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Topic: Washday at the Pa controversy

Is part of topic Parade (Te Papa exhibition - 14 February 1998 to May 2001)

Washday at the Pä was a school bulletin published in 1964 by the Education Department’s School Publications section. Ans Westra wrote the text and took the photographs during a visit to Ruatoria. The bulletin charts a day in the life of a rural Mäori family with nine children. The family was given the fictitious name ‘Wereta’ to protect their identity, and their location was given, not as Ruatoria, but ‘near Taihape’.

This family lived in a run down, rural cottage, though they were later to move to a State house nearer town. It was the images of the ‘Wereta’s’ living conditions that caused enormous controversy. Some believed the sub-standard living conditions shown implied that these conditions were representative of all Mäori. The title was also deemed to be misleading, as the family did not live in a pä, but in a private dwelling. 

The Mäori Women’s Welfare League severely criticised Westra’s photographs at their conference, labelling them inaccurate, atypical and unhelpful. They argued that the sub-standard living conditions portrayed would reinforce Päkehä stereotypes of Mäori as poor, rural and happily primitive. They believed that this would have a detrimental effect on the efforts of Mäori to establish better living conditions. One member said, ‘younger children are influenced by what they see and the photographs show sub-standard housing and living. The Mäori  school child is immediately placed at a disadvantage with his European schoolfellows and becomes the butt of their derision’ (1).
Westra, who had spent five months living among rural Mäori, argued that these photos provided an accurate portrayal of the living conditions of many Mäori at the time. However, as she pointed out, the issues of housing and other aspects of the Mäori life-style portrayed were not the main themes of the bulletin. ‘The booklet was never meant to portray a typical Mäori  family. It is just a story of a happy family living in the country. It shows the warmth of family relationships’ (2). 

Nevertheless, in 1961 nearly thirty per cent of Mäori lived in houses with no hot water, just over twenty per cent had no bath or shower, over forty per cent had no flush toilet and over seventy per cent relied on an open fire for heating (3).

The most controversial image was of a girl standing barefoot on top of a stove.  “No good going to bed with cold feet”, says Mutu. So she opens the lid of the stove and stands on it for a moment’ reads the caption for the photograph. According to tikanga Mäori, the body should not come into contact with a food preparation area in this way. It was believed by some that no Mäori  child would do such an offensive thing of her own accord – Westra was accused of posing her subjects.

Westra has always maintained that the shot was not posed, and that she was aware that standing on top of the stove was tapu.  ‘I thought perhaps those children weren’t aware of it [the stove] being a tapu area because customs vary from tribe to tribe... I wanted to show that some of these customs were being lost, or not being observed’ (4).

As a result of the objections, all 38,000 copies of Washday at the Pä were withdrawn from circulation by the Minister of Education at the time, Mr Arthur Kinsella. ‘Nobody has denied that the family relationships as portrayed in the bulletin are affectionate, good-humoured and co-operative,’ said Kinsella, ‘The objections mainly refer to the family’s living conditions, which are said to be untypical. They were not intended to be regarded as completely typical... However, it is clear that the publication has given offence, and I have therefore decided that it be withdrawn from the schools’ (5).

A second edition of Washday at the Pä was republished privately in the same year with 20 additional photographs.

The Washday at the Pä controversy raised a number of important points, the principal one being whether Mäori  people had the right to say how they were depicted. Many Mäori  felt that Westra had presented an outsider’s perspective rather than trying to understand Mäori culture. Westra says that with hindsight she can understand their motives and readily acknowledges some of the criticisms levelled at the text. She concedes that much of the controversy may have been avoided if the bulletin had been published privately, and not by a government department. 

Ans Westra believes Mäori  attitudes to being photographed have also changed from the 1960s. ‘I found the Mäori  more open in the 80s if they had a resentment about being photographed.  In the 60s I was their guest and they never objected. I think their people have become more aware of what an image can do’.

It is ironic that, in 1964, one of the main criticisms of Washday at the Pä was that the photographs did not accurately reflect the level of Mäori  housing, which was rapidly improving.  Today, the low standard of Mäori  housing is again a major issue, many critics claiming it is actually far worse than most people realise.

(1) Bennet, Wikitoria. (1964). Letter to Editor. The Evening Post August.

(2) Booklet Decision Angers Author. (1964). The Dominion 4 August.

(3) Editorial. (1964). The Christchurch Press. August

(4) Saker, John. (1986). City Interview: Ans Westra. Wellington City Magazine: April. 

(5) Kinsella, Arthur, Minister of Education (1964). Press statement. 3 August

Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998).

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