An exhibition that reimagines Greek hero Herakles as a 19th century colonist in New Zealand opens at the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge.

Featuring works by New Zealand print-maker Marian Maguire, The Labours of Herakles makes unlikely bedfellows of classical myth and colonial history. Inspired by imagery from Athenian black-figure pottery, Herakles (known in the Roman world as Hercules), steps directly from a Greek vase and into the New World in a series of lithographs and etchings.

By relocating Herakles in a colonial landscape, these works question what it means to be a hero – in both ancient and more recent pasts.

Curator Dr Susanne Turner said: It is a real honour to host Marian Maguire’s lithographs and etchings in Cambridge. The Herakles series is not just beautiful – it’s rich, thoughtful and unique. They introduce a new way of looking at classical art and the ancient world, opening up new stories in a space which is already full to the brim with Greek (and Roman) mythology.

“In a sense, Marian’s work reveals how very flexible our ideas about the ancients are and how so often the classical has played a role in making sense of more recent histories and events. But what we’re most excited about is the opportunity to engage new audiences who might not otherwise think to visit us. With a full and varied programme of events covering both the Greek and Maori aspects of the exhibition, we hope we have something to tempt a wide variety of visitors through our doors this summer.”

Under Maguire’s gaze and keen eye for detail, the great Greek hero undergoes a transformation as he struggles to fill the shoes of a 19th century colonist. In Greece, he battled monsters and undertook gargantuan tasks. In New Zealand, he struggles to clear the land and till the soil.

Marian Maguire has built a reputation for using the visual language of Greek pottery to interrogate New Zealand’s history. Maguire has exhibited throughout New Zealand and explores narratives of colonialism through a classical lens in several other series, including The Odyssey of Captain Cook (2005) and Titokowaru’s Dilemma (2011). The Labours of Herakles was first exhibited in 2008.

Set against the atmospheric backdrop of the classical casts, the exhibition contextualises the lithographs and etchings within a rich ancient tradition of representing Herakles in different contexts and artistic media. The exhibition will be accompanied by a series of events including talks exploring the ancient and colonial histories, activities for families and craft workshops.

The Labours of Herakles is a touring exhibition and is on display at the Museum of Classical Archaeology from April 17 to August 15, 2015.