10 November 2018
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Flowers grow out of dark moments Sister Mary Corita Kent
I have never been to war and I have never visited the war dead at the Somme, at Messines, at Passchendaele nor at Ypres where the old western front once bitterly divided Europe and the wider world in two. I have never witnessed the poppies that McCrae once described flowering in Flanders not far from the second battle of Ypres in 1915. I have never gone to Gallipoli to pay homage to the diggers.
rangihīroa, WWI Archway of Remembrance, Ōhakune Memorial 1914-1918, October, 2018
However, what I have gained, growing up in this country, is a sense of the effect of this particular war. The memorials, the archways of remembrance (see Ōhakune image) the rolls of honour in community halls throughout New Zealand with the family names proudly recorded: these are all vivid and touching testimonies to the way this particular war has affected everyone in Aotearoa. What these monuments (always centrally positioned in our towns) and memorabilia tell us is that the Great War literally touched every Kiwi community throughout the land. Yale academic Jay Winter notes the scale of this sacrifice, ‘…the losses in terms of those killed on active service from New Zealand is between 1 in 6 and 1 in 5, so it was that country which suffered the most among the family of British nations’.
The more I thought about this particular war the more I realised war colours the entire history of Māori as well. Our inter-tribal wars (at least 800 – 1000 years of them), our battles with the British, our battles with the settlers and later paradoxically our fighting alongside the British from World War I onwards – this has been a long, haunting history in this land. There are military connections between Māori and the wider world as well. The language of trench warfare, that dominated the conflict on the Western front, owes something to historical Māori resistance to colonial intrusion in Aotearoa. The British Army commissioned drawings of the trench systems and underground pits utilised in fortifications at sites like Ruapekapeka, Pewhairangi 1845/1846 and Gate Pā, Tauranga in 1864. That knowledge returned to England and was frighteningly reapplied on an enormous scale with horrendous consequences, a number of decades later, on the western front.
Perhaps my most direct connection with the Great War is really through Māori art. I am fascinated by the way in which tāngata whenua artists use a unique Māori sensibility to talk about WW1. I have put together a series of images (some of which I have created) to pay tribute to the upcoming Armistice commemoration this Sunday. The two artists that feature in my collection are Paratene Matchitt and Michael Parekowhai. Both, while referencing the Great War, draw affinities with a Māori legacy of warfare. The indigenous connection helps make sense of the troubling content centering it locally despite the fact that the actual battles took place half a world away in Europe.