Exhibition: Kuia+ Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History, Masterton, 24 March to 6 May 2018
Book: Kuia – A Collection of Portraits from the Wairarapa, Soft cover, 126 pages, RRP $49.
Reviewed by Madeleine Slavick
Kuia+ is at once small and large.
The portraits of the elders are A4-size. Humble, familiar, intimate.
Together, the 60 photographs in the exhibition and book represent humanity, community, history.
All the portraits were taken in the women’s homes, with available light and against a black backdrop. One Kuia sang throughout the shoot. One never stopped laughing. One prepared by having her hair done, her nails painted, and choosing a beautiful dress. One has cerebral palsy. One has had a double mastectomy. At least one uses a walker or cane for mobility. Several plan to use the portrait at their funeral.
I have seen the exhibition several times, walking along the Windows Gallery of Aratoi Museum in the morning, afternoon, evening. I have looked into each woman’s eyes and read each story in the accompanying book. I have dipped my hand into the blue ceramic bowl of water upon leaving the area where fifteen portraits of Kuia who have passed are grouped together, in a kind of shrine, and each time, my soul shifts, as it does with good poetry.
“I’m fully self-taught,” says photographer Kiri Riwai-Couch of Ngāti Hine and Ngāti Pukenga. She says that when she started out in photography over a decade ago, she had all of her camera settings on automatic. After trial and error and courses at UCOL and Te Ore Ore Marae in Masterton, she developed her technique. In 2013, Riwai-Couch set up a business offering affordable portraits, often by Koha. In 2014, she had her first solo show. Kuia+ is her largest exhibition to date.
Riwai-Couch came to the Wairarapa forty-odd years ago and has felt welcomed. “The place has given me so much, and Kuia+ is my way of giving back… Each Kuia has inspired me in her own way. I know them all personally and affectionately. They are my Nannies.”
Originally from across Wairarapa, Aotearoa, Samoa, Rarotonga, and England, the Kuia have worked as mother, grandmother, great grandmother, archdeacon, librarian, seamstress, roustabout, nurse, cook, netballer, teacher, principal… with their iwi, church, healthcare and childcare centre, and the movement to speak te reo Māori… and three have been awarded the Queen’s Service Medal.
To whom do their portraits belong? I remember learning about the Māori concept of ownership and possession, and the two categories of nouns. Things that no one has control over, or possession of, include water, medicine, thoughts, feelings, clothing, land, organisations, one’s body, one’s companions, and one’s superiors – these are all understood as inherited. It is possible to control or possess food, drink, property that can be transported (but not clothing), animals (but not the horse), family, wife, children, grandchildren, and relationships – these are seen as being created through one’s own efforts.
Perhaps portraiture of elders falls between the categories. Riwai-Couch has gifted each Kuia a framed portrait, and after the Kuia+ exhibition closes, on May 6, Aratoi Museum will be gifted the entire set for its collections.
Madeleine Slavick has several books of photography, poetry and non-fiction, and has had solo exhibitions at Aratoi, Victoria University, and at Wallace Arts Centre. She is also Communications Manager at Aratoi.