Waitohu (meaning to mark, signify, indicate) is a substantial exhibition featuring thirteen significant contemporary Māori artists. While diverse in media and each with well-established individual styles and visual languages, there are numerous conversations and links uniting their concerns and senses of being.
Waitohu commences at the entranceway with the chevron-shaped explicit connection to the architecture of the wharenui in Robert Jahnke’s spatially transformative poupou Tomokanga o te Ua (The Portal of Rain) (2019). Using mass and void and light, Jahnke engages directly with Māori cosmology and environmental narratives. Hone Tuwhare’s poem “Rain” printed on the slab flanks of the entrance portal begins the conversation about earth and sky, Ranginui and Papatūānuku. Jahnke’s characteristic use of (Tuwhare’s) words - incanted silently by the viewer, building the lilt of prayer, the tonal laments of karakia - establishes a sense of reverence (further augmented by the sensations, metaphors and cultural symbolisms of light) while beginning dialogues of time passed, time present, time future. Offering the infinity of reflected illusion as reality, utilising darkness and light, and Māori conceptual space, Jahnke positions fluorescent tubes of light by stacking them vertically. Using this language of void and substance and limitless space, Jahnke is also explicitly referencing tukutuku lattice work with stitches that fall vertically.
Each tukutuku pattern has a name and Jahnke is openly acknowledging with the tubes of light the roimata toroa (tears of the albatross) pattern. Reflected backwards, up and down into infinity, dialogues of genealogy develop alongside those of earth and sky. The roimata toroa pattern recalls the Ngāti Porou tale of the mistreatment of the two sacred albatrosses of Ruakapanga: where Porangahua searching for the sweet potato in Hawaiki placed his carnal desires ahead of his promise to Ruakapanga to perform the appropriate karakia for the safe return of his birds. An allegory of tears, a lament emerges which extends the conversation into the tangihanga and the directly associated declarations and demonstrations of grief in the self-lacerations of the female body with the obsidian flint in the haehae.
Simultaneously addressing and greeting, surrounding and immersive, chanting and welcoming, the symbolic metaphoric complexity of Tomokanga o te ua inevitably emerges from the visual simplicity of restrained repetition and the allusive contrasts of dark and light: becoming a sculptural doorway of considerable artistic authority and importance that reaches back and forth across time and people.1
Jahnke extends the contemplative role of voice and text and the environmental dialogue in Lamentation I (Only by Her Wings) (2019) and Lamentation II (Ko Ngā Manu O Ngā Manu) (2019) featuring poems by Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti respectively. Using the same devices of mirrored reflection and infinite space, the metaphors of dark and light, these become tales of complicity and anguish.
“The earth is crying.”2
Mike Crawford uses light as a vector in sculpted objects made of cast glass. Demonstrating an acute and highly developed sense of what light does in the internal spaces and upon the edges of glass, Crawford explores volume and the mutations of colour while abstracting form. His is a language of cultural artefacts and vessels, narratives of loss (biological and ecological) and presentation of visual energy, using allusion and inference as key components in an ever-present figurative impulse.
In Hōkioi (2020) – the extinct giant eagle – Crawford simultaneously imbues a yearning spirit form with defining characteristics and life. It has mauri (essence), imagined flight, power and potential with visual energy establishing a profound sense of being. As if ascending to the heavens, an environmental allegory is built that is as much a litany of hope and belief as an iteration of the mounding losses over time.
In the food bowl of Round Kumete Manu (2020) the ocean and sky are implied and in Long Waka Huia (2020) a panoramic landscape suggested. At the same time he abstracts these cultural signifiers by stretching the forms and pluralising them, morphing the abstracted vessels into new states of being while retaining their very particular cultural language. At once objects, these become with the addition of understated beaks and tails (suggestive of handles, birds and fish) symbols of peril and loss, metaphors of behaviour and interconnectedness as well as testimony of our frail and lax stewardship.
Glitter is refractive and reflective as a material in its distinctive harnessing of light. Reuben Paterson’s defining use of it as his core medium has enabled his figurative impulses and abstract dialogues to be cojoined. Engaged with an ever constant kōrero with traditions and heritage versus notions of modernism, culture versus fashion, Paterson has built a distinctive rhythmic visual language where celestial and spiritual concerns emerge alongside issues of transcendence.
In Whakapapa: Get Down on Your Knees I & IV (2009) he presents his own whakapapa by directly contrasting kōwhaiwhai rafter patterns with floral textile designs worn by his mother. In this manner he sets up a dialogue about specifics and the particular, about the general and personal. He is talking across time and directly to it. Conversations of identity and personality erupt as well as issues of cultural negotiation and navigation. He is saying: we are what we claim, what we value. And where we come from.
In the title Paterson is also openly declaring and deliberately invoking – in a gospel manner - a spiritual context and emotional content. Utilising pattern fragmentation, courageous diagonal contrast and intervention he forges and forces while deconstructing the normal conventions of pictorial space by placing together as one, two very different patterns – one flat, the other with deepening space and scale alterations. Talking across cultures and time, to art and motif, evoking memory he builds a narrative of values, presenting social and familial relationships as memory cues and heritage.
Reuben Paterson’s use of kōwhaiwhai as a pattern is sharply contrasted by John Walsh’s liberation of it from tradition and convention into that of a spirit form, free of the restraint and confines of one-dimension. Walsh, a consummate story-teller, establishes in his characteristic manner a place between worlds where legends exist and spirits walk. Part-netherworld, magical and surreal, Walsh depicts places where time has been arrested and paused while events are taking place.
Using a notably restricted palette and an explicit sense of place – even when indeterminate – Kōwhaiwhai Dancing (2019) and Kōwhaiwhai Rising (2019) exist in a transitional world between different states of being. Walsh also establishes an over-arching ethereal mood that is augmented further by the distant presence of light enhancing the narrative of a spiritual journey being in process and a sense of the destination being close.
In liberating kōwhaiwhai from pattern into pictorial space and helix forms – depicted in various stages of process – Walsh invigorates and reinterprets that pattern in a strikingly original way. In The Other Side (2020), a pictorial gem with a naturalistic work of two figures looking into smoke – a signifier of spiritual presence in all Māori belief – on one side and kōwhaiwhai figures emerging as if from inside a cave on the other he constructs a mythic parable liberated by and from tradition.
Sir Āpirama Ngata in a memorable phrase about the presumptive space and perceived differences between carving and painting wrote of “the shadow carving” of painting.3 Carving of course uses an absence of material to create a presence. Positive and negative space is created. Volume manipulated. Tone emerges in the fluxing presence of shadow and in this manner – with the play of light and dark – the distance between carving and painting undoubtedly becomes collapsed.
Israel Birch carves the surface of steel, using a grinding tool. Then with the use of dyes, lacquer and overlays of geometric pattern he builds wondrous illusionary depth and space using light as an animating essence. He uses these depths, spaces and the languages of abstraction to illustrate heritage and therefore whakapapa. In that process he brings into his work narratives about the spiritual, physical and emotional connections that bind people.
In the diamond-shaped Whatumanawa (Red) (2016) Birch uses the structural device of a repeated geometric pattern, altering scale and subtle variance of tones as he explores concepts of being, spiritual and symbolic nuance and the seat of emotions. In the centre, he presents a diamond-shaped heart as a sequence of portals and the symbol of life’s journey.
As fundamental in all of Birch’s work as his use of light is the role and presence of the carving mark, his father being an acknowledged master carver. In the dome works, the carving gestures appear to be lit with fire from behind and within. These works are about whakairo/carving and sites where Sir Āpirana Ngata lived. Waihuna (2005), meaning hidden waters and Waimarama (2005), meaning water and light illustrate the whakataukī/proverb ‘seek that which is unseen.’ Whakapapa emerges also in the expansive character and form of the dome.
Every Birch work oscillates, the colour changes, perspectives shift, visual planes are revealed to be in a constant state of flux and optical rhythms emerge. His works seem liquid and alive. They pulse with life and proverbial meaning: Whāia te iti Kahurangi, ki te tūohu koe, me he maugna teitei (2020) uses the chevron-shaped kaokao pattern and the geometric stylised pinnacle outline of a maunga/mountain, illustrating a proverb about perseverance and endurance, refusing to let obstacles get in the way of goals.4
Brett Graham’s monochromatic Rukuhia I (2009) and Rukuhia II (2009) are plural symbols: the former, as an object moving ambiguously between allusions to a stealthy war plane, carved weaponry and a taniwha; the latter functioning as an underwater scanner, searching for the god of the sea and the original site of carving. Using this ambiguity as a conscious, imperilling device Brett Graham asserts customary cultural practise and the traditions of carving while directly engaging with contemporary themes and the histories of colonisation. Using carved parallel grooves and relief carving fundamentals, Brett Graham uses traditional carving as a tool and a decolonising strategy to reject the impositions of modernism, rejecting that aesthetic and its assimilationist agenda outright.
Political in purpose, indigenous in character, and place specific his works directly address issues of land and cultural loss. Simultaneously Graham is asserting a more general contemporary premise about the daily perils of surveillance capitalism and the insidious loss of and threats to personal privacy. In Rukuhia III (2011) he white washes the carved surface in a conversation about hypocrisy, inequality and culture for sale. He asks what is civilisation, placing that question alongside the creation myths and underwater stories that are subliminally gathered together in it as it – presciently - waits to return to the Rukuhia swamp and become submerged again.
Chris Bailey like Brett Graham uses the traditional language of whakairo/carving as a cultural continuum acknowledging in that process that sculpted objects were where stories were told, information stored and accessed. Whether origin stories, legends or narratives handed from generation to generation, the arts of weaving, moko and whakairo were important means for telling and recording. The past in that manner became now.
Te Hui-ananui o Tangaroa (2020) explores one of the origin stories of whakairo where the house of Tangaroa (male god of the sea) is acknowledged as its source. Iotanga (2020) explores the potential of being and the role of the void, space and nothingness in the origin stories. The three kape (sculpted out openings) on the work reference the void leading on to the whakaheke o ngā Atua katoa (creation of the various gods) and the other creation stories for Māori.
In Te Pou o Hinemoa (2020) two heads are shown, one female another male. It explores the female aspect of the sea and the mana wahine (female energy) of the night as opposed to the mana tane (male energy) of the day.5
Lisa Reihana’s large scale photograph Urban Warrior (2007) reprises the conversation about the roles of shadow in carving and painting, specifically portraiture. Explicitly referencing Molly Macalister’s sculpture on the Auckland waterfront – notably the first public work in New Zealand commissioned from a female artist – Reihana uses shadow in various, suggestive and symbolic ways. Wrapped in a crumpled cloak, staring out from the infinity of time and as if just emerged from the sea. A rope of lights deepens the space and identifies the location and acknowledges the mana whenua of Ngāti Whātua.
Darryn George’s paintings are pervaded with spiritual concerns, Christian faith, architectural devices, words and a parade of opposites. In the prayer offering of Ariki #9 (2014), following the destructive Christchurch earthquake, repeatedly using two words – ariki, meaning god, and ora, meaning life – he invokes through visual incantation Christchurch’s need for a guardian, a kaitiaki. Using a restrained palette of traditional Māori colours of red/black/white with intersections of moko and kōwhaiwhai patterns sitting behind the poutama pattern – abstracted ladder forms that rise up like stairways to heaven – George builds reverence and structure.
In Kete #7 (2009) he establishes a visual metaphor about baskets of knowledge. He separates rectangular compartments as if books on shelves. Using once again, the traditional palette of three colours and kōwhaiwhai patterns behind which a regal purple space hovers, George acknowledges that urban māori accessed information more from books than any presence on the marae and hearing the oral ancestral stories.6
Occasioned and directly informed by the situation and events surrounding the other more recent calamity to beset Christchurch – the Mosque massacres – Darryn George undertook a dramatic stylistic change in 2019. In Garden of Eden (14-4-20) (2020) and Garden of Eden (10-6-20) (2020) he expressively presents the world as a stage set, where values, belief and character are examined through the metaphoric and symbolic prism of Christian faith. Using organic dabs and blocks colour in the foreground he establishes the sensation that the viewer is watching a seated audience assembled before a stage where the innocence of life is on parade. He builds parables of profound importance and beauty.
The linking roles of silhouetted pattern, repetition and shadow are witnessed in all of Lonnie Hutchinson’s work. Comb (Black) (2009) openly acknowledging its traditional status as a venerated object, she adorns it with the outlined incisions of birds flying away. Shadows arise, spirits emerge, transformation occurs.
In Seeking (2018) and The Magic That You Do (2018) Hutchinson sculpts forms and patterns that slice and interrupt three-dimensional space. Using black builders’ paper with its dull tone and flattened sheen where absence reveals, and voids are presences shaped and solid, Hutchinson builds motifs and characters seemingly drawn from rock drawings or tattoo and moko, becoming a patterned parade of familial structures. Each work is comprised of a vertical sequence of concertina folds: the variable distance and angles built by this enable the presences of shadows to fluctuate and alter, to wax and wane while extending the work outside its own physical dimensions.
Peata Larkin’s works straddle two quite distinctly different states of being. They are paintings and they are lightboxes. This binary state – passive and luminous, colour and light – is most unusual, arguably unique. Larkin’s works are informed by weaving patterns. Using a mesh structure, she pushes beads of pure pigment from behind through the warp and weft of it, attaining in this manner something akin to the pointillist’s separation and optics of colour, as well as sculptural characteristics. Openly acknowledging that weaving patterns functioned as storehouses of information and knowledge informing the oral culture, and were therefore synonymous with whakapapa and genealogy, Larkin is drawing on the interconnectedness of the physical and spiritual space of the patterns as well.
In Pōkarekare (2020) the star formation of the patikitiki pattern refers to navigation across rough and rippled waters. Trails of red – blood veins – link time and te taha wairua (the spiritual plane of existence). Water being the key to all life is fundamental to all Māori thinking and being.
The shifting hues and endless saccades of Larkin’s paintings alter with light from behind being transformed into completely different works and states as lightboxes. In Oranga (2020) the kaokao pattern when placed on its side becomes a direction and pathway to the sea. In Mahana (2020), the narrative is about the sensation of being immersed in water. In Paria e te Tai (2020) the kaokao pattern becomes a conversation about the tidal flows of water, suspension and floating.7
Chris Heaphy’s works are all signifiers of identity but it is unfixed and broad, a globalised culture depicted where time and space are collapsed. Leftwards in orientation, silhouetted in unspecified space – sacred red or the voids of black – using the optics of advancing and receding colours, negative and positive space, Heaphy deliberately fosters ambiguity.
Numerous images specific to Māori and New Zealand’s history populate every work – historical subtexts, image cues, recurrent motifs appear: Parihaka’s white feathers, Tūhoe prophet Rua Kēnana, the Rātana Church and faith healing, mokamokai, native birds and plants, taniwha and so on act as visual representations of whakapapa inside a swirling kaleidoscopic array of image references of other cultures. In Son of Heaven (2016) and From Near and Far (2016) Chris Heaphy sets out questions of identify and belief with images that collectively express a yearning inimical to being human, to asking and answering ‘why and how did we get here?’
In Arataki Black (2020) Heaphy drills down into the European portrait tradition of Māori, reminding us of the place of honour they came to occupy in the wharenui. He layers tone on tone, using the facial silhouette profile as a canvas for image motifs featuring native plant forms, Rātana Church symbols, and metaphors of growth.
Baye Riddell’s three-sided terracotta sculptures – like upturned canoe prows, like teeth – feature an array of carving patterns, tattoos, stylised koru designs, words and incisions, and recesses. This series of works inspired by fighting prowess of sharks recalls warriors being exhorted to die fighting like the shark Kia Mate I Te Ururoa (2019); to not give up Whaiwhai Tonu (2019); the tooth of the monster Nino Taniwha (2019).
Void and light, earth and sky, the use of words and voice, silhouette and shadow, illusion and allusion, allegory and parable, identity and belief, politics and family, metaphor and proverbs. The connection between the physical and spiritual worlds, between various states and stages of being, as well as the central role of water and the fundamental presence of wairua, life’s force. Time past present future, geneaology and whakapapa, heritage and tradition, pattern and carving, architecture and protocol: the dialogues present in Waitohu - too innumerable to fully list - stand as conclusive testimony to the explosive confidence and fertile flowering of an allusive visual language that has entered centre stage and is from nowhere else. It’s ours; and it’s singing; about here and us.