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Tia Barrett on Identity and Unbroken Connections…

Ngā Toi Māori

Emerging kaitoi Tia Barrett (Waitaha, Ngāti Māmoe, Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Tamainupō, Ngāti Maniapoto) was born and raised in Ōtautahi but has long called Kirikiriroa home. Her evocative moving imagery celebrates her wahine Māori identity and echoes the unbroken connections to her tūpuna and whenua.  

Toi Ōtautahi spoke to Tia about her first solo exhibition He Pounamu Ko Āu which runs at CoCA till August 20.

Matt: Tell me a little about your upbringing.

Tia: I was born in 1988 at the old Christchurch Women’s Hospital in Colombo Street. I spent my childhood in Ōtautahi, living in Hornby, St Martins, and finally at Okains Bay on Banks Peninsula. I have many memories of Mum moving us to a lot of different houses. She loved old villas. Our home was always clean and smelled of citrus wood-polish and potpourri. The schools I went to in Christchurch were Thorrington, Rowley and Okains Bay. I believe my older brother Manu and I were among the first cohorts to go through bilingual education at Rowley. At Okains Bay Primary there were only two classrooms and just 35 children on the roll. We made a lot of friends there, but we weren’t there for long before we moved to the North Island. I was incredibly sad when I found out we were moving. I loved living in the South Island with my friends, cousins and family. The move was a big change for our whānau and, as a child, difficult for me to process. Apart from four years working in Auckland, I have been based in Waikato ever since. I’m 35 now, and live in Kirikiriroa (Hamilton) with my partner Zena Elliott and our dog Rocco.

Did you grow up with a grounding in your taha Māori and access to te reo Māori or is this something you’ve had to chase?

Yes and no. None of my whānau were fluent when I was a child. None of my Māori grandparents spoke a word of Māori to me growing up. They were of the generation where it was beaten out of them, and then told the language wasn’t needed, so it wasn’t passed down to the next generation. However, both my parents were on their learning journey. My father studied papers at Canterbury University, and my mother took classes at Christchurch Open Polytechnic. My mother was also very staunch in immersing us in our Māori culture. From very young, my mother knew being Māori was like a superpower. She always wanted us to know we were Māori and where we came from.

I have many memories of Mum taking us to our ancestral land at Ōpukutahi, in Akaroa Harbour, and gathering stones at Birdlings Flat (braids of river stones from Birdlings Flat are a feature of Tia’s exhibition He Pounamu Ko Āu). She often took us back to our marae in Little River and Ōnuku. I even remember Dad taking us on this massive road trip all the way to Ngāruawahia to meet my grandmother. We travelled all around Waikato meeting other whānau and to our marae in Waingaro, then way back down to Gore in the deep south to meet my aunty Charmaine. Our two younger brothers were born in the Waikato and, unlike us, went through total immersion reo education at Kohanga and Kura Kaupapa. Having brothers immersed in the reo, didn’t mean it latched on for me. I’ve struggled through many adult night classes and still desire to know more. It’s a journey I will never stop being on.

Tell me about the themes in your exhibition He Pounamu Ko Āu.

He Pounamu Ko Āu, in part, is a creative expression of overcoming the adversities of colonisation that have happened to me, through moving image, mōteatea, natural ambient soundscape, and stone installation. I unpack and dive into some of the traumas I experienced throughout my educational journey. Such as the time non-Māori kids tried to wash the brown out of my skin at kindergarten, or when I was told not to dream too big at primary school, or when I was accused of tagging on the desks at high school because I was the only Māori in the class. I was also given a formal written warning for telling a teacher Captain Cook didn’t discover New Zealand. My drama teacher saw my artistic potential and tried to encourage me, but high school was hard for me as a wahine Māori. It wasn’t cool to be Māori and not all my teachers were as lovely as my drama teacher. So, I struggled to love myself and my Māori identity. Despite this, I was determined to attend University. I had a few teachers who didn’t think I would get there, so I was determined to prove them wrong. Waikato University was where I found my passion for filmmaking. But my struggles in mainstream education continued. After being failed three times for a post-graduate paper [at another tertiary provider] I was told “I could have failed you right at the beginning” and I didn’t “have the maturity to be studying at that level”. What I’ve experienced in our mainstream education system affected my wairua and mauri as a wahine Māori. Institutional racism and discrimination discouraged my indigenous ways of being and thinking. It assimilated me, causing a cultural alienation from my Māoritanga. It has taken my whole life’s journey to find a sense of mauri ora that I feel within myself and within my creative practice. Similar to the creation of pounamu, it hasn’t been easy. It takes millions of years for the formation of different rock types to be fused together to create our many different pounamu. Then it must travel to the surface of the Earth’s crust, to be released into our mountain ranges in Te Waipounamu, and cascade into our rivers. This journey has struggle; pounamu has had to overcome many intense and exhausting processes to be formed and created into a precious gem, a taonga tuku iho that is strong and resilient. This is how I have conceptualised my journey through our mainstream education system. I survived a system that worked against me, and now I am flourishing because I didn’t allow the system to take my voice away. I fought for myself, didn’t give up, and found the courage to embrace what it is to be mana wahine Māori.

How does sense of place come through in the exhibition?

 Āe, it’s very important in my mahi toi in terms of connection for me. It links back to whānau whenua and my ancestral lands. For He Pounamu Ko Āu, I filmed on location where I knew my grandfather once stood, lived his life, and planted kai. The places my tūpuna travelled for mahinga kai and set up their ahi kā have a life force that can still be felt and resonates into my toi practice. The river stone installation in He Pounamu Ko Āu is a nod to the beautiful, braided rivers found in Te Waipounamu. As you walk through the river stone installation in the gallery you become the pounamu that settles and travels through the space – you become a part of the artwork. Navigating my Māori identity has sometimes been a painful journey, but the more I learn about my whakapapa, my connection to whenua and tūpuna mātauranga, the more I am reminded of how beautiful it is to be Māori and how special we are as a people. The journey I have had with releasing He Pounamu Ko Āu to the world has reminded me of my soul’s purpose and reconnected me to my Ngāi Tahutanga.

 Congratulations on the 2023 Te Tumu Toi Arts Foundation Springboard award! What opportunities has this given you as an emerging artist?

 Thank you very much. Being part of the Arts Foundation whānau has given me many opportunities. Firstly, there is a monetary prize of $15,000 which went towards a new camera lens and brand-new Go-Pro, but it has also helped me work as a full-time artist and focus on developing future projects. As part of the award, I was able to choose a mentor for the year from among their amazing laureates. I chose the talented Louise Potiki Bryant, a Ngāi Tahu film artist and choreographer. It is very validating as a wahine Māori ringatoi to have an organisation of their calibre see me as an artist worthy of investing in. I have nothing but aroha for them all. It was always a goal showing He Pounamu Ko Āu in my hometown, but I had no idea how to make it happen. I pitched the idea to CoCA when they were looking at reopening and my kaupapa fit their new vision for the gallery. They were extremely supportive. With the media traction from winning Springboard, Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu was keen to jump on board and promote it to the iwi. My whānau and friends who live in Ōtautahi came and supported me. I felt like there was a real collective effort in support of the exhibition. The kaupapa isn’t just mine now. It’s a taonga tuku iho for everyone.      

 Your mother Dr Alvina Edwards wrote a beautiful essay for the exhibition notes. How has your mother supported you in your study and career? 

 My mother has been my rock throughout my life. She has been my biggest cheerleader and advocate through all the tough and triumphant times. Without her and my beautiful partner I wouldn’t be the woman I am today. They inspire me to be a better version of myself every day. Also, He Pounamu Ko Āu is an expansion of my mother’s PhD work. She created a unique conceptual framework using pounamu pūrākau to help Ngāi Tahu whānui understand ourselves better. Her work also unpacks the destructive traumas of what blood quantum has done to our people.

Mum reminds us:                                     

“Kitea ai te pounamu i ō tātau wai. He rokoā te wai, waihoki, he mea tuku iho; ahakoa te nui o te pō, o te ao rānei; he pounamu tou, ka tū tou te whakapapa. All pounamu is found in our waters. The waters are healing that transcends through the generations; it does not matter the percentage of dark nor light; it is still pounamu our whakapapa remains.”


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