ĀTĀROA at the Kupe Waka Centre

The whare wānanga Whētu Mārama sits at Te Aurere six kilometres north of Taipa in Muri Whenua ‘the far North of Aotearoa’. Writing this I found myself unavoidably talking less about my show and perhaps more about Sir Hekenukumai Busby – the star of the show. On reflection I think what I am trying to clarify here is the very different context for art within a whare where the aspirations and foci of the community run their own course perhaps parallel to the intent of the work. This is a context where there is the possibility of complete anonymity as opposed to the focused celebrating of an individual within the art gallery or the museum.

In situ, Sir Hekenukumai Busby memorabilia, kāinga, Te Aurere, 7 December 2018

 The difference comprises a longstanding interest. Working with and experiencing Pacific communities is not a novel experience for me. My father, Charles Pio Panoho – whose portrait used to sit on Hekenukumai and Ngahiraka’s loaded table of memorabilia – took me around remote West Sepik villages in Pāpua New Guinea when I was a young child. I have also devoted large portions of research as an art historian, a curator, a writer and more recently as an artist, working with Māori and Pacific communities of artists, in both rural and urban centres and mārae primarily around the North Island.

The Te Aurere community is not new to me. It is a place I started coming from the first pānui my Aunty Hilda (Ngahiraka Wilson nee Panoho) and Uncle Hector Busby extended to the Panoho whānau whanui to join them around 1994 towards the end of Ngahiraka’s life at Te Aurere. Over the last 30 years it has become one of the hau kāinga up North (my wife is Te Aupōuri – further north at Te Kao – and is affiliated with Ngāti Kuri, Te Rarawa and Ngāti Kahu) to which I have returned with whānaunga and from which I have continued to draw cultural, philosophical and at times spiritual sustenance.

I would probably agree with Barclay-Kerr’s comments about collective responsibility. Yes, Hekenukumai’s death is both a loss and a challenge. It was impossible not to stay at Te Aurere and to not to be aware of Hector Busby’s presence there nor the legacy or perhaps whakapapa layered across both Muriwhenua and the oceans of Kiwa. The allusion of the large concrete slabs with which he used to build and traverse rivers all over Te Tai Tokerau seems an appropriate metaphor for the permanency of the tohunga’s legacy. Many of those bridges continue to exist all around the North. They were built strong. They were built to last.

 On arrival at Te Aurere Hekenukumai’s living room was usually my first port of call and he would often be sitting in his big comfortable chair either talking to someone else or waiting to kōrero and wānanga. My whānaunga Gina Harding supported and cared for him after the passing of my Aunty. And if I wasn’t sitting with Hekenukumai then my whānau would be at the dining table with Gina. My last memory of Hekenukumai was my sleeping in the room next to him and the light never going out. I was too tired to sit up and talk but I remember thinking later that was perhaps what he was wanting. I knew he was there just sitting, watching and waiting. To me that epitomised Hekenukumai – the one looking to the horizon, the one hoping we might wake up and also catch a glimpse of perhaps not just what he had seen but what he envisaged.

kawe mate, kei roto i te whare wānanga Whetū Mārama, Te Aurere. The portraits gifted comprise the many Māori and Polynesian leaders with whom Hekenukumai was closely associated. The model waka haorua was gifted by Ngāti Ruawāhia during the kawe mate ceremony 10 December 2022. Photo: Rangihīroa Panoho

So like many others I have benefitted from the support of Hekenukumai and my whānaunga Gina and Michael Harding rāua ko John and Ann Panoho who have been based up there at Te Aurere. They all supported my Doctorate and later my publication Māori Art.

Hector was very ill but took the long trip down to my book launch at Te Uru, Waitākere Art Gallery in Titirangi in 2015. He, and another revered Te Rarawa leader Ross Gregory and other northern rangatira, friends, whānau and arts industry people voiced support for the book. He sensitively picked just the right moment to trim his sail and cut across the formalities of the evening with a gentle wero, ‘E Rangi, has anyone offered a karakia over your book? Would you like me to bless it?

He had a big heart, was generous with his kōrero and keen to share his knowledge. He spoke a lot about the proto Polynesian navigator Kupe, in particular the special karakia housed in Grey’s collection of manuscripts (APL) that he had studied and carefully memorised, which islands he thought were our Hawaiki and why, the importance of John Tūrei, Sir James Henare and other kaumātua in his career path, the value he placed on symbiosis – the working partnership with Ngahiraka and her organisational prowess, the importance of tārai waka and events at Waitangi, the kaitiakitanga o Ngatokimatawhaorua. One sensed both his aroha for peers such as Nainoa Thompson but also his deep respect for the knowledge tohunga like Satawal navigator Pius Mau Piailug prophetically agreed to impart. He offered cheeky character portraits of these people and key events that had a personal impact. His own phenomenological memories regarding how Te Aurere travelled and how his experiences matched or resonated those of the ancestral wānanga i tuku iho throughout Te Moananui a Kiwa were rich and lively.

These memories, I thought, were indications of the continuum in which he believed. He spoke about the flight paths of kūaka and of natural phenomenon and sometimes about discrepancies with inherited accounts. It appeared to me that not all was plain sailing in the waka world he so centrally inhabited. He sometimes voiced disappointments and critiques regarding peers and tribal leaders. Politics or so it seemed to me. Perhaps it was the stage of life during which I knew him but there seemed to be doldrums (perhaps even mokemoketanga ironically for a person at the centre of numerous vibrant communities both local and distant) and why not for someone who had navigated his pathway in such a determined manner for such a long and sustained period of time.

It was only really with the events that unfolded at Te Aurere around 2018 that many of the conversations about waka journeys, key personalities came to life. Hector introduced me to Nainoa Thompson and I listened carefully to not just the words of the many Hawai’ians (who over the years came to life around me) but to te mita o te kōrero me ngā waiata hoki. Ae te ngakau kei muri i tā rātou kupu. Te Aurere is a fitting symbol in this kōrero because I think the more important legacy Hekenukumai and Ngahiraka left is the capturing of the intangible before it passes out to the ocean.

I have carefully watched the Māori community I have worked with while recently installing my art. The Kupe Waka Centre opened officially on 10 December 2022. I was invited by the Board to hang a version of my exhibition ĀTĀROA inside the whare wananga Whētu Mārāma and its adjacent whare kai. The community at the northern Te Aurere site has been centred around Sir Hekenukumai Busby, his life and legacy, his star compass that still stands like a circular shrine on the ridge near his whare, his whānau whanui, the incorporation and declarations and agreements he established, the waka leaders and crew members he inspired: that collectively manned and led the various operations and activities connected with Busby’s extensive Aotearoa and Pacific connections through the various voyages of the waka hourua Te Aurere (named after the site of Whetū Mārama and the awa flowing past it) and Ngahiraka mai Tawhiti (named after whaea Hilda) throughout Te Moananui a Kiwa and Hector’s involvement with Ngatokimatawhaorua and Waitangi celebrations.

Ēnei herenga included importantly personal Hawai’ian connections with Ngāti Ruawāhia. E tupu ana te ingoa nei no Tā James Henare’s response in 1985 to kaiwhakatere Nainoa Thompson’s astounding achievement of guiding the Hawai’ian waka hourua Hōkūle’a to Waitangi ki Pewhairangi 7 December that same year. Me koutou te iwi tuaono, te iwi Ngāti Ruawāhia o Te Tai Tokerau ‘you must be Ngāti Ruawāhia (the fourth brightest star in the Bootes constellation), the sixth tribe of the North!’ The reciprocity of Ngāti Ruawāhia and their loyalty to connections to Hekenukumai Busby, his waka legacy and to the North have been heartfelt, generous and unwavering.

There is no other way to explain my show within Whetu Mārama as an exhibition that existed in two other spaces for very different reasons prior to sitting on the walls of the whare wānanga within the Kupe Waka Centre. Nonetheless in association with this kōrero I offer a few of the images that show the exhibition within this context. A purist would of course argue art belongs in galleries. Yes and no. I have listened to a number of senior Māori artists talk about their exhibitions particularly early on in their careers in commercial buildings, community halls, inside meetinghouses, whare kai and so on in the 1960s. Of course from the late twentieth century local and central government in Aotearoa better equipped galleries and museums to display and to interpret the work of Māori.

As a foundational Māori art curator I see myself as part of that process and a witness to some of these changes as well. However, from an early stage I formed an impression that galleries and museums were not really the places that Māori and Pasifika communities gravitated towards or to which they naturally felt at home. There had to be something specifically Māori or Pasifika about a show to get indigenous people to darken the doors. This was not my theory, I watched it happen again and again in galleries and museum exhibitions. The return of TE MAORI to Aotearoa in 1986 – 1987 was a major exception but it also suggested the huge resources required to involve ngā iwi o te motu. While I was dubious about the attempts by thinkers like anthropologist Sidney Mead and Selwyn Murupaenga to cast the meetinghouse as the art gallery of Māoridom I understood the attempts at translation. We know the museum and art gallery, like the discipline of art history or anthropology, are western inventions but Māori would like to make these spaces more like our spaces. At the same time I also knew that these confluences, of Māori artists and communities – often on mārae, have not always been happy marriages. However, in all of this recent activity (and I am describing here only 70+ recent years in a thousand year history) nobody could say that such work was dull or boring or without spectacular theatre and drama at times .

My examples for such community interaction largely concern Paratene Matchitt. He still looms large in my mind as the subject of my first thesis (‘Developments in Maori Art: Paratene Te Mokopuorongo Matchitt’, AU, 1988) and because of his jaw dropping experiences within the mārae context. Art Galleries and Museums, supposedly, are there to help support, facilitate the display and capably interpret work by Māori artists. But early on in the creation of a more contemporary form of Māori art mārae had no such obligation and I would say they continue to have no obligation to have to support new forms of Māori art. Let me clarify why I say this. It is because inside a community space an individual Māori person (i.e the audience) makes his/her own decision as to whether they like work or not and whether they wish to tautoko. Perhaps more importantly members of mārae communities can possibly feel territorial about something new taking place within their community space. New work needs wānanga and time to unravel tikanga and kaupapa hou.

In the 1970s at one stage during the Kimiora Mural project, in the Diningroom at Tūrangawaewae mārae, Ngaruawāhia Paratene Matchitt threatened to throw the customboard mural in the adjacent Waikato river if Tainui tohunga whakairo Piri Poutapu did not give his approval. In another exhibition in the early 1960s in a department store in Hamilton with John Bevan-Ford Matchitt asked his mentor the Ngāti Porou tohunga whakairo Pine Taiapa to open the show. Taiapa said, I came here to blow these boys up and then I had a think about it and he said he realised that the “world of art is big enough to accomodate everyone.” Taiapa leaves only one possible answer to the conundrum which I am describing. Don’t stop working with communities, don’t stop engaging in risk-taking and don’t ever stop compromising or perhaps re-thinking one’s strategy with one’s elders or leaders. Don’t stop talking. Perhaps most importantly, don’t stop listening. And maybe if we stay away from formulas we just might strike a balance where the ‘other’ says, ‘alright, I don’t understand what you’re doing. But here’s a space for you to work in, and here’s a platform for you to communicate.’

the sacking of Otuihu by British Navy, the 58th and 96th regiments, in April 1845

At Whetū Mārama – the day before the opening, my whānaunga took me aside and said, ‘cuz they don’t want to have that painting (‘Nightmares Follow: They Always Begin With These Numbers…’ – an account of the British attack on Pōmare’s pā Ōtūihu in Taumārere in 1845) up there while we have the kawe mate for Hekenukumai inside the whare wananga. They feel…’

Artists can get precious about their work but I went back to the waka leaders and I said. ‘Okay, how about we move that painting to the back of the whare kai – and we swap it with another work. Are you okay with this one…?’ They looked at one another and shrugged their shoulders and for a moment looked up at the takuate Te Ruki Kawiti sang shrouded in clouds of blue and said, ‘No, we don’t any problems with that one.’ The waka boys helped re-erect the scaffolding and the shift was duly arranged.

I want to thank my whānaunga John and Ann Panoho, the Arawai Board, Project Manager Dr Peter Phillips, navigators Stan Conrad and Jack Thatcher, Ngatokimatawhaorua kaitiaki Joe Conrad, ngā tāngata whenua and friends of whānau, including Jim Cox, that helped me re-purpose ĀTĀROA within te poho o Whetū Mārama. I loved being able to wānanga to Te Uriroroi whānau about their whakapapa and appreciated the warm tautoko of kaumatua Haare Williams for this mahi. Ka huri au ki ngā whakaaro a ngā tūpuna ne, Nāu te rourou, nāku te rourou, ka ora ai te iwi. Piki te aroha ki a koutou, nā Rangihīroa