(Photo: David Shields, design: Archi Banal)
(Photo: David Shields, design: Archi Banal)

PartnersMay 31, 2022

Fiona Pardington is walking backwards into the future

(Photo: David Shields, design: Archi Banal)
(Photo: David Shields, design: Archi Banal)

Photographer Fiona Pardington’s work has demanded reexamination of how we understand history. In her first NFT project, her art moves into the future while keeping its gaze firmly fixed on what we can learn from our past. 

Dr Fiona Pardington (Kāi Tahu, Kāti Mamoe and Ngāti Kahungunu) describes her home as being on pouākai land. Knowing this area (which takes in parts of Canterbury and Otago) quite well, I have often imagined how terrifying it would have been for the Waitaha – the first people to settle Te Wai Pounamu – to encounter the giant man-eating eagles that would pluck moa from the earth and carrying them off into the sky. 

Pardington is based in Te Wai Pounamu in a place where pouākai once flourished. It is a space between faultlines and imagined regional orders, where the maunga and lakes are punctuated by irrigated green dairy and sheep farms, on land that was drained for “productivity” and “progress” and the building of dams, and private property that contains otherworldly geological rocks.

This image of extinct birds and drained swamps haunts me as I spend time looking over work from Pardington’s decades-long career. Known primarily as a photographer, Pardington is one of the most important Aotearoa artists of her generation. “The camera is a living extension of me. I felt drawn to photography because of its ability to bring the past into the future,” she says. “In its ability to carry information in a concrete form a photograph moves into the future in a way that we can’t.” 

This way of thinking into the future helps explain Pardington’s new move from the physical into the digital and the release of her first non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Her newest artwork, Manawarahi: Female and Male Huia Lovers MTG Hawke’s Bay (2022), is an image of two huia perched opposite each other in a locked gaze, and will be released exclusively as an NFT.

Having these huia, native birds now long extinct, exist as an NFT, conjures for me the common whakatauki, “Ka mua, ka muri”. It means to “walk backwards into the future”, it is the idea that we should look to the past to inform the future. Many of our manu are classified as either threatened or endangered, with the threat of extinction looming.  These images are a warning, with the onset of climate change we must do more to protect not just Papatūānuku, but all our living creatures, especially manu. 

(Photo: Fiona Pardington)

Manawarahi: Female and Male Huia Lovers MTG Hawke’s Bay 2022 will be available from the Glorious Marketplace at 7.00pm NZST on 1 June.


Pardington’s early work was noted for its use of silver gelatin prints and its exploration of the female gaze, sexuality and implied violence. These images seem cinematic, as though recalling that frame-by-frame format we see in movies. These constructed tableaux often utilised collage to create theatrical narratives that made one think of pioneering American photographers Duane Michals and Sally Mann. Her photograph Choker (1993) is still one of the most unsettling and mesmerising photographs I’ve ever seen. 

Much of her more recent work over the last two decades has been concerned with museum taonga using both darkroom analog techniques like silver gelatin toning and digital C-type photography with rich Caravaggio lighting. The work asks her audience to think again about the way communities’ – especially Māori – culture and history have been portrayed.  

Think if you will of The Pressure of Sunlight Falling (2010), a series of large scale photographs depicting casts of human heads made by the French medical scientist and phrenologist Pierre-Marie Alexandre Dumoutier who accompanied explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville across the south Pacific in 1837 and 1840. Although phrenology –  “the study of the conformation of the skull as indicative of mental faculties and traits of character” – is now regarded as ridiculous pseudoscience, it’s important to understand that it belongs to a canon of scientific racism from the 19th century that was often used as a way to justify slavery and racial inequaility, by suggesting it somehow “proved” the biological superiority of white people. 

The subjects of each photograph in the series included Māori rangatira, men and women from communities throughout the Pacific, as well as Dumoutier and d’Urville themselves. It’s a confronting series when you consider that the head is considered the most tapū of all body parts for Māori. For instance, while hapū I did not cut my hair, as the tikanga I have learnt dictates that you shouldn’t cut your hair to ensure your unborn child will be able to receive your energy and strength to aid in their growth. I bury my hair sometimes when it is moulting or when it is cut. 

(Photo: David Shields)

When you look at Pardington’s photographs you can’t help but have an emotional response. The essence, remnants, traces or mauri of these people stares back at you. I find myself wondering why these people agreed to go through the arduous process of having their heads cast when their relationship to their bodies and indeed their heads would have been more strongly dictated by tikanga than me in 2022. Perhaps the permanence of having a cast of one’s head was seen as mana-enhancing, not dissimilar to other portraits taken and painted at this time. 

When we began our conversation we started by locating where we are from and Pardington, like so much of the pounamu she has been drawn to and photographed all her life, is from Arahura marae, on the West Coast of Te Wai Pounamu on Poutini Kai Tahu whenua. She also has whakapapa links to Kati Mamoe and Ngāti Kahungunu. Whakapapa is always a series of coincidences, contradictions and is often as uncomfortable as the history of how this nation was shaped. 

This tension has always existed within Pardington’s work, but is most prominent when she photographs museum taonga. There is an unease in Pardington’s work when we consider the violent colonial implication of museums. Behind the displayed artefacts are the acts of claiming ownership of the objects, of their categorisation, fragmentation and of eliminating the productive communities to which these objects belonged. 

However, Pardington uses the camera like an exchange of breath, the hā exchanged during hongi. Through her camera these objects speak back and exist between time, like the kaikaranga calling all tūpuna, living, dead and not yet born. Her many photographs of pounamu, some of whom were later revealed to be tūpuna, represents the circular motions between life and death that exist always in non-linear time. Her images are neither living nor dead, they speak back, ask questions, wero and grieve for their plight and current existence inside a cold metal drawer in a heat controlled room far from their home. 

During our conversation, she explains her process of photographing hei tiki in museums, by thinking about where they came from and to whom did they belong. The photographs preserve the story and history of the taonga even if it is not well known. “Who wore that tiki? How many generations did it pass down through? Some were lost, some passed through different tribes and some were looted,” she says. “I don’t have to know their name, to know they have a name. I don’t have to know their past, to know they have a past.” 

The sentience of the people who wore these taonga and what they experienced lingers long after their death. Every photograph bears the traces of the encounter between the photographer and the photographed. Neither party can ultimately control the way in which the subjects in the photograph are framed nor determine what happens to those traces, but the encounter operates as a way to ensure that these objects have agency. 

Pardington embraces the importance of respecting the mauri of all life in her work, especially that of manu. The spirituality and love she imbues her subjects with is most apparent in her photographs of birds, particularly the huia. As a child, Pardington collected sixpence with huia embossed on them. Huia, a sacred and now extinct bird, was named after their loud distress call: a smooth whistle that sounded like the words “Who-are-you-u.” In pre-European times, only chiefs and their whānau wore their beautiful plumes. 

(Photo: David Shields)

Learning from the extinction of Moa, Māori developed a kawa around when the huia could be hunted. They were a symbol of one’s mana and status and often kept in specially carved boxes known as waka huia. They were once abundant throughout the North Island, but there was a rapid decline in their numbers in the late 19th century, because of a combination of habitat destruction, the introduction of new predators and hunting. Legislation to stop the birds being hunted was passed in 1892, but it was too late to avoid their extinction, which occurred in the early 20th century. Pardington grieves for these birds and her documentation of them serves as an ominous reminder of the importance of our birds, their conservation and of the threats facing many of our birds across the motu.

Her newest artwork is a striking photograph of two such huia, Manawarahi: Female and Male Huia Lovers MTG Hawke’s Bay (2022). However this particular image shows her practice shift into an unexpected format: NFTs. Released through NFT studio and marketplace Glorious, in partnership with gallery Starkwhite, Manawarahi features an edition of 100 digital images, each of which comes with proof of ownership and authenticity built into the blockchain – a secure accounting system that records a database of ownership transactions. The NFTs are selling for a fixed price of 0.6 ETH, or around $1800 NZD each.

This move into the digital space might seem unusual given Pardington’s reputation for use of physical techniques throughout her career. However, she describes her current practice as “basically digital but taken through analogue lenses.” She sees the project as an opportunity to combine the tradition of still life with emerging technology. She is drawn to the magic, uncertainty and unknown that can be embraced through NFTs. And this project is invested with mystery. A purchase of Manawarahi will immediately receive the first part, the huia pair. But it will also include a second part released at a later date, its nature which will remain a secret until then. 

Pardington says she is enjoying playing with this element of surprise and the way it feeds back into her work. While photography is normally a relatively linear artform, NFTs have given her an opportunity to experiment with time and expectation. 

The NFT world has developed a reputation for being high-risk, but Pardington describes herself as “not a gambler”. She notes this is interesting new terrain to navigate, particularly for wāhine Māori in the digital realm, given that it allows artists to retain a degree of sovereignty over their work. Each work has a smart contract attached to it and means the artist always gets a portion of every future onsale, unlike artworks resold through auction houses in Aotearoa. Pardington saw this as a chance to give back to the inspiration behind her work, and all pūtea she receives as part of resales of Manawarahi will go to Wingspan, a Rotorua-based charitable trust, which leads the conservation, education and research effort for Aotearoa’s birds of prey. Hopefully by looking to the past, “ka mua, ka muri”, Pardington can help ensure the future for some of these manu, by providing a source of ongoing funding for their important work.

In a way, this move into NFTs allows these two beautiful huia to fly through the internet, an electronic loom strung together with a matrix-like image. Like the Pouākai, Pardington has opened a space in which we can imagine the spirits of huia flying around. For now, I imagine the braided rivers, maunga and kāhu, pīwaiwaka, and korimako circling around Pardington from her home, where she imagines new ways to exist in the future, and commune with and make kin with objects whose past we often forget about.

This content was created in paid partnership with Glorious.

Fiona Pardington’s first NFT, Manawarahi: Female and Male Huia Lovers MTG Hawke’s Bay (2022), will be available exclusively from the Glorious Marketplace at 7.00pm NZST on 1 June.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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