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Does size matter? The Cross-Cultural Politics of the Penis.
Photo image supplied / Dr Rawiri Taonui

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Does size matter? The Cross-Cultural Politics of the Penis.
Dr Rawiri Taonui

Those who apply a cultural double standard to condemn indigenous art as obscene while ignorant of their own tradition are the sorts of people who refer to sexual intercourse as having a naughty.


Last month, Tararua man, Milton Wainwright, cut the penis off a Rangitāne carving in the Manawatū Gorge. A devoted Christian, Wainwright explained that the penis was ‘obscene and immoral’ because it stands at the entrance to a public walking track. Wainwright believes European nude male statues, such as Michelangelo’s David, are more acceptable because they stand in galleries and museums, which the public, knowing to expect some nudity in art, can choose to visit or not.

In 2010, there were similar complaints about the phalluses on a newly carved entrance post for the Arataki Visitor Centre. That same year, a Hamilton man said the Māori carvings in the Hamilton gardens were offensive because their abnormously huge penises and testicles were in full public view. Like Wainwright, he believed European examples of more natural proportions less offensive.

These attitudes rest on historical lenses. One viewed Western art as superior in culture, form and value. Another saw indigenous art at best as a primitive and inferior curiosity and at worst as the work of dark oversexualised savages. As one European commented, carved penises are “unsuitable to be viewed by Victorian ladies”.

With that attitude, and one assumes much huffing and puffing, missionaries, administrators and curators did whatever it took to get the indigenous penises off - statues. Emasculated statues were viewed as “the idol-trophies” of Christian “moral victory”.

Colonial Europeans then sought to control indigenous art, including instructing artists on how their carvings should look. In some places, a new neutered indigenous style emerged; passive, pretty and quaint. Many artists stopped carving penises, some even castrated older examples.

Others did not. In 1905, the Christian community of Rotorua petitioned the Crown to remove the “indecent carved figures” presented for the Whakarewarewa tourist village saying they neither represent “our Māori art” or “the purity and refinement of the community”. The penises were excised.

These attitudes, which persist today, are selective and contradictory. The penis is not an affront to Christianity. Michelangelo’s statue of Jesus, The Risen Christ, with penis stands in the church of Santa Maria in Rome. During the Middle Ages, monks drew flying green penii some as long as the naked humans who rode them.

Neither is the penis of European art confined to the inner sanctum of the museum; copies of the David stand in full view in Duomo Square and Piazzale Michelangelo in Italy. The Bad Boy of Helsinki pees into a water feature, the L’improvisateur plays a the flute in Bandol France, Theseus and the Minotaur tussle in Sydney Australia, and Solace in the Wind leans gloriously windward in Wellington.

The idea that the phallus in European art is properly proportioned is mistaken. Penises were mostly undersized and many very tiny. And, while it is tempting to suggest someone mistook the measure of normal as what lay in the mirror, the peeny weeny actually comes from the Greek tradition which thought small indicated nobility. Large penises were depicted but were reserved for celestial or natural gods, or like Māori celebrated procreation. For example, Priapus, the Roman God of Fertility was often heavyweight. For many centuries both were acceptable.

The ideal micro re-emerged within nineteenth century Victorianism when, suffering neurotic Freudian prudery, puritan Christians were blinded to the large white penises in European art, and, through horror and fascination, became fixated on the big black bulges they uncovered in the colonies.

The best example of the former is the ‘Chalk Man’ or Cerne Abbas Giant who lies on a hillside in Dorset England. Locals will proudly tell you his spectacular erection is 10.6 metres long. Two sketches from the 1700s depict Cerne Abbas with his penis; two from the 1800s outline the giant without a penis.

As with Māori carving, large phalluses are in vogue. The Phallological Museum in Iceland, has a massive representation of the male organs in stone outside the front door. The foyer in The Sex Museum in Amsterdam includes two sets of two metre tall erect male genitalia, the testicles serving as seats.

And, if indigenous depictions are offensive, then what do we make of the annual Bourani Festival in Tyrnavos, Greece. Celebrating, Dionysus the God of Fertility, there are penile floats several metres long, penis shaped bread and sleeve puppets, and protrusion masks transforming wearers into what some might jokingly call dickheads.


The Department of Conservation has banned Wainwright from the walking track for two years. He faces a charge of wilful damage in the Dannevirke Court in July. One trusts the fact he is the owner of the Woodville Organ Museum is unrelated and that if convicted he learns a lesson and is not punished too harshly. Wainwright has done much valuable voluntary work over many years maintaining our tracks. Clearly, he needs to stick to weeding.

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