Māia Abraham reviews an exhibition currently showing at the Christchurch Art Gallery bringing to the fore the rich moving-image practices of Māori artists.
On a table in a room of Māori Moving Image: An Open Archive sits written material about Māori artists and their practices. It barely fills three archive boxes. In this exhibition we are presented simultaneously with a richly developed art practice and an underwhelming record of it. A point is being made: Māori moving image needs a better record; the office is now open for contributions.
This exhibition showcases film, animation and video art, navigating 40 years of making in Aotearoa by 19 artists. It sprawls through the Christchurch Art Gallery’s large lower spaces. It premiered at The Dowse in Wellington earlier this year.
In the doorway stands a waharoa (gateway) made from stacked video monitors from 1997, Native Portraits n.19897 by Lisa Reihana (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tū). Approaching it, I feel similarly to when I’m standing in front of waharoa on marae – the sense of being welcomed into a space while also being challenged. Figures on screen ape Victorian style portraiture, but with both hi vis stop/go labourer wear and kākahu (clothing) Māori. They demand my attention and also of me my intentions. Am I alert and clear headed? Do I have the stamina for what I will experience beyond this work? The people beside me choose to walk around the work rather than through it. But I am ready!
Displayed on the large wall behind is …as an individual and not under the name of Ngāi Tahu, a video from 2011 by Rachael Rakena (Ngāi Tahu, Ngā Puhi). The movements of two dancers, swimming underwater, seem to sync up with scrolling text layered on top. The text details an email exchange among whānau about access to indigenous knowledge and how it should be shared. In the calming blue light that the video casts into the space, I find myself thinking about an age of digital communication which so streamlines access to information. How might art facilitate these discussions about indigenous knowledge? It’s a journey I find myself on, in exploring who I am: swimming through whakapapa, searching for signs of movement.
An open archive has the potential to exhaust an audience, or delight it. The combined viewing times of the works in this exhibition total almost two hours. Self sufficiency is required to get the most out of the exhibition, but I do feel encouraged to create meaning for myself; to curate as visitor.
Reihana’s waharoa foreshadows a sense of whanaungatanga throughout. It gets stronger and more comforting the further I get into the archive. The way older works sit next to younger in a critical but encouraging way, reminds me again of being on marae, witnessing elders counseling their youth. As I wander I hear the voices of curious audiences weaving in and out of the sounds coming from works. Such as the dreamy video Sleeper, by Nathan Pohio (Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe, Kāi Tahu), featuring a sleeping child nursed by a soothing lullaby and the nostalgic glow in the dark of neon bedroom ceiling stars.
Also singing away is the beautiful When the moon sees the sun, by Jeremy Leatinu’u (Ngāti Maniapoto). It honours his grandfather through the visual poetics of one’s relationship with the land. The moon shines through the dusk sky across the ocean, or we see the earth being turned for planting. I’m smiling at the thought of these works having discussions with each other in quiet times. Using the downtime in this archive to get to know one another and share their stories.
Nova Paul’s (Ngāpuhi) film Pink and White Terraces was made in 2006. It’s shown next to Te Utu: The Battle of the Gods, an animation from 1980 by Robert Jahnke (Ngāi Taharora, Te Whānau a Iritekura, Te Whānau a Rakairoa o Ngāti Porou). While Paul subtly explores the spirit of a place over time and people’s relationship to it through the layering of colour and image, Jahnke’s animation gives movement and sound to figures ordinarily carved out of wood. Stories are retold through lines carving out shapes on the screen.
Jahnke’s work preceded Paul’s by 26 years, yet they sit side by side as if they’ve known each other before. The longer I sit, the more they reveal themselves. I notice visual similarities as image is layered upon image, upon image, creating a rhythm for these stories of atua (deity, ancestor) and place to be told in harmony. They share the same film size, as if it’s a language with which to communicate between them with. Paul’s work is screened once on the hour, every hour seeming to respond to Jahnke. The kind of back and forth chat you might get with old friends.
Nearing the end of the exhibition, two works made in 2015 and 2016 respectively investigate privacy and reclamation of Māori independence in an age of advanced surveillance technology: the multimedia installation works of Terri Te Tau (Rangitāne, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa) and Sarah Hudson (Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tūhoe).
Te Tau has projected surveillance style footage of suburban streets involved in the ‘Operation 8’ anti-terror raids in 2007 onto the inside windscreen of a blacked out Suzuki carry van. The van references vehicles used to track people in the lead up to the raid. To be in the small and blackened van, watching images of innocent suburbia quickly becomes a lonely experience. As I sit uncomfortably with the perspective of the spy rather than the spied, I am reminded of touchstones of storytelling. Whose story are we hearing? Who is telling this story?
Similarly, Hudson’s video plays with perspectives. It is from that of a drone lifting into the air, focusing on people standing by roadsides or in fields. The participants in the film are donning camouflage and coverings made of natural materials from their immediate environment. This talks of the need for a reclamation of knowledge in engaging with what is around us but also a call for protection. Asserted by these works together is an independence in telling Māori stories, echoing the founding kaupapa of the exhibition.
The words An Open Archive suggests a hope and longing for more through the invitation to dwell with the work and make meaning. The works in this exhibition may not have been shown together often before, if at all, but they seem already in conversation before we even enter. Let us be bold in further opening up and expanding this archive.
Māori Moving Image: An Open Archive, curated by Bridget Reweti (Ngāi te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui) and Dowse Art Museum senior curator Melanie Oliver, is at Christchurch Art Gallery until January 2020.