. The piano was carved by Maori New Zealand artist Michael Parekowhai and “took more than 10 years to create”.[2] It is in the Te Papa collection.

It was part of a collection of sculptural works that was Michael Parekowhai’s installation at the 2011 Venice Biennale – two of the other works were (unplayable) grand pianos with large bronze bulls on top of them, one standing and one sitting. The whole work was called On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. One of the piano/bull combinations is in the Christchurch Art Gallery collection, as seen below.

parekowhai chapman's homer

In this short video clip, Christchurch Art Gallery director Jenny Harper introduces ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’, “an installation that alludes, with Parekowhai’s characteristic wit and showmanship, to a poem of the same name by 19th century romantic poet John Keats”.

After Venice, the whole installation was displayed back in New Zealand – at least in Christchurch and at Te Papa (and maybe elsewhere too). Much has been written about it, including a book: Michael Parekowhai On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer Having looked at the book at Te Papa a few years ago, I recall it covered the literary allusions contained in the titles of the complete work and individual parts of it. This is also briefly mentioned in the Te Papa information: The title [of the piano] refers to a 1920s New Zealand novel, which in turn inspired Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano. As Christchurch art curator Justin Paton has noted, Parekowhai ‘reverses the direction of these narratives’. No longer is ‘culture’ imported from Europe. In transforming the piano, Parekowhai shifts the perspective, boldly making New Zealand the source. Paton asks: ‘Is it a European instrument decorated with Maori carving, or a Maori carving that has engulfed a piece of European high culture?’ [3] Jane Mander’s story begins with a piano and other possessions being transported up a river. Apparently Jane Campion denies the direct link of her film with the book.[4]

The two performances I heard at Te Papa had different contexts – the first on the evening of 17 May was for Friends of Te Papa and the context was an exhibition currently on show: The Gallery of Helen Hitchings. In this context, it was really ‘just a piano’ rather than an artwork. The exhibition at Te Papa features objects from a trail-blazing modernist art and design gallery in Wellington opened by a 28-year-old Helen Hitchings in 1949 (it only ran until 1951). A piano performance occurred at her gallery in December 1949 of New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn’s ‘piano sonata, 1949’ – so the Te Papa Friends evening re-created this event with pianist Catherine McKay playing the three movement piece and then Te Papa’s Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, Justine Olsen, talking about Helen Hitchings’ gallery. According to the Douglas Lilburn Trust website, this piece was first played by Victoria University’s head of music Frederick Page.[5] I don’t know if this was the gallery performance or not. (Click here to see my post on Frederick and Evelyn Page).

The second performance was on the following day from 12 noon. Again, Catherine was the pianist – this time she played several pieces, beginning with ‘God Save the Queen’ (although as this was a homage to a 1946 performance by pianist Lili Kraus it should really have been ‘God Save the King’ – and perhaps we should have been asked to stand as was customary at the time!)


The context of this second performance was the graduation week of Victoria University students – Cushla Parekowhai graduated with a Masters of Library and Information Studies. She is the older (and only) sister of the piano’s artist Michael Parekowhai. She gave a talk before the performance, outlining her research.[6] The piano was a gift from the Hungarian refugee Lili Kraus to New Zealand in 1959. After surviving wartime imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp in Indonesia, Lili Kraus arrived in New Zealand . From June 1946 to December 1947 she made a number of intensive national tours travelling all over small town New Zealand, playing any piano.

Image: Lili Kraus and Frederick Page (from Frederick Page, A musician’s journal; ed J M Thomson & Janet Paul, John McIndoe, 1986, p. 93).

Fred Page said “Lili Kraus swept in from Java where she had been a prisoner of war for many years. She was penniless and accepted gratefully the opportunity, put to her by Owen Jensen, of travelling around the upper part of the North Island and playing on appalling uprights in cheerless halls, Bartok, Mozart, Schubert. She was then at the peak of her career, a woman of great beauty and we were proud that being stateless, she chose to acquire a New Zealand passport. Every recital in Wellington was an occasion, lit by her luminous playing” (p. 99).

Back to the piano – Lili Kraus wrote a message on the leading edge of the frame, which said: Dear Friends, May this beautiful instrument bring you happiness and inspiration; with all my love, Lili Kraus London, Xmas 1959. [7]

parekowhai piano inscription

Image reproduced from page 8 of Cushla Parekowhai’s thesis. Photograph by David Jenkin. (The image was also reproduced in the public programme for the concert).

Cushla didn’t say how the piano got from being gifted to New Zealand (in reality, to whom?) and how it ended up being Michael Parekowhai’s carved piano. So later, at home, I looked up her research thesis: it is available here:

At first I wondered how it fitted into a Library and Information Studies degree, but it is an annotated bibliography. Her abstract states:

The Story of the Story of The Story of a New Zealand River An Annotated Bibliography of Resources Informing Interpretation of the Artwork He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu (2011) by Michael Parekowhai is a resource that addresses gender imbalance in the public documentation and interpretation of the artwork. It argues that information about musician Lili Kraus (and her erased contribution) enables a reading of the work as a contemporary take on Marcel Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ and examines the contribution of Jane Mander and Jane Campion to the work’s conceptual framework. Within a discussion of the under-acknowledged contribution that sisters make to the work of male artists it refers to Marcel Duchamp’s sister Suzanne and introduces Dorothea Turner, sister of writer John Mulgan as a key player in the Lili Kraus story. Through providing a model that illustrates the depth of gender problems in relation to a single artwork and by using an annotated bibliography to rectify that problem, the bibliography aims to assist Te Papa Tongarewa / Museum of New Zealand and other New Zealand research institutions in identifying and taking responsibility for their duty of care to women and women artists.”

I was still curious to know more about the history of the piano; but, although I didn’t read all of Cushla’s thesis, I don’t think she knows. As she says on page 27: “The single reference connecting Lili to He Korero Purakau is an interview by Adam Gifford with master piano restorer David Jenkin. Jenkin was the Steinway technician who encountered the instrument when it belonged to a jazz pianist in Whangarei, and who rediscovered the inscription written by Lili in pencil inside the body of the instrument. His account is the only source of back-story for the artwork before Michael ‘took to it with chisels’. Jenkin confirms that the piano was first sold in London in 1926 and ‘probably selected by Lili in 1959 when she was buying instruments for broadcasting or one of the town halls here in New Zealand'”.[8]

Cushla goes on to say:  “Years later, when the piano was restored by Michael and became He Korero Purakau (2011), the sincere and heartfelt wish Lili left inside the instrument was painted out. This erasure has meant that in subsequent critical assessment of the artwork neither the significance of the gesture by Lili nor her contribution to New Zealand music, art, literature and culture is acknowledged or well-documented. It could be argued that the deletion of Lili’s inscription is typical of an overriding interest Michael has in immaculate surfacing. For him the piano was an object with ‘no history’ that was without significance or meaning until he ‘took to it with chisels’ and remade the instrument as an artwork divorced from context and stripped of its femininity.”[9]

As a historian, I wish Lili’s inscription hadn’t been painted over, but at least there is photographic documentation of it!

In addition to researching these ‘invisible women’, there is another interesting sub-text to Cushla’s research. In talking of her own role in relation to Michael’s work:

On page 9 she quotes from Kim Knight, “Parekowhai to Show Again at Venice Biennale”, Sunday Star Times (2011, May 22): “’Big sister…and little brother are long time collaborators…she…names his artworks, and writes texts to go with them, eschewing artspeak in favour of…stories from their childhood’. Michael himself has said, ‘On occasion we work very well together. My sister does the words and I do the pictures. It makes for interesting book’.”

Continuing on page 10, she says: “Although Michael might dismiss the titles and tone that name and add depth and conceptual polish to his work, what these narratives also create are the ideas, associations and meanings that have become the language in which his work is critically discussed…

“Michael has long been admired for the ability to manufacture both critical debate and the intrigue, or space ‘he places between himself and the interpretation of his work. Sometimes it almost seems he’s taunting the interpreters with traps baited with art historical quotations and cultural references’. One reviewer speculates that this strategy implies ‘more time and effort being devoted to the cause than I imagine really is’. [This reference is to Courtney Johnson, “Avoiding the Obvious”. Best of 3 one foot in the art world (2009, December, 11)]

“Quite right. The artist does not invent the stories, titles, characters and connections that enable the possibility of multiple readings of the artwork, He Korero Purakau. I do – but only at a managed distance where the artist can keep his older sister ‘close at hand when there is talking to be done; with a sharp tongue and biting intelligence, she supplies the lengthier, intellectual answers, allowing him his boyish quips, while occasionally tempering his swagger’.17″ [This reference is Holly Myers, “Pavilion Profile: New Zealand. Michael Parekowhai”. Art Review 51 (2011, Summer)]

Cushla Parekowhai has added several more layers to an interpretation of this artwork. While I love these interesting connections, I think some of these ‘invisible women’ (such as Dorothea Turner and Suzanne Duchamp) are rather tenuous connections to the artwork. But when the titles, with their literary references, are supplied by his sister, what does it mean for his works?

In an odd twist, I will add my own tenuous connection – my copy of Frederick Page’s A musician’s journal, which I think I acquired from an op shop, once belonged to Dorothea Turner (at least the signature appears to be her name). As Cushla mentions in her thesis, Dorothea (1910-1997) wrote an excellent review of Lili’s first Auckland performance in 1946 in The [NZ] Listener, and also wrote a biography of Jane Mander in 1972.


Signature on flyleaf of Frederick Page’s ‘A musician’s journal’

She is mentioned in Charles Brasch’s memoir Indirections (p.415): “John Mulgan’s sister Dorothea Turner came out to see us at Whangaparaoa and talked about books and music; James had known her for years and I found myself talking to her as if we too were old friends. Our generation, spread throughout New Zealand and across the world, formed a group who would always find again when they met the attitudes and interests they had in common; loosely knit yet close in sympathy. Dorothea brought me a message from her father, Alan Mulgan, who was Director of Talks in the Broadcasting Service, inviting me to give a talk on dramatic criticism in a series of winter talks from the Auckland station 1ya.” (I have a copy of Brasch’s Indirections, but took the quote from the online version at NZETC.)


[1] Quoted in the information for the piano/artwork, Te Papa collections:

[2] Te Papa collections (see footnote 1)

[3] Te Papa collections (see footnote 1)

[4] Cushla Parekowhai’s thesis, p. 9. See below for full reference

[5] Douglas Lilburn Trust website, Timeline, 1949:

[6] The Story of the Story of The Story of a New Zealand River An Annotated Bibliography of Resources Informing Interpretation of The Artwork He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu (2011) by Michael Parekowhai, Cushla Parekowhai, Oct 2013; Submitted to the School of Information Management, Victoria University of Wellington in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Library and Information Studies. Available online:

[7] Page 6 of Cushla Parekowhai’s thesis (see above for the full reference)

[8] Her annotated bibliography entry is on page 46: A104. Gifford, Adam. “A grand restoration”. New Zealand Herald. April 23, 2011. In addition, this article says how the carving of the artwork significantly reduced the surface thickness of the original rim and how additional lengths of oak and mahogany were laminated in 2mm horizontal bands around the inside of the piano to restore the strength and tone of the instrument.

[9] Cushla Parekowhai’s thesis, p. 8


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