Ngahuia Harrison - reviewed
Ngā Paepae Tapu and other works (as part of The earth looks upon us / Ko Papatūānuku te matua o te tangata, curated by Christina Barton)
Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, Wellington
7 July – 23 September 2018
Reviewed by Matariki Williams for PhotoForum, September 2018
When I walked into the darkened Kirk Gallery, I was surprised to find tears in my eyes. It was an immediate, and visceral, reaction. A simple effect, dimming the room’s lights to enable Ngahuia Harrison’s (Ngātiwai, Ngāpuhi ) lightbox photographs to shine as beacons. In particular a kuia, Aunty Reo (2018), was positioned in the sightline of the doorway to beckon me in. Her image was there, enveloped in the room alongside landscapes of the rohe, and opposite another kuia, Aunty Mihi (2018).
Together, these two wāhine encapsulate the title of the artist’s most recent series, Ngā Paepae Tapu. Paepae, the noun given to the bench from which kaikōrero speak during occasions like pōwhiri, is not the noun used for this bench where Ngahuia is from. Instead the use of the word speaks to other meanings, referencing instead the role of wāhine welcoming people through karanga.
One of five wāhine Māori artists who are exhibiting at the Adam Art Gallery as part of The earth looks upon us / Ko Papatūānuku te matua o te tangata, I was looking forward to seeing Ngahuia’s work in particular. I first came across Harrison at the Indigenous Photographic Histories symposium in 2015 where she presented a paper on behalf of Natalie Robertson (Ngāti Porou, Clann Dhònnchaidh), before speaking on her own work. I saw within her photos a filmic quality, the work shared that day evoking the wondrous nature of Māori children that has been replicated in New Zealand film for decades, imagery which reminds me of a favourite childhood movie, Barry Barclay’s (Ngāti Apa) Ngāti.
I can’t recall if it was shown at that symposium, but the campaign image for Ko Papatūānuku te matua o te tangata, Said, with salt in her eye (2012) is a favourite. Again, it is the innocence and wonder of this work that is so captivating; located within a forest landscape, a young girl’s face is cast skyward and viewers are drawn to ponder what it is she is seeing, what it is she is thinking. Though I am drawn to what this image evokes, I too, am torn. My attribution of a cinematic understanding to the image of a young Māori girl, the layered interpretation of hope and departure that I impose on her, makes me contemplate whether this should be a burden for her to bear?
This work is not in the darkened room that provoked my initial reaction. It is around a corner, on a balcony overlooking Ana Iti’s (Te Rarawa) Only fools are lonely (2018), and looking toward Nova Paul’s (Te Uriroroi/Te Parawhau, Ngā Puhi) This Is Not Dying (2010). It is as if she is searching for the source of the Ngāpuhi anthem Ngā Puāwai ō Ngāpuhi that echoes through the gallery to her.
In the Kirk Gallery, I was lucky to have the room to myself for most of my time there. It was just the works and I, and our joint silence. It was a silence that was only there in my presence for silence is not what the works induce to me. When I see her Aunty Reo and Aunty Mihi, I immediately think of my Nannies and the time I’ve spent at tables with them, drinking tea, eating rewena with butter and jam; stories falling from their mouths like crumbs for me to pick up.
And so it is elsewhere in the room with the works from the Seeds & Shore series, the extreme close-up of kōwhai seeds reminding me of a recent work, Rawhaki/Massed, heaped up (2018), by Elliot Collins (Ngāti Pākehā) that consisted solely of a pile of kōwhai seeds and the invitation to take a seed home in soil. The mātauranga that comes to us from our kaumatua, from our whenua, are the kākano, the potential from which trees grow.
When I see Ngahuia’s aunties, I think of sitting at my Nan’s feet, massaging her legs as she tells me stories from her youth. The relationships captured in Ngahuia’s photos are recognisable, but personal: these are not my Nannies but they make me yearn for home. These are also not the photos of my Nannies, who I live so far away from, who grow older in every Facebook profile update. The quality and scale of Ngahuia’s representations, reiterate just how inefficient low res, online images are in contrast with being with your whānau . Her works are a call home, no matter where your home is.
In her 2017 TEDx Talk, Harrison talked about the capacity of images and words, asserting that both have the ability to carry with them our histories and relationships. This is evident in the venerable space of the Kirk Gallery, the images lit in a manner reminiscent of the reverential way that taonga tūturu are often displayed. And yet these taonga are contemporary, they are accessible to all who have relationships to the whenua, to the kuia in their whānau. They are the sepia scenes of our whānau photos, they are our people alive again.
Matariki Williams (Tūhoe, Ngāti Hauiti, Taranaki, Ngāti Whakaue) is a Curator Mātauranga Māori at Te Papa. She is also the Editor - Kaupapa Māori at the Pantograph Punch, has guest edited at Radio New Zealand's The Wireless, and from 2015-7, with Nina Finigan, ran the website Tusk – Emergent Culture, a platform for emergent cultural practitioners to write about the GLAM sector in their own voice. She is a Kāhui Kaitiaki representative on the Museums Aotearoa Board, and Kaihautū Māori on the board of the National Digital Forum. Most importantly, she is mum to Whaitiri and Te Ahuru.