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Matt Calman on Ngā Hau Ngākau

Ngā Toi Māori
image The exhibition’s painter Robin Slow sounds the pūtātara (conch shell) to open the performance.

The touring exhibition of mahi toi and taonga pūoro, vision and soundscapes, Ngā Hau Ngākau, came to a poignant close last weekend with a performance at CoCA gallery in Ōtautahi. It has inhabited the lives of its artists and performers for much of the last decade. Words and photographs by Matt Calman.

To describe it in the simplest terms, Ngā Hau Ngākau included 36 paintings by Robin Slow, 34 intricate carvings of mainly taonga pūoro ( traditional Māori musical instruments) by master carver Brian Flintoff, and a soundscape and video by Bob Bickerton, Ariana Tikao (Kāi Tahu), Holly Weir-Tikao (Kāi Tahu) and Solomon Rahui (Tūhoe, Kāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha). This touring exhibition has not only been a partnership between artists and performers, but also a dynamic collaboration with its audiences. The carvings, the paintings and the sounds are beautiful taonga. The exhibition has both inspired and taught. The artists’ strong honotanga shone through on Sunday as the performers of Ngā Hau Ngākau took to the floor in front of a packed gallery and evocative taonga pūoro and waiata echoed through the space.

The exhibition has toured extensively around Aotearoa, first showing at Aigantighe Gallery in Timaru in December 2017, and including stints at the Suter Art Gallery in Nelson, at Puke Ariki in New Plymouth, and at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. The final weekend at The Centre of Contemporary Art (CoCA) included workshops for taonga pūoro, demonstrations, panel discussions with the artists, and performances.

Weir-Tikao says Sunday represented a “magical end to a very special experience”. Being part of the exhibition represented for Weir-Tikao an opportunity to “reposition” herself in her Māori and Pākehā identity from “whakamā to whakamana” and everything in between. “There are universal themes that connect us – the land, the sea, the environment. But there are many things that separate us – [for example] the colonial narrative that would suppress both sides of my whakapapa, “ she explains. “The exhibition enables multiple expressions of identity to coexist in a shared space that honours the whakapapa that binds us.  It also highlights the universal values that are most important for all of us – connection, conservation, protection, understanding, aroha and unity. I hope these values can be embodied by the thousands of people that interacted with the exhibition during its haerenga.”

Slow recalls he and Flintoff had been exhibiting together in Whakatū when Bickerton approached them and offered to write a soundscape for them. He had been working with Tikao, Weir-Tikao and Rahui at the time. Ngā Hau Ngākau was born from the pooling of their talents. “Each aspect was completed by the individual artists using the ideas and thoughts of the group bound by tikanga,” Slow says. “It did become like the whāriki – pull one thread and it diminishes. Each member of the group relies on the other. It is full of respect and praise. Each member is strong in their own skills they bring – tikanga, waiata, karakia, whakairo, rangi, toi kowhaiwhai – to present an experience everyone can share in.”

Flintoff, Bickerton, and Tikao – along with the late Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns – have been at the forefront of the revival of taonga pūoro in recent decades. On Saturday, during a panel discussion in the gallery, Weir-Tikao talked about the importance of continuing the revival by supporting the use of the instruments in daily life, in homes and on marae. “Post-colonisation, they are sometimes relegated to the performance and art spaces only, which doesn’t acknowledge their holistic use or application to our cultural traditions and practices. We are trying to normalise their use beyond the stage and reclaim the mana they bring to te ao Māori generally.”

Bickerton talked about his journey from his Birmingham roots to his work teaching taonga pūoro in New Zealand schools over the last 30 years. Flintoff recalled his early school days in which art and history did not feature strongly for him – how ironic it is that art has “become my life”. Slow talked about the various manu, “ the first tāngata of the whenua”, which inhabit his paintings and the pūrākau (legends) they convey. The pūrākau were interpreted differently in each place the exhibition visited, he says. People from different iwi and hapū saw their own stories in the paintings. “What is the most important part is that the pūrakau through the exhibition travelling has managed to achieve what it was put together for. Not to direct attention to the artists themselves but rather allow whānau to explore the many mātauranga aspects contained within.”

Last Sunday, Slow (whose Māori whakapapa connections traverse the whenua like one of his manu) stood alone in the entrance to the gallery, behind the audience, and sounded the pūtātara (conch shell) to open the performance. Nearly an hour later, after the lilting tangi of the taonga pūoro and the kaiwaiata fell silent, Corban Te Aika of mana whenua Ngāi Tūāhuriri closed off with a kōrero whakakapi, a mihi to the performers, and karakia.

Kāi Tahu kaumātua Tā Tipene O’Regan, who attended the performance with his wife Lady Sandra, has said of the exhibition. “Ngā Hau Ngākau reflects the capacity of a group of friends to manifest a creative totality greater than the mere sum of the whole. The music of Ariana and her whānau, Bob’s music and its associated images, are all framed against the uncompromising presence and raw power of Robin’s paintings. Brian’s smaller treasures adorn the breast – truly, as the title suggests, – a new way of breathing!”

Ngā Hau Ngākau has fallen silent but its breath and influence will continue to permeate across the motu.

(All images courtesy of Matt Calman)

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