He Waka Eke Noa celebrates the diverse artistic voices of twelve Māori contemporary artists as well as recognising that commonalities may arise from shared experiences of indigeneity. The stories told by each artist encompass multiple cultural standpoints: there is no singular, artistic voice that represents a homogenous Māori ‘culture’. Artworks become sites where alternate histories, identities, and spaces are contested. Issues of gender, sexualities, politics, and spirituality are just a few of the narratives that are presented in the works of He Waka Eke Noa. The role of painterly abstraction, space and volume, figurative representation, and the visual experiences of light and shadow are likewise explored.
The shimmering words of Israel Birch’s Golden appear to float above a deeply recessed background, producing a holographic effect. Birch works with illusions of depth, light, and movement, and in doing so references the traditions of whakairo, which he sees as also embracing illusion as it transforms wood into an ancestor replete with living stories. His steel and lacqueur works possess a subtle visual tension between the physical actions of the artist evidenced in the whorls and ripples of the work and the mirror-polish of the surface.
In contrast to Birch, the words seen in Darryn George’s Piki are integrated into the picture plane and function as pattern as well as text. George literally raises the letters with his dense application of paint to the surface: whereas Birch’s works imply texture within a two-dimensional plane, George creates three-dimensional ridges of paint. Painted in response to the effects of the Christchurch earthquakes, Piki is a prayer for guidance and a call to action.
Lonnie Hutchinson explicitly references the interplay of shadows in her two intricate paper panels, Light and Darkness. The pleating of the builder’s paper and delicate cutwork emphasise the sculptural qualities of the panels, whose three-dimensionality is further enhanced by the artist’s utilisation of negative and positive space in each work. Hutchinson states that “black is where Te Korekore (the nothingness) and Te Pō (the night) reside [...] Black is the space of infinite possibilities”. (1) The panels may also be read as oversized pages into which texts have been incised, the meanings of which are hidden in plain sight by the use of symbol and visual metaphor.
Light has always been a primary concern of Reuben Paterson’s practice and he manipulates how it plays off the surface of his glitter-paintings. The visual illusions created by colour, texture, and form are augmented by a surface which is a state of continual, shimmering flux. A similar sense of movement is seen in Zena Elliott’s paintings where traditional motifs are re-articulated with nods to modernist explorations of surface and the immediacy of street-art. Repetition of form and bold use of colour establishes an energy that pulses within the linear visual structures she employs.
Western artistic parameters situate artworks within a linear timeframe that develops from past to present, and suggests a future to come. He Waka Eke Noa re-constitutes the traditional gallery space as one in which the works suggest that the past and future exist simultaneously in the ongoing narratives of the present. Fiona Pardington’s Huia Architecture is a subtle commentary on persisting colonial histories and considers the re-presentation of one-time living creatures as present-day artefacts. The portraits taken from Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus [Infected] reconfigure the dominant historical narratives of the European colonisers of the Pacific, constructing an alternate history/herstory, where Captain Cook might exist as a woman, and the worn tropes of the noble savage living in a Pacific idyll are dismantled.
Chris Heaphy reduces these selfsame tropes to silhouetted abstractions and re-articulates them within an alternative narrative framework to emphasise the contingent and unfixed nature of identity within time. Robert Jahnke’s stylised surveying pegs explicitly reference ongoing political debates surrounding mana whenua and tino rangatiratanga; reflected in the polished stainless steel of the works, the viewer is situated inside the discussion and is required to consider how and where they occupy the land. Mana whenua is literally em-bodied in John Walsh’s works; spirit-beings hover over land and sea, and the land itself appears to occupy a time-outside-time, veiled in stories and myth-histories. His washes of paint reflect the layering of narrative and emphasises its inherent fluidity.
Te Rongo Kirkwood’s glass cloaks illustrate tensions between traditional and modern materials, art and craft, past and future narratives. Harakeke weaving techniques are combined with fused and etched glass forms to create cloaks that function as sculptural objects within a gallery but which can also be imagined draped across shoulders or wrapped around a body. The past is not referenced in passing but is present within each woven strand of flax fibre, carved motif, and the very form of each cloak.
Like Kirkwood, Chris Bailey elevates a traditional object-form beyond its utilitarian roots. His toki no longer function as adzes, they have become abstracted investigations into the manipulations of volume and surface, and the aesthetic qualities of the material he works with.