Currently on show at Christchurch Art Gallery, ‘Māori Moving Image: An Open Archive’ is the second hang of an exhibition that originated at the Dowse Art Museum, organized by senior curator Melanie Oliver and artist and independent curator Bridget Reweti, who is of Ngāi Te Rangi and Ngāti Ranginui descent. Displayed en masse in this way, Māori moving-image practice makes a bold statement about the depth and breadth both of Māori experience and of Māori artists working in this medium. When I think of moving-image art, I think of the commitment viewers undertake to watch a work to the end. With Māori moving-image art, however, there is another, more specific, form of endurance to consider: the constant agitation for recognition of what Māori peoples have suffered by subsequent colonial settler governments. An experience that is analogous for many other Indigenous peoples across the world.
Endurance is also at the core of Lost Content (2013) by Jasmine Te Hira, an artist of Atiu, Ngāpuhi and Te Rarawa heritage. While I was watching the film, another visitor came up to me and commented that I had lasted longer than he had been able to. He was right: it makes for uncomfortable viewing. The screen is split into four: each quadrant features an arm wrapped in a thick bracelet of ice containing hair, pearls and fingernails – items that are gradually released as it slowly melts. Where the ice touches the skin, it appears reddened and sore; the arms are held in a crooked position that adjusts only slightly throughout the two-minute duration. Lost Content was inspired by Victorian mourning practices and the Māori code of tapu: a concept that governs interactions between people and the environment through restriction. Rituals surrounding the traditional Māori funeral rite of tangihanga have inevitably changed since Aotearoa / New Zealand was colonized, when Christian beliefs influenced or supplanted existing ones. Lost Content reflects this collision of holding fast and letting go.
Screened in a neighbouring room is Treasures Left by our Ancestors (2016) by Te Rarawa artist Ana Iti. Legs shaking, Iti crouches in front of permanent diorama exhibits from the nearby Canterbury Museum, which depict Māori in various simulations. Such displays – now widely acknowledged as exploitative representations over which Māori had very little agency – include the popular yet problematic ‘Moa Hunter’ narrative, according to which Māori hunted the flightless moa birds to extinction. Since the figures of ‘early’ Māori are mostly presented squatting in these dioramas, Iti mirrors this stance. Yet, despite her legs shaking from the length of time she spends crouching, passers-by appear oblivious to, or simply bemused by, her gaze-disrupting action. Writing for CIRCUIT in 2018, Simon Palenski noted that Iti’s squatting is an empathetic move, that it engenders contemplation and observance. This is in stark contrast to the diorama wall text at Canterbury Museum, which gives no indication of Māori’s active role in navigating their way across the largest body of water on Earth to settle a new land. Iti’s work speaks to Māori demands for sovereignty: that we want control over how we are represented and that we will continue to articulate this desire.
Jeremy Leatinu’u’s When the Moon Sees the Sun (2019), commissioned by the Honolulu Biennial Foundation, was inspired by the death of his koroua (grandfather). Told in six parts, the film’s structure is based around the stanzas of a waiata (song) Leatinu’u composed in the Māori language. When the Moon Sees the Sun plays like a heartbeat as Leatinu’u, who is of Ngāti Maniapoto and Sāmoan heritage, recites the waiata in English, each stanza recounting thoughts of their koroua from a different family member’s perspective. With cinematography by Ian Powell, this exquisite film features close-up shots of a bulb being planted and the rhythmic movements of the artist’s newborn baby’s chest. When the Moon Sees the Sun speaks of our enduring commitment to future generations, ensuring that what we leave for them is an improvement on what we inherited.
‘Māori Moving Image: An Open Archive’ is a provocation from the curators since, despite their archive being open, it is still slim. In terms of critical writing about the artists featured, there is little to share. In terms of acquisition by institutions, over half of the works included have not been bought for collections. Despite the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process returning confiscated land to Māori tribal groups and providing financial recompense for past injustices, they account for a fraction of what was lost by Māori over subsequent generations without even considering the severe decline of our language and cultural practices. Now, I feel emboldened that, thanks to Māori moving-image practitioners, our stories will continue to be told from our perspectives, and that change will come.
‘Māori Moving Image: An Open Archive’, is on view at Christchurch Art Gallery, New Zealand, until 26 January, 2020.
Main image: Sarah Hudson, Rachael and Indigo in Harakeke, 2016, photograph. Courtesy: the artist and Christchurch Art Gallery, New Zealand