Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Both Mark Amery and David Cross will be covering Wellington shows for eyeCONTACT readers. Here is a post from Mark.

Ngaahina Hohaia
City Gallery Wellington
27 September 2009 – 10 January 2010

Far be it for me to begrudge Wellington some dotty fun with the excellent Yayoi Kusama exhibition, but it can’t go unremarked that there’s some tension around the City Gallery reopening programme.

When the gallery last reopened in 1993 (after the move into the refitted old city library) the waka Te Raukura - a representation of the mana and history of local mana whenua - was housed for three months in the foyer. This time round, to see work grounded in this place until February you’re going to have to pay an admission fee and find your way past the dots and mirror mazes to two new cell-like galleries up at the top, far end of the building.

What the Michael Hirschfeld Gallery for Wellington artists has gained in getting a purpose-built space within the mainframe, it’s lost in accessibility - the old ex-bar space next to ever-humming Nikau Café felt like part of the membrane that separated gallery from city; a vent that circulated fresh air into the institution.

Meanwhile next door the new Roderick and Gillian Deane Gallery dedicated to Maori and Pacific Island artists (do patrons insist on these naming rights? Surely soon it will no longer be seen as tasteful?), together with the appointment of a Maori curator, Reuben Friend, provides some welcome representation. Hopefully however in both cases it will lead to increased presence in City Gallery curated exhibitions in the main spaces, rather than these galleries resembling privately funded chapels for local denominations within the grand international church.

This tension is all the more apparent for how strong the Deane Gallery opening installation is. Ngaahina Hohaia’s two works may not be brand new – Roimata Toroa (Tears of the Albatross), 2006 is from the Govett Brewster collection and was first shown to coincide with the first Parihaka Peace Festival, and Paopao ki tua o rangi (Reverberation beyond the heavens) has been touring in the lower North Island this year - but they could have held their own up front at the gallery. Together they are magnificent.

Amplifying the enduring vision of peace of the 19th century Parihaka settlement led by Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, and recharging the lightning rod that was the moment in 1895 when government troops entering the settlement were met by passive resistance, this installation of hundreds of hand embroidered poi is both a powerful and politically savvy opening selection.

Local iwi Te Ati Awa are also based in Taranaki, and the installation recalls arguably City Gallery’s finest moment, the Parihaka exhibition co-curated with Parihaka Pa and Hohaia’s father Te Miringa. Ngaahina worked as a guide on that show and this installation would have held its own amongst the other commissions for the exhibition. It is in a sense a return home; Parihaka’s own contemporary response to these other artists’ works.

Hohaia’s achievement is that the work seamlessly brings together the high public storytelling art of articulating a shared visual iconography, as you might find in wharenui or church, and the deeply personal. As a textile artist she has found her own way to recite her whakapapa and state her foundation, whilst representing visually the traditional Parihaka waiata and poi her whanau have played a strong role in reviving.

Embroidered onto the head of hundreds of white poi in lines on the wall are insignia that provide strong storytelling shorthand for not only the events of 1895, but the richness of this period’s cultural cross-fertilisation and its many assertions of political independence. The hau hau handprint, a girl skipping, handcuffs, a teapot, the bugle, the ruru, the Ratana crescent and star, the Christian cross and the three albatross feathers (that the work’s title refers to), are just a few.

This period of history continues to provide rich inspiration for artists. The motifs here celebrate the raft of symbolism to be found on Maori flags and in the figurative painting of the painted marae as a distinct language. Hohaia writes of Parihaka 19th century oratory as rich too with such crosscultural symbolism, with the poi traditionally part of the performance of chants, with a complex meld of terms, phrases and names. The lines of poi become like lines of verse to be read as you wish in patterns across the walls, like tukutuku. Running along one line, a word per poi, are inspirational words from Tohu himself from 1895. The title ‘tears of the albatross’ also reminded me of Harry Dansey’s description of a poi dance in his play Te Raukura: “It is a single long poi – slow in time with the sweeping movements of the albatross skimming the waves.”

The installation is a contemporary take on the Parihaka tradition of poi-manu, which Hohaia explains as “the ceremonial application of poi that maintains the timing of reciting whakapapa (genealogy) and karakia (ritual incantation), with the movement of the poi carrying the story line.” The works find a way to translate both the content and the time-based performative aspects of this artform.

The newer work, Reverberation consists of poi flying towards a central circle like tadpoles, evoking its circular performance in different lengths of flight. Woven patterns are activated across the poi by a complex light show. It’s like a glorious baroque starburst church altarpiece radiating shafts of light, or a large drum (an important instrument with Parihaka waiata) surrounded by tomtoms. Descendants flooding back to this core magnetic source of knowledge and inspiration, to continue to bang the reverberant drum. The circle provides a screen for the projection of a slide show of images of the pa and ancestors with the accompaniment of a soundtrack (the sound of children, approaching troops, the burning of buildings, the whir of the poi). It’s conceptually grounded enough to just avoid the hamminess such sound and light shows have been guilty of at Te Papa.

If I’m reminded of a church, the whole installation also alludes to the readable architecture of the wharenui - reminiscent of curator Reuben Friend’s structuring of the excellent Plastic Maori at the Dowse earlier this year – with the slide show providing the photographs of ancestors on the back wall of the house.

As a textile artist Hohaia is interested in the meanings inherent in her material and the forms she employs. She brings together craft traditions from both Pakeka and Maori in a very sophisticated way. The poi are made out of that most loaded of New Zealand textiles, the woolen blanket: used for land barter, created off the back of the land (sheep), and providing shelter and warmth – the land itself is considered a blanket.

The blankets used on the heads of the poi in Roimata are, like the albatross feathers, white - but it’s woven in beautifully with other colours in their tails to animate them. These tails are woven, evoking weaving traditions but also children’s pigtails, and are finished off with tassels, resembling the frills on Victorian furnishings. With gold and silver thread used for the embroidery, as objects they resemble royal bellpulls attached to pin cushions as much as they do poi.

What makes Hohaia’s installation strong ultimately however is that it remains ripe for interpretation no matter your knowledge base. For me the rows and rows of white poi were powerfully representative of the force of Parihaka’s passive resistance - a fence or palisade of poi, like the rows of children that met the invading troops.

(Above, Roimata Toroa (detail) (2006): images courtesy of the artist and City Gallery [top], and the artist and Govett-Brewster Art Gallery [two below, photography by Bryan James].)

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