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A call to contribute

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

Though the term may sound impenetrable, the palimpsest is a helpful concept for considering Māori Moving Image: An Open Archive, writes Matariki Williams. She visited the exhibition co-curated by Bridget Reweti (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui) and Melanie Oliver at the Dowse Art Museum.

Put simply, the palimpsest is a document that has been erased and written over, sometimes at multiple stages, so new thoughts emerge on the page while traces of previous thoughts remain. This was what it felt like to stand in one of the rooms in the exhibition, the sounds from multiple points having a layered effect on the viewer, while the light from all the works melded. In this room were two works by the Ngāi Tahu, Ngāpuhi artist Rachel Rakena, and works by Nathan Pohio (Kāti Mamoe, Ngāi Tahu, Waitaha), Professor Robert Jahnke (Ngāi Taharora, Te Whānau a Iritekura, Te Whānau a Rakairo o Ngāti Porou), and Nova Paul (Te Uriroroi/Te Parawhau, Ngā Puhi).

Nathan Pohio, (Kāti Mamoe, Ngāi Tahu and Waitaha), 'Sleeper', 1999. Two-channel video, sound (3 mins). Courtesy of the artist.

In this room alone, the lives of the works span a total of 26 years and include an animation made by Jahnke as part of his Master of Fine Arts in Experimental Animation from the California Institute of Arts in 1980. Titled Te Utu. The Battle of the Gods it involved a large team of cultural advisors, musicians, sound actors, and the singing talents of children from the Māori Catholic boarding schools Hato Paora College and St Joseph’s College. Subsequnetly, Jahnke has established the School of Māori Visual Arts at Massey University in Palmerston North where he taught some of the artists exhibited in the show, as well as co-curator Reweti. As the label points out, Te Utu opens an interesting conversation around negotiating tikanga Māori while using new technologies; the artist was working out how to convey the tapu nature of the atua depicted. Te Utu is a reminder that these negotiations are not new and cannot be assumed to result simply from the world we live in now, which is very heavily online.

The role of online media is not an explicit point or theme of the whole show. However, it is a feature of Rakena’s work …as an individual and not under the name of Ngāi Tahu (2001). Her work makes reference to, the title explicitly, a group email thread from Ngāi Tahu descendants discussing a funding application from an individual who wanted to host a wānanga. The email thread, as many do these days, leads to a robust discussion about who has the right to claim ownership of shared knowledge, and who determines who gets access to this knowledge. Beautifully, the issue was eventually resolved via this forum, which is often not the case with online discussions. This is art that speaks to the way technology has interrupted the ways Māori have discussions about tikanga; they may very well take place in online spaces, spaces that are notoriously without borders.

Rachael Rakena (Ngāi Tahu, Ngā Puhi), '... as an individual and not under the name of Ngāi Tahu', 2001. Single-channel SD video (9 mins 24 secs). Courtesy of the artist.

Elsewhere in the exhibition technology, and specifically the camera, has a more active relationship with people. This is most evident in Te Āhua o te Hau ki te Papaioea from Terri Te Tau (Rangitāne, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa). Te Tau’s work refers to the police surveillance undertaken as part of ‘Operation 8’ which ultimately led to raids and arrests across the country, including the infamous lockdown in Rūātoki, which endured days of armed presence. Here, Te Tau subverts the power of the gaze, allowing visitors to enter a black Suzuki Carry van, and watch a video projected onto the front window. This video depicts the streets and neighbourhoods of four Palmerston North families that were surveilled in ‘Operation 8’. It is an uneasy watch, leaving you feeling as if you’re invading the privacy of the people living in the houses that you drive past; and the label states that the families did indeed feel the presence of the surveillance parties.

The work reminds me too of Google Maps, an app that is absolutely ubiquitous, used as if it is merely a benign tool for the user’s purposes. Considering Te Tau’s work, I distinctly recall my first reactions to Google Maps, when I heard that they would be driving down every street in the world and if you happened to be caught on camera, your image would be blurred but there was no opt-out system. Again, it was technology as an actor upon us. Nowadays Maps, or a version of it, is on all smartphones. We are tracked via running apps, public transport apps, any number of apps. This technology has ingratiated itself into the lives, and hands, of human beings to the point where it’s hard to remember there was ever any resistance to it. Thank art for reminding me!

Lisa Reihana (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tū), 'Native Portraits n.19897' (1997). Eleven-channel video waharoa. Courtesy of Te Papa Tongarewa.

From one sense of immersion to another with Karanga (2019) from the collaboration between Jamie Berry (Te Aitanga a Māhaki, Rongowhakaata, Ngāti Porou, Ngāpuhi), Pikihuia Haenga (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Porou) and Leala Faleseuga (Sāmoan [Salelologa], Dutch). Standing in this space had a similar effect to being in the room with multiple works, a feeling of being layered upon with the voices, images, and imagery of many wāhine. Two walls play the same projections, but slightly out of sync, giving an effect of being in conversation with each other, with the viewers either joining in or being passive observers. Much like the pōwhiri process, the call and response evokes the layering effect in karanga, where the kaikaranga build links with each other and their voices intertwine across the ātea between them. The work itself is a palimpsest, noting both the mana of the wāhine depicted onscreen and those they whakapapa from. Here, technology is a facilitator, allowing the artists to create a work that is celebratory, wielding the mana to depict their material as they see fit.

The room in which Karanga is shown, along with another room which is showing Earthpushers by Jeremy Leatinu’u (Ngāti Maniapoto, Sāmoan), will cycle through four sets of artists each. This means that a total of 20 artists will have work displayed in the show, with even more artists involved in the extensive events schedule. This is where the second half of the exhibition title is important; the show has the aim of broadening the ‘archive’ of writing and other documentation of Māori moving image artists. To encourage this process, one of the biggest rooms in the exhibition is a working space where visitors can access writing about the artists involved in the show. However, by compiling the writing, it shows how woefully documented their practice is – the archive as it exists now is woefully slim. There is a wero here, for visitors to contribute to the archive, to add another layer to this palimpsest, to make richer the future of Māori art writing, and the Māori art archive.

Māori Moving Image: An Open Archive is at The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, until 21 July. It then moves to Christchurch Art Gallery (Te Puna o Waiwhetū) from 23 August.

First published Art Zone #79


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