Show me your motion
Mark Amery surveys the strong spread of exhibitions by Maori women artists currently in Wellington.
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“Brown Girl in the Ring, tra la la la la,” freestyled Te Kahureremoa Taumata aka Ladyfruit, in a darkened, packed room at the Dowse Art Museum. “She looks like a sugar in a plum.” The sung words are warmly curled, opening out dually as statements and questions, asserting both vulnerability and strength.
Taumata was MCing a pretty special assembly of young Maori and Pacific Island female performance artists, Black Siva, presented by Kava Club, an energetic and smart collective of Wellington Maori and Pacific artists. Kava Club gather at least monthly in Wellington to host a Chop Suey Hui, providing a home and validation for a wide range of artists to present where they’re at. There is talanoa (conversation) and, of course chop suey.
Black Siva responded with words, dance and song to the strong work and example of artist Lonnie Hutchinson. Of Ngai Tahu and Samoan descent Hutchinson had just presented a talk at the opening of her touring survey exhibition at the Dowse, Black Bird. Moana Ete began the Black Siva set, weaving a spell through a layering with loops of handmade rhythm and vocals. Aside from the loop pedals, microphone, tapa cloth and lighting the whole gig, swathed in black, was notable for its focus on the potential of individual, voice and body.
The performances echoed beautifully the way Hutchinson’s cut out filigree work with folded black builder’s paper sets up an intricate shadow play that invites you as viewer to be a performer with the work. These works create space, make sharp openings with a multiplicity of frames. Intricate matrices of pattern hold many different cultural allusions, popular and traditional, but ultimately assert an independent space for the viewer to play within.
The builder’s paper pieces operate stridently in the white cube gallery in big black horizontal swathes and vertical falls, rich in flickering, shifting detail that hold Hutchinson’s own stories, but which allow you to bring your own stories to. You can trace Pacific female traditions like siapo or tapa and weaving, but there is a charged reach into the abstract to provide a space of empowerment between cultural traditions and expectations.
There’s an openness at Hutchinson’s work’s heart, but with a bite, always conscious of what ground it’s standing on. Her work is elegant but barbed. Pattern is sumptuous, but these are nets that might snare you. Hutchison’s large elegant steel sculptures based on women’s combs turn poetically in space, gripping their ground, challenging with their sharp teeth but welcoming us to revel in space and dance. Explicit cut outs of naked female forms meet flocks of birds, suggestive of violence but also the exercise of freedom. . Witty yet disturbing, erotic yet cruel, they are in this complex space in between. “Show me your motion, tra la la la la” echoes the chant of the song.
Just as this exhibition opens, a new permanent neon public work in Manukau, Auckland by Hutchinson has been lit up. It offers the words ‘I love you’, both in English and in Maori (‘Aroha atu Aroha mai’) spelt out in the colours of the rainbow up large on the exterior of a car park building. Who loves who is teasingly open in its embrace; it asserts the foundational public place of Maori, while calling for freedom.
As Dowse director Courtney Johnston noted last week, Black Bird is part of an impressive convergence of significant exhibitions by Ngai Tahu women artists in the capital right now.
The impressive first major survey of the work of Fiona Pardington opened at City Gallery at the weekend, A Beautiful Hesitation and while Pardington has accompanying dealer shows at Suite Gallery (and at Stark White in Auckland), Hutchinson is opening with new work at Bartley and Company.
Back at the Dowse Ngai Tahu artist Areta Wilkinson has pushed the representation of jewellery as taonga, in all sorts of adventurous ways with her installation Whakapaipai – Jewellery as Pepeha. How who we are - whakapapa, story and spirit - are carried through ornament. There are strong connections here with Lonnie Hutchinson’s interest in the power of line to both trace history and open out discussion. The concepts behind the installation are densely laid out in words, but the jewellery is strong in form and engaging in presentation and form.
Pepeha is the way you introduce yourself. You are welcomed into the exhibition space as marae atea, an open ground at the end of which silhouettes of people young and old, welcome you as a group. Each of these cut-outs are adorned with pendants around their necks. Wilkinson’s jewellery pieces, complete with toggles, are themselves silhouettes, flat outlines of taonga and shells made in precious metal, impressions or stamps of the representations of the past. These are terrific works, coming from Wilkinson’s research and knowledge of Ngai Tahu cultural values but speaking more universally of the thin disposability of modern material culture at the same time as they do how we can carry physically lightly our whakapapa and where we are from.
On the side walls are silver bromide photograms and cyanotype blueprints made with Mark Adams. The outlines on the photo-sensitive paper of Wilkinson’s ancestors’ taonga from South Island museum collections. These don’t carry the power of the jewellery, or for that matter Fiona Pardington’s photography of taonga in museums (among the stand out works in the City Gallery survey) but neatly extend the show’s concept. You can also listen to oral history interviews, locating the work to sites, with CDs imprinted with images of the landscape displayed alongside broaches inspired by the stories. The object becomes a touchstone towards listening and understanding.
It’s not just Ngai Tahu women exhibiting in Wellington presently. Shona Rapira Davies and Emily Karaka currently have a focus exhibition at Te Papa, and Rapira Davies recently showed bold new work at Bowen Galleries, where she has worked in both portraiture and gold leaf for the first time, valuing her tamariki and mokopuna. Bowen Galleries has long supported with exhibition and representation a number of strong Maori women artists from the Wellington region.
In her new exhibition Hariata Ropata Tangahoe’s dream-like figurative paintings are wispy and feathery in their folksy painterliness, full of gentleness, love and wide-eyed wonderment, but also imbued with the shadow of death. Glittering gemlike, their richly patterned backgrounds can be like bodies, a wriggling microbiological fabric, strongly connecting to the life of water. In one a skeleton may be seen. The work suggests prophecies. White heron and swan regularly appear. In ‘Cygnets’ an elegant female figure tends a garden of bushes surreally formed by the necks and heads of cygnets (suggestive of koru), the ground itself a dappled blue body of water with swans.