Ka mate he tete kura ka tupu he tete kura
'When one red fern frond falls, another takes its place.'
It’s New Year’s eve 2019 tonight. Aucklanders have fled the City for the beaches. They have escaped to the Northland and to the Coromandel coastlines. This place is a ghost town. Driving around feels a little like going back to the empty suburban roads of the 1980s during other periods of vacation. Many indigenous cultures have different concepts regarding the arrival of the New Year. For our tūpuna it was the months of winter (late May/early June) and the appearance of the star cluster Matariki ‘Pleiades constellation’ that signalled the change. While June 10 was celebrated this year there was traditionally a longer, natural cyclic rhythm that brought cosmos and people together in celebration throughout tribal Aotearoa. Matariki was a time for the harvesting of natural resources, a time of reflection and a time of planning for the future.
While the heavens are a natural place to turn to this time of year (i.e. Bethlehem – the morning star and the Christian narrative) I am a Māori art historian and Māori art is full of natural cyclic symbols that may prove useful to this discussion. My book MAORI ART looks at the metaphor of rivers in our ancestral thinking as a way of considering the flow of history in our artforms. It may have been a short essay I wrote recently on kōwhaiwhai based artist Sandy Adsett that made me more aware of a rauponga fern sending out pitau shoots over the last couple of weeks. Photographing the fern immediately brings to mind one of the key design modules in Māori art – the koru and it is this motif, its history and its natural origins, that is the focus for the remainder of this short essay. The koru, I suggest, is actually a good metaphor for acknowledging the New Year.
There are many natural sources for the koru. While the spiral is commonly used by many cultures throughout the world the koru and its particular usage by New Zealand Māori is unique for a range of reasons. Firstly, it represents an aesthetic shift in Polynesian design history. The koru, and its many different manifestations in te toi whakairo ‘Māori woodcarving’ and kōwhaiwhai ‘Māori rafter painting’, constitutes a deliberate movement away from the angular forms and patterns that were part of the proto Polynesian aesthetic (particularly present in pottery, tapa and tātau) to a uniquely curvilinear form. The koru developed and flourished here in Aotearoa as our ancestors became increasingly isolated from their Hawaiki (i.e. their various Pacific homelands).
Sandy Adsett, Ngāti Pahaurewa and New Zealand Historic Places Trust restoration, HINERINGA meetinghouse, Raupunga mārae. Photography: Haruhiko Sameshima (commissioned by author) 19 January 1994, destroyed by fire 2007.
Secondly, the koru is a response to the equally unique natural environment found here in Aotearoa. The shape of the previously described unfurling fern frond is one commonly referred to as a source of inspiration for the koru. The pitau is embryonic and full of potential and that is what probably attracted our ancestors to the architecture of its growth. It suggests in its coil that life involves all sorts of possibilities. Life is potential. Tomorrow is another day that will unfold in a way that may be completely different from today. The unfolding fern frond also suggests a point of return in its circularity. It speaks of natural cycles, continuum and a returning…
Just the right motif, I say, to introduce the new year that so many around the world celebrate.
Nā reira, e ngā whāea, e ngā mātua, e ngā tamariki, e ngā kaipānui o ēnei rangataki. Hari tau hou, Happy New Year!
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.
Paratene Matchitt, Armistice, November 2013. Printmaker: Rakai Karaitiana
Matchitt’s print ‘Armistice’, 2013 was a gift by the artist when I stayed with and interviewed him in his Napier studio in 2015. I understood the language of the print immediately. It was close to the aesthetic of his Te Kooti series of linocuts in the 1960s that I had studied while working on a Master thesis on the artist in the late 1980s. There were a number of tell-tale affinities. In the earlier series he had used cubism via artists like the Australian abstractionist Leonard French to deconstruct his subject. The earlier series by Matchitt had tracked the movement of the nineteenth century militant leader Te Kooti Rikirangi on the run from settler troops and kūpapa Māori. It is this chase ‘te whai a te motu’ (i.e. pursuit through the island) through regions like Te Urewera and the National Park (battle of Te Pōrere, 1869 – the last large scale pitched battle between Māori and Pākehā) that become the basis for the story. Abstracted parts of horses that Te Kooti and his followers rode and the women who followed him as well can be observed in the imagery.
The language of cubism that breaks up and cuts into reality really does suit the viciousness of war. Fast forward to the Western Front. In the 2013 image one can read body and animal parts and trenches and tunnels that cut through and sever territory, both undermining and threatening enemy lines. Horses hooves can be read middle left and throughout Matchitt’s composition (millions of horses served in WWI – of the thousands NZ sent over 4 are said to have returned). There is the form of a rider as well. On the right edge of the work is the butt of a rifle which also has saw teeth on its barrel. There are manaia forms (beak like form of the bird man motif) where arcing lines resonate entrances to tunnels and straight white and red lines suggest the stand off that trenches brought behind the lines. And beyond all this immediate patterning there is an abiding darkness. Is this the voluminous mud or perhaps a reference to the enormity of death that preceded the ceasefire?
There are some connections between Te Kooti’s separatist stand and cessation prior to Armistice. Te Kooti took refuge under the Waikato paramount leader Tawhiao at Te Kuiti in the King Country and later in 1883 was granted a pardon by the Crown. Matchitt signifies the new truce in ‘Armistice’ upper centre through the red, white and black that arc across the composition. They suggest a rainbow, a new covenant being established in 1918. Nearly 100 years ago to the day (November 11) Germany formally surrendered. The Treaty of Versailles that followed was initially seen by the Allied Forces as a binding agreement guaranteeing world peace.
Michael Parekowhai, Passchendaele, The Consolation of Philosophy, 2001
In 2001 Michael Parekowhai created a series (The Consolation of Philosophy) of photographic images featuring faux flowers in Crown Lynn pottery. Each bouquet was assigned a title referencing a major battle site on the western front and elsewhere New Zealanders fought and died. Amiens, Armentières, Carais, Étaples, Fish Alley, Flers, Le Quesnoy, Messines, Passchendaele, Turk Lane and Ypres are all named. These were places the Māori Battalion also fought. As with Matchitt’s connection with the militant leader Te Kooti Parekowhai has made personal statements about the relationship between trench warfare and the nineteenth century pā fortifications used by Māori to defend their lands.
I have chosen Parekowhai’s Passchendaele as my focus. This unsuccessful attempt to take a small Belgian village very much encapsulates Winter’s thoughts earlier about the scale of Kiwi sacrifice. Often referred to as ‘New Zealand’s darkest day’, this particular battle cost this country 6% of its casualties for the entire war. On a single day, October 12, 1917 3200 New Zealand casualties suffered – among them 845 dead.
Parekowhai’s bouquet is the artist’s own personal attempt to bring his whakapapa to the horror of this battle site. Pare kōwhai, his family name, literally means ‘yellow or kōwhai garland’. Flowers are a part of his genealogy and his identity and they contrast markedly with the mud and drowned, cut and maimed New Zealand bodies lost somewhere out there in the wasteland of the Ypres image below:
Parekowhai’s use of flowers is of course not simply personal it is a universal metaphor for commemorating loss and for acknowledging grieving. I have just returned from a whānau tangi in Tāmaki and Te Tai Tokerau. The power of the pare kawakawa, worn at times by mourners, is always a powerful northern tradition involving men, sacred traditions around particular native plants and tangihanga.
Back on the 3rd of May 1915 it is the red flower that waves in the wind in Flanders and possesses a tapū ambience due to the dead beneath. That was the inspiration for Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae after losing a close friend and penning his own poem. In that moment of inspiration more than other any other creative response the Canadian surgeon left the world a universal symbol for the Great War: the red poppy.
‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place: and in the sky The larks still bravely singing fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.’
rangihīroa, he āmionga kikorangi, ‘the blue orbit’, 2018
E ngā kaipānui tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā ra koutou katoa. Ngā whakawhetai ki a koutou mo te awhi me te tautoko hoki. Hari te ngakau nei e hoko ana koutou ki tā tātou pukapuka. Naaku te rourou, nau te rourou, ka kī te kete.
The following text comprises notes used to prepare for a presentation of ‘Writing Māori Art’ at the City Gallery, Wellington, 25 August 2016. They explore the background to the creation of MAORI ART: History, Architecture, Landscape and Theory, Batemans, 2015/2018. Some key themes and motivations for the work are discussed. ‘Writing Maori Art’ has been edited for this particular platform however, it largely follows the question/response format used in the original kōrero. I am offering this as a koha to recognise the hundreds on the publisher’s facebook site that have supported this project and the many who have been visiting this companion site to peruse the MaC I-VII blogs. I hope the kaupapa is useful to those searching for authorial intent.
Writing MAORI ART
It was difficult to know what to prepare here. I wondered who might be attending so I found myself asking questions throughout this kōrero. I have largely kept that initial structure involving enquiry and response. This imagining ones audience and then writing to / for that readership or group is what I think writing a book is about. There were other influences as well. The panel members (Megan Tamati-Quennell, MONZ and Peter Brunt, VUW), that follow this talk, were also interested in hearing about the book’s central river metaphor so I have included some discussion on awa. If you are looking for a brief explanation of the river try this video link.
Lorraine Steele, (Lighthouse NZ PR Book Publicity) assigned by my publisher Batemans to help market ‘Maori Art’, told me prior to its initial launch in June 2015 at Te Uru that books, particularly art books in New Zealand, don’t sell themselves. No great revelation for those involved in publishing here tonight. You would immediately understand the role authorial self-promotion plays in marketing New Zealand books, films indeed all creative activity in Aotearoa. In Auckland, the situation seems grim. With a city of nearly 1.5 million people there is no major window for New Zealand books on Queen Street, or apart from Unity Books, in the central city. Our publicist suggested I take a few months out to travel meet, greet, sign and sell. She was particularly keen on areas of the country with community ties to the book. What sounded like grim advice then makes good business sense now.
So here is my delayed response, eventually following marketing advice. In returning here to Wellington I am re-visiting a site important early on in the creation, the conceptualising, the illustration and in the production of ‘Maori Art’. I lived locally. I taught up the road on Tasman Street at the local Design School. My original publishing contracts were sent here. My first manuscript was created in this town. It was here I began describing to alarmed, possibly bemused readers, I was writing a book on Māori Art that would be centered around the metaphor of a river. My first readers Mary Barr, Jayne Sayle, Garry Nicholas and Luit Bieringa were and still all are locals. I curated a major Māori and a Pacific show, for the Dowse Art Museum and for the City Gallery respectively, prior to living here and I am grateful to Robert Leonard and the City Gallery for letting me continue this legacy in not simply celebrating curating but also writing ‘Maori Art’ with you.
WHY WRITE MAORI ART?
So why write a book on Māori Art? Indeed, why write any book? At risk of personal scrutiny I quote British novelist George Orwell’s essay ‘Why I Write‘ because his account of authorship and motivation provides a useful structure here to work with and against. Writing post world war II (summer 1946) Orwell lays down 4 drives: sheer egotism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. Some areas resonate more than others. I test a couple of these ideas.
Egotism: taking Orwell’s first motivation. On 11 August 1992 I was offered a contract with Nevill Drury, Publishing Manager, Craftsman House, Australia. Drury writes, ‘Delighted to enclose contracts…I feel this publication will be a very worthwhile addition to the literature on Pacific art. Your book will be distributed internationally, and I think could also attract offers of translation.’ Lofty possibilities indeed. From the point of view of a 28 year old, burnt out from curating a Pacific show and travelling a large Māori exhibition on tour to Australia for Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery, this Australian contract was a big deal.
Egotism? Orwell claims, ‘It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.’ Perhaps initially there is the grand vision but the brutality of 22 sobering years deals to romantic visions: there have been contract losses, institutions neither believing, nor backing and, worse, stalling its publication, job loss, an employment court battle with a Vice Chancellor, reluctance by the ‘community of taste’ to accept my writing and so on. Many of the previous MaC blogs detail this history. The great nineteenth century pacifist Parihaka prophet Te Whiti o Rongomai in 1903 told an historian seeking answers on the land wars, William Baucke, to ‘ask that mountain, Taranaki saw it all.’ For those that continue to have trouble understanding the raruraru behind writing ‘Maori Art’ I would like to quote Te Whiti and say, ask the book – it saw it all.
My disagreement with Orwell stems from the thought that there is not much room for inflated egos when authors are jobless and manuscripts go unpublished. The one abiding passion I had for ‘Maori Art’ was to focus my thinking and creative output on its kaupapa. Others were also important in helping birth it. The photographers, Haruhiko Sameshima and Mark Adams and more recently Tracey Borgfelt the publisher, and publicist Lorraine Steele, believed in this project. For those intent on reading my thoughts in relation to the book I suggest less focus on personality and more on the work itself. That, despite Orwell’s insistance, would be the more rewarding line of enquiry. I think this book does actually follow its own unique path without deviating. Reflectively author Anne Rice‘s perception of what inspired her about the focus in Franz Kafka’s writing seems to fit this kaupapa:
‘Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.’
SO WHAT IS MAORI ART ABOUT?
Orpan River, airstrip, village, and Anguganak bluff – upper right
The book references or is influenced by four river types. The personal, the tribal, the Austronesian and the cosmological. These four layers underpin the selection of material and the central metaphor and they make sense of the force relations contained within the chapters. Regarding the first and third rivers, I was born in Angugunak bluff amongst the mountainous rainforest of the Western Sepik district of Papua New Guinea. I lived alongside the Northern Wairoa River (river II), out on the West Coast at Bayleys Beach or Ripiro (during my childhood/early adolescence), alongside the Whanganui River (during my work as a curator – river II) and on the South Kaipara Head (during my time teaching tertiary in Tāmaki – river II and IV).
Mark Adams, north Kaipara looking out from towards the waha mouth of the Wairoa ki te Tai Tokerau River,
In the broader sense ‘Maori Art’ makes a case for a cultural river comprising ocean currents that take people, cosmologies, visual and spoken languages and whakapapa out of ancient China, insular Asia into the Near and Distant Pacific. Eventually this diaspora leads to bottle necks of culture comprising the Lapita peoples further north and to the West and Eastern Polynesian gatherings centred on islands like Rangiātea and Rarotonga through which the very last southern migration of human beings on the planet took place. Those people have become known as Māori in the south and Maoli in Hawai’i.
rangihīroa, gardenia hand, 2017
As with the visual motifs explored in MAORI ART this flower is found in a number of sites, throughout the world, associated with our Austronesian ancestors: Southern China, Taiwan, Madagascar and the Pacific.
WHERE ELSE MIGHT I FEEL ‘MAORI ART’ RESONATES ORWELL’S SUMMARY REGARDING MOTIVATIONS?
The aesthetic area. There is an interest in the sound of words and a passion for this helps drive imagery and design. Further, in political terms Orwell also talks about the, ‘Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.’ In ‘Maori Art’ the society I envisage is one where locals and those overseas are more discerning about how they see, describe, interpret, endorse and market particular types of Māori art. Two whole chapters are devoted to communities that base themselves around two very different extremes – the orthodoxy of Sir Āpirana Ngata and the modernism of Ralph Hotere. Perhaps to the surprise of some I don’t see either position as solely or idealistically encapsulating the society or artform for which we should strive.
Orwell finally talks about writing possessing an historical impulse. Again I don’t wholly agree with the definition. Historicity in ‘Maori Art’ is tied up with Asia Pacific and concepts of the past not as teleological so much as ancestral and in flux or in continuum. Mark Twain once described the Mississippi as iconic in the sense that it embodied the recent history of his nation (not to be confused with First Nation concepts of history). I used the river metaphor and various states of water in flow because I believe they too embody our unique history in this part of the world.
More than this I saw the river as an inclusive form that embraces all.