Matariki is the beginning of the Maori New Year and a celebration of starlight. Catharina van Bohemen looks at three New Zealand artists and the use they make of light.
Tirohia atu nei, ka whetūrangitia Matariki,
Te whitu o tau e whakamoe mai rā.
He hōmai ana rongo kia kōmai atu au –
Ka mate nei au i te matapōuri, i te
Matapōrehu o roto i a au!
See where Matariki are risen over the horizon,
The seven of the year winking up there.
They come with their message so I can rejoice.
Here I am full of sorrow, full of sadness within!
Margaret Orbell, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Māori Myth and Legend
The English name for Matariki is the Pleiades, seven sisters in Graeco-Roman mythology who, after death, became a cluster of stars in the constellation of Taurus, the bull of the Zodiac. In Māori mythology, these stars are Matariki, meaning literally ‘little eyes’ or ‘little points.’ Matariki is female – the stars are Matariki and her daughters. At the end of the Māori year (mid-April), these stars vanish in Western skies and their departure is mourned, but in May or early June, they reappear in the east shortly before dawn. Their return, close to the shortest day of the year, is a cause for joy: after darkness, light, life and conviviality are at hand.
When Matariki appeared, women sang and danced. Matariki is understood as a time of preparing, sharing and learning.
‘Little eyes’, ‘little points’ are simple but rich terms. Little points of light texture darkness, provide navigational coordinates. In the Māori tradition, black is transitional: te kore, the void, becomes te po, the night followed inexorably by dawn.
We all need our eyes to see. Artists’ eyes see and illuminate – they bring light; they show us what we have not seen.
Bill Culbert has been using his eyes throughout his long life – he is now 83 – to look at light. ‘My primary exploration is about light – light marks in space, light-in-light, light in darkness, night light, daylight, those kind of things just intrigue me.’(1) He does this with an array of objects – fluorescent tubes which may be suspended or pierce suitcases (he lives in France but makes frequent trips back to New Zealand), plastic containers, old furniture, all of which use and sculpt light in different ways. Particular objects of affection are wineglasses and light bulbs.
A bulb is ideed a ‘little point’ of light, and we talk about ‘lightbulb moments’. Culbert’s lightbulbs, while they can happily carry the suggestion, seem more modest. They are simple, unadorned – they bring a telling little point into a dark space and show us the unexpected wonder and often the comedy of the ordinary. His spaces are unpeopled, sites of transition or former habitation.
A wineglass is an image of sociability. Ian Wedde writes that when this work was shown in France, people often drank the wine because the arrangement of the glasses was like an invitation.‘Conviviality,’ he writes ‘is a theme of Culbert’s work – the pleasure of eating and drinking together, of conversation.’(2) And from conversation ideas may come – even perhaps lightbulb moments – so the wine glass and the lightbulb become one.
These objects always examine light both as medium and subject matter.
Culbert’s enduring relationship with Ralph Hotere produced some powerful artistic collaborations: Blackwater, Void, and Fault: the last of these what Bill Manhire has called ‘that lifting line of light’ that fractured the Hotere-black windows of the Wellington City Art Gallery in 1994.
‘I have very fond memories of making Void,’ he told Te Papa curator Sarah Farrar.(3) We were both intrigued that we could work on something almost as one... There was no alternative to the hard edge approach we both found... we didn’t want to smudge it... We could be as silent as we wanted to. But we were very happy. And discussion of art was very important...’
Auckland artist Lonnie Hutchinson (1963, Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kuri ki Ngāi Tahu, also of Samoan and European lineage) has a wide-ranging artistic practice encompassing film, performance, painting and installation.
Being a woman of diverse multi-cultural heritage underpins her work.
‘I honour whakapapa or genealogy...I move freely between the past, present and future to produce works...linked to memories of recent and ancient past, ... I make works that talk about those spaces in-between, those spiritual spaces.’
Hutchison is known for her use of black builders’ paper. Her 2010 exhibition Before Sunrise celebrating Matariki, consists of seven large panels each representing one of the seven Matariki stars. These panels were made from intricately cut builders’ paper divided into vertical folds within which were leaves or koru or dolls holding hands. The black paper, with its meticulous patterns flickering over the white gallery wall created brooding shadows hinting at what is seen and what is not, particularly with reference to how women are seen. The panels could be veils, or the geometrically pierced screens protecting the fabled harems of Persia. Below the work was a red chalk line – a reference to kōkōwai or red ochre symbolising the sacred. You could cross the line or not, but it is suggestive of Hutchinson’s preoccupation with those transitional ‘spaces in-between.’
Hutchinson’s interest in public spaces has grown steadily, and in 2015 she and Reuben Paterson collaborated in an installation in the Ronwood Car Park in Manukau. Hutchinson’s contribution is a neon text in Te reo and English which shines day and night on the outside of the car park’s stairwells: ‘Aroha atu Aroha mai’, ‘I love you.’. The combined installation is called Night and Day. It is a space-breaking affirmation.
The most contentious public art work of recent times is unquestionably Michael Parekowhai’s Lighthouse, a copy of a state house perching on prime industrial land on Auckland’s waterfront. Its cost aroused public ire, not least because it had been partly funded by a real estate company at the height of the city’s housing crisis; there was muttering about the secrecy surrounding its progress, and certain leaked details such as a possible Venetian glass chandelier enraged its detractors. At its opening, Parekowhai was reluctant to say more than that it was an art work which depended on its viewers’ responses. But, Argus-eyed and artful, Parekowhai has again subverted expectations and given us a state house which is also a treasure box of historical, local and political references linked by his customary attention to highly finished detail: a house Anthony Byrt describes as ‘both calm and confrontational.’(4)
On early visits to the site, Parekowhai looked across the harbour to the North Shore, where he grew up, and behind him to the city skyscrapers and thought of a house, small and human scaled yet full of social, political and cultural history. He also looked at Bastion Point in the East where the Crown’s unsuccessful effort to wrest ancestral land from Ngāti-Whātua for luxury housing lasted for more than five hundred days.
The Lighthouse is painted in blues that hint at harbour and sky and shift with the changing light. Inside, the wave-like grain of black maire, which was used for building by both Māori and early settlers, suggests the nearby harbour. You can’t go inside but you can press your nose to windows lower than those in the usual state house, and what you see is a light-filled space dominated by an enormous steel sculpture of Captain Cook, his head bowed in sombre reflection. He may be contemplating the stars of Matariki, which are sequenced neon constellations projected onto the Lighthouse’s ceiling – a local rather than Venetian chandelier. The Cook figure's title is The English Channel and as you look at him, his gleaming surface reflects chinks of light and colour and the movement of visitors peering inside – past and present in perpetual collision. His feet hover uncertainly above the floor as if this place is not really his turangawaewae. Above him, the walls are alight with neon constellations – stars have always guided sailors to our shores.
Stars light the darkness, lighthouses mark dangerous coastlines and safe entry to harbours. In this capacity, Parekowhai’s small state(light) house reminds us of our island life, how bravely we have travelled and our need to find home.
Our home in Aotearoa/New Zealand is one that reflects and celebrates our historical and cultural diversity. Parekowhai has called it ‘a small house that holds the cosmos.’ (5)
1 nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=10377041, retrieved 23 Apr.18
2 Ian Wedde, Bill Culbert, Making Light Work. Auckland, AUP, 2009
3 tepapa.govt.nz/discover-collections/read-watch-play/art/its-meaning-bill-culbert-on-void, retrieved 24 Apr. 18
First published Art Zone #74