Artist and writer passionate about the arts. I was born in Pāpua New Guinea, lived in Sydney briefly and have spent much of my life researching my Māori and Polynesian heritage in the Asia Pacific region. I have a Doctorate in Art History but began my professional training with a year at Elam School of Fine Arts, Auckland. My work as a Curator, as an educator and as an art historian feeds into my visual practice.
I WAS BORN IN PARADISE Niuean painter/poet John Pule once began a poem, at an exhibition opening I helped organise. Pule was talking about his home village Liku on the remote Pacific island of Nuie. Recently perusing an archive of photographs I pondered my own beginnings in an equally remote area of the South Pacific. The image showed my parents and I on the Northern coast of Papua New Guinea at Moem beach at Wewak, the main port of entry into the Western Sepik. The picture featuring locals with outriggers is also shot in Wewak. My entry point to this thinking about beginnings and arcadia (as sometimes is the case) was a plant. I was busy photographing a bird of paradise ‘flower’ (South African in origin) which finally decided to bloom a few weeks ago. It’s arrival happily coincided with my sorting through research files including these references to Papua New Guinea. The puawai got me thinking about the wider issue of provenance and associative names. The sorting process led me back to my place of birth and the stunning birds of paradise (the natural point of inspiration I presume) that still survive in the more remote parts of Papua New Guinea and Northern Australia. I don’t know for sure whether I saw and heard the kumul when I was a child but when you consider the location in some of the images below its certainly possible, even highly likely.
My personal favourite is the Vogelkop Bird of Paradise native to the Indonesian run side of Papua. In my opinion it posseses the most spectacular show of colour in the male mating rituals. Its’ visual impact has to do with a half disk of the deepest black and almost florescent aquamarine streaks and dots at the centre and the base of the ‘cape’ used to flit, swish and lure the females. There is definitely another essay here about colour in nature, the copyright attempts by sculptor Anish Kapoor to own Vantablack (the world’s blackest black) and the ongoing backlash in England. This kumul is a worthy rival to Kapoor’s Vantablack. It is said to have the blackest colouring on earth with the microscopic structure of its feathers absorbing nearly 100% of the light hitting it. There are incredible images of birds of paradise in Attenborough’s films and the research work of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology featuring the fuller range of kumul in their expeditions in the northern western rain forests of West Papua. I also wanted to acknowledge Tim Laman’s breathtaking imagery of this rare and utterly cativating manu, he kumul.
I WAS BORN IN A WEST SEPIK VILLAGE CALLED ANGUGANAK later moving to Amanab closer to the recently occupied border of West Papua. My mother later told me we were close enough to witness hospitals and schools going up in smoke as the Indonesians were busy removing the earlier Dutch layer. I include some images from the vantage point of the house Dad built (at Anguganak I am assuming because the bluff – that rises sharply 300 metres into the air – sits prominently in a window in the background of one of the archived photographs).
I dedicate my poem and the images, reclaimed and researched from family letters and fire damaged black and white photographs and 35mm colour transparencies my father took in the 1960s, to my mother and the paradise she pined for but to which she never returned. This strange body of material is the beginning of a range of investigative research work including the odd diary accounts Australian field officers working in this region (Australia took over from the Germans until 1975 when PNG finally gained it’s independence). These documents, a more official background to our presence in Australian occupied PNG, involved variously taking census figures, ‘spying’ (the region shares a northern boundary that buffers Australia from Asia and which became a sensitive zone when the Indonesians annexed the region) and what can only be described as colonial – odd village – inspections and outsider observations.
My father accompanied some of these survey patrols to villages, ‘…that extended from Inabu to Amanab and out to the coast to Vanimo covering hundreds of miles of jungles, swamps and bush clad mountain ranges.’ The records of these gruelling trips are now available in the University of California, San Diego archive of PNG patrol reports and I have been matching them with personal letters. They reveal a great deal about the way in which outsiders are coming into contact with a beautiful and extremely complex range of tribal peoples who continue (thankfully) to occupy an incredibly remote yet increasingly threatened portion of the indigenous world. I am not making a statement here about precious ‘authenticity’. All cultures change and adapt. However, one hopes that indigenous Papua Nūkini peoples locate a future that suits and which expresses their uniqueness and not the ambitions of the many surrounding nations that want to commercially and culturally exploit their bountiful natural resources.
I say let the kumul sing and dance and jig and do his thing.
as if to say e hoa, it’s just a scraggy old bush there
kaore ngā ahi kā kei kōna
anake ngā tauiwi e okioki ana
ae, koinā te kōrero he maunga ariki
but its roots were watered
with the tears of loved ones
it’s true that on this crowded hill
they too rest somewhere else
but in off shore breezes
this old lavender
knows no boundaries on this headland
crush its healing oil in palm
and you too will see memory
and loved ones
upon the wind
This short poem concerns a visit 13 February 2019 to the urupā at the top of Hillsborough. It is steeply situated with spectacular harbourside views across Manukau south to Maunga Mangere and west seawards out to Awhitu peninsular – south Manukau Heads. One of the nineeteenth century graves featured a remarkably hardy bush of lavender. I photographed a few of its many blooms. This extremely weathered and hardy shrub had been left to fend for itself but in the late afternoon sun a gentle breeze was picking up and the air around that grave was filled with the delicate scent of French Lavender. It occurred to me that a number of the shrubs and trees deliberately planted by loved ones involved broader narratives of connection. Was there something particular about the chosen plant? What might it have signified, what emotion is signified? Who were these people who planted these shrubs and how often did they return to pay their respects and perhaps just to talk…?
the light that reaches over Ōwairaka, Maungawhau and me
casts long shadows where we stand
and you demanded I shoot you, not kākaho, early afternoon
‘the light is more flattering’
a rustle in your messy top
broad, bright fluttering green leaves
as you casually explained
I want frontal, central, imposing
and if the shoot doesn’t give it
you know, more than the Nor-Western motorway
I am Te Atatū
Don’t worry Mr Tī, I replied nervously,
there will be no rivals – not even kākaho
I have followed your client brief to the t…
harakeke sits at your feet submissively
and proud kākaho (toetoe stem) has been banished
to the edge of Waitematā’s cloak
outside the shot
oh and one more thing: a small detail I must confide
I squinted up his textured trunk towards the sun radiating
behind his crown
him looking down murmuring a deep single syllable ‘ae’
and then softly, so softly one could barely hear it
above the chirp of matata and the squeeky toy twittering of the tōrea
a shake began
leaves clattering nor-wester
and around his trunk
a ghost hand massaging wīwī and coercing marshland grasses
I cleared my throat, perhaps a little self-consciously now
if you look closely at the photo
there are kāroro moving around your crown
they were squawking and laughing at me trying to get the shot
He said, no
they are admirers singling me out.
S O M E N O T E S
This is a revised post from 10 June 2018 and concerns two things – conservation and conceit against a backdrop of images taken on one of a couple of waterfront walks at Te Atatū ‘sunrise’. The dialogue is based on quite a different indigenous story concerning the native plants kākaho and pingao which similarly occupy the threshold domain between Tangaroa (the sea) and of Tāne (the forest). There are no sand dunes in the tidal mudflats of Te Atatū so I have singled out the most prominent native on location – tī, the native cabbage tree – for a more narcissistic version of the role kākaho demonstrates in the traditional story of unrequited love.
The setting is suitable for love but perhaps not self-love. The Waitematā tide was in and there was a view across to Chelsea Sugarworks, Northcote and further to East – the Viaduct and to the three Tāmaki maunga (ko Maungawhau, Maungakiekie and Ōwairaka) rising in the distance behind the rumbling nortwestern motorway as it heads towards the Rosebank, Avondale turnoff and further on the Te Atatū turnoffs.
My short dialogue involving Mr Tī had been brewing for quite a while since I first encountered the delightful story of pingao and kākaho in a publication produced by weavers who harvest the native fibre for their mahi ringa (tukutuku, kete and whāriki) and who also belonged to Ngā Puna Waihanga during the 1980s. I once accompanied a ranger in the Kaipara to gather the material for a meetinghouse, involving tukutuku utilising pingao, called Ihenga in Rotorua that celebrated the legendary travellers connection to the large northern harbour. Weavers who use the material, as with those utilising harakeke, are intimately involved with the maintenance and care of the sedge and its surrounding ecosystem. It is important to note here that this plant continues to exist in an increasingly fragile state on New Zealand coastal sand dunes. As I understood it these weavers were exemplary kaitiaki, truly practitioners of the whakataukī:
Manaakitia nga tukemata o Tane ‘caring for the eyebrows of Tane’
The following account of kākaho and pingao is one of a number that tell the compelling love story:
‘From her home she [i.e. ko Pingao] looked up to the land and saw the young and handsome kakaho dancing on the sand dunes. Each time the kakaho made his appearance Pingao became more and more enamoured. Finally she asked permission from Tangaroa to leave the sea to meet her lover. Tangaroa granted her permission with words of warning that she would never make it.
However driven by blind love, she left the seaweed and crawled across the hot sand. As she struggled up she began to call to the kakaho – but he was interested only in himself. He was in love with his own shape and did not answer pingao’s calls. In desperation she called back to Tangaroa, who could do nothing but shower her with spray. And there on the sand dunes, the pingao remains to this day.‘ Rangitane wānanga
For those sceptical regarding nature speaking. It’s not so much that nature talks perhaps more that we should listen. In my version singling out the tī is appropriate as it is a special tree whose name is contained within that of my Te Uriroroi affiliation with Porotī. It was there (outside Whāngārei on the way to Kaikohe) that a special ceremony was held to marry our ancestors with Waikato women and the cutting of the tī was the sign of the tomo ‘marriage negotiations’. This may relate to the raids of southern tribes on Whāngārei (Ōparakau, Parihaka, 1828) in retaliation for the raupatu conducted by Hika and our ancestral leaders who accompanied him in Tāmaki, Waikato and in Hauraki. So my choice of images is, as with any tribally based Māori, biased. Murua mai āku hara ne!
The following poem was a contribution to a panel discussion involving Andrew Clifford, [Director Te Uru], Catherine Griffiths [typography artist], Bruce Connew [photographer] closing and acknowledging the show ‘A Vocabulary..’ and the launch of its book at Te Uru, Waitākere Contemporary Gallery, Titirangi, 13 February 2021
A fair and supportive response to my Ngā Pakanga Whenua o Mua mōteatea and pito kōrero in Bruce Connew’s ‘A Vocabulary…’
Review by Paul Diamond interviewed by Catherine Ryan on Radio New Zealand. The particular part of the sound byte concerning ‘A Vocabulary’ starts at 2 minutes…
The show ‘A Vocabulary’ is still on at Te Uru in Titirangi for another couple of weeks. And I just signed another 60 books this morning so I know there are now more books available from Te Uru, Waitakere Contemporary Gallery. There is also a panel discussion planned with Bruce Connew, myself and the typography artist Catherine Griffiths who designed both the book and the exhibition, prior to the completion of the show at Te Uru (details to come). Best Rangihīroa
P.S Nice to know I am still a curator, perhaps Māori Curator 🙂
Book signing today with photographer Bruce Connew and writer Rangihīroa Panoho. Connew’s accompanying exhibition of photographs and the artist’s book available at Te Uru, Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, Titirangi, AUCKLAND, NZ. Copies of ‘A Vocabulary’ sold out on the night, these are part of the next batch from the binders.
Who said people aren’t reading or buying books! This one is beautifully made. A gorgeous thing. Typography and exhibition design by Catherine Griffiths. Cloth, case-bound, 604 pages, section sewn, round spine, ribbon
written for the opening of Bruce Connew, ‘A Vocabulary’, Te Uru, Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, Titirangi 12 December 2020
E ngā mate. Ka mahara tātou ki ngā mumu Māori e takoto ana kei raro i ngā parekura o ngā pakanga whenua o mua. Haere, haere, haere. Haere ki te poho o te Atua, haere ki Hawaikinui, Hawaiki roa, Hawaiki pāmamao.
The parekura sits silent no noise at all just the chatter of a tui wrecking putiputi down by the hall just the wind murmuring across the fertile plains he swore he heard their voices around Ngāi Kuku’s last remains
down by the river where the fighting pā once stood or was it just the twittering of piwakawaka in the woods
the scale of the loss disgusted him it explained why he refused the spirit path to Rēinga instead he would choose to guard over bones and taonga and mourn unmentioned loss hidden from a nearby cenotaph that refused to count the cost
raised to his last battle near fields in which he toiled he read the text again and again as if it would reveal some other truth or meaning that might possibly transcend a vocabulary of forgetting bronze letters that won’t bend colourful adjectives murdering rebels, barbarous savages
he struggled with the message they were a people worth forgetting
Indeed not a word of his hapū’s bravery no mention of their name or that settler greed for land was largely to blame for a war they never asked for how else could one explain an eternity of loss within a deep gnawing pain
and when archaeologists visit he wishes he could yell and call Haere mai E hoa, haul your trig over here, man Yeah map us brother, draft us on that plan
but the grid only measures trenches so we’ll always be missed except by manuhiri that want to take a mimi
and summer comes and summer goes and the pōhutukawa bleeds scarlet in the morning 10 shades of crimson when the sun retreats
Some notes regarding ’10 Shades…‘
My wife’s people, Te Aupōuri, live near Cape Rēinga. They along with iwi like Ngāti Kuri consider themselves gatekeepers to Te Rerenga o Wairua ‘the leaping off point of the Spirits’ at the northern extremity of Aotearoa. Many Polynesian Islands in South Pacific have their leaping off points. This role of kaitiakitanga at the departure point of wairua journeying to Hawaiki has created family histories where ghost stories are common. At times the Spirits stop along the way and there are visitations. The narratives told at night of encounters with the spirits are the most frightening and are remembered and passed on with relish and great drama.
10 Shades…, in essence, is a ghost story taken from the point of view of a toa ‘Māori warrior’ who decides not to take the path to Rēinga and remains with his whānau and the warriors he fought with on a Ngā Pakanga Whenua o Mua battefield. In the poem one of the greatest struggles the central character has is accepting a memorial inscription raised near the battlefield. History, so the saying goes, is written by the victors.