Archives – Te Wāhi Pounamu, Areta Wilkinson and Mark Adams

Earlier this month, I was invited by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery to travel to Dunedin to talk about Archives – Te Wāhi Pounamu, Areta Wilkinson and Mark Adams currently on at the gallery.  A large exhibition, the show is made up of examples of Areta Wilkinson and Mark Adams individual practices’ across time. It features bodies of work gathered, as the title alludes, from their personal archives including a more recent strand of their practice, their collaborative work created using Museum collections from select South Island Museums and the Museum of Anthropology and Art in Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Both are established artists; Areta Wilkinson, a leading Māori jeweller, Mark Adams a leading New Zealand photographer.  They are also husband and wife. Archives – Te Wāhi Pounamu, Areta Wilkinson and Mark Adams is perhaps the first exhibition to bring such a large body of work from across their respective practices together. Focused on work related to Te Wāhi Pounamu, The Place of Greenstone, an old name for the South Island, and more particularly the Ōtākou takiwā or Otago region, Archives – Te Wāhi Pounamu, expresses the pairs deep bond with the South Island, their individual grounding to land and place.  They are connections they have both explored independently and individually within their art practice; Adams through his sublime images of South Island landscapes and Wilkinson in her jewellery which speaks of place through whakapapa, language in the form of pepeha (Maori proverbs) and anecdotally.

The exhibition, as I understand it and perhaps why I was invited to speak about it, developed out of Gallery Director Cam McCracken’s want to have a project that would coincide with the Ngāi Tahu Hui a Tau, now known as the Hui a Iwi.  Hui a Iwi is the big annual meeting that Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, the tribal entity holds. It is a gathering where Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, as the Iwi authority reports back to the people about their activities for the year and is a chance for Ngāi Tahu tribal members from all over the country to come together.  It is an important calendar event for Ngāi Tahu and is held every year in one of the takiwā (regions) of Te Wai Pounamu. This year it was Ōtepoti, Dunedin with the local Papatipu rūnaka, Te Rūnanga o Moeraki, Kāti Huirapa Rūnaka ki Puketeraki, and Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou hosts for Hui a Iwi.

Being Ngāi Tahu myself, from Ōtākou, with long involvement with the tribe through art and as an art curator who specialises in Modern and Contemporary Māori art, Cam asked for advice.  What could he do?  What might be a good show to have?  What would be a show that the gallery would have curated as an exhibition without the Hui a Iwi, but would also provide something for the tribe and highlight the galleries support and ongoing relationship with Ngāi Tahu?  Knowing the two artists work well and seeing the development of the collaborative aspect of their practice in recent years, I suggested a joint exhibition of the couples work would make a layered and rich project that would provide an opportunity for the gallery, the tribe and Wilkinson and Adams. My reasons for suggesting the pair included that independently they are both successful New Zealand artists with established reputations within the art mainstream.  That a major project of their combined work had never been curated and that their art explores history, particularly South Island and Ngāi Tahu histories.  I thought their work would not only make a good exhibition, it would also have resonance with art audiences and the tribe and importantly, would be able to be read by the tribe.

Ngāi Tahu and their advancing relationships with the tribe, I believe are important to both artists.   The whakapapa, history and culture of the South Island and their personal relationship with those anchoring notions are central conceptually to both of their art practices.  The landscapes of Te Wāhi Pounamu, physical and cultural, also perhaps operate as a muse to both and have throughout their respective careers.   A quote from the late Māori artist Manos Nathan describes what I think the pair attempt with their individual work.  Nathan said in an interview with me about his ceramics practice, ‘When you work with our people your art is with the people. When you take yourself away, it can become too esoteric, it doesn’t belong to them and they won’t relate to it. I was determined that the foundations were laid so that people could see linkages with tradition.  A show of the pairs art, I believed would express the depth of their committment to Te Wāhi Pounamu and would show tangible links to the cultures that have inhabited the South Island generationally.  It would also express their ongoing personal associations with the South Island.

Mark Adams was born and raised in Christchurch. He comes from an early settler family. One of his relations was Luke Adams who migrated to Christchurch from England with his family in 1873. A potter, Luke with his three eldest sons set up Luke Adams Pottery Limited, a ceramics manufacturing company in Christchurch.  The company operated until 1965 and is said to have been the longest-operating pottery company in New Zealand.  Mark has had long engagement with Ngāi Tahu. The creation of his seminal Land of Memories series in the late 1980s, some of which are included in Archives – Te Wāhi Pounamu, were supported and endorsed by the then tribal authority, The Ngai Tahu Trust Board.  Chairman of the Ngāi Tahu Trust Board Tipene O’Regan, in his foreword for The Land of Memories publication said, ‘Long association and trust meant ready approval and support from the tribe. The result is a textured blend of visual and written statements on a beloved land – richly scarred by memory ‘…The memories inhabit the restrained presence of Adams pictures…

He is one of only a few New Zealand artists, I think, who has really analysed his position as a member of the settler culture and contemplates in his work the settler cultures evolving relationship with the indigenous Māori culture of New Zealand. It is from this considered position that he makes his work. His Land of Memories series and his Cook Sites are a response to the landscape as much as they are works that reveal the layered histories of the sites he records.  They reveal the seemingly invisible, and bear witness to the landscape as it stands, but also to what existed previously, that still marks the whenua. His Land of Memories images record Ngāi Tahu wāhi tapu, sites of cultural significance to Ngāi Tahu.  His photographs distill the layered occupation of the sites and mine the cultural and industrial history of the locations.  He and Historian Harry Evison, who wrote the accompanying text that sit with images in the Land of Memories publication, were given access to the wāhi tapu and the associated stories by the various rūnaka and by Ngāi Tahu people.  Through that access, Adams provides images that chart a different and more profound reading of the landscapes of Te Wāhi Pounamu.  A quote from Adams about his Land of Memories series from the publication he and Harry Evison created says; ‘ Transactions of power in the history of nineteenth and twentieth century Polynesia pivot around the arrival of the colonising cultures from the Northern hemisphere. The photographs in this collection are about the continuing relationship these cultures have with the South Island of New Zealand and with the tribes who have lived here…  ‘My intention with this collection is subjective…

Mark Adams, Land of Memories - The Ngai Tahu Monument, 4 June 1988Mark Adams, Land of Memories – The Ngāi Tahu Monument, 4 June 1988 – O.004177

The late Harry Evison, who Ngāi Tahu claimed as our historian, like Adams also had a distinct relationship with the tribe and to our history post colonisation through his research and writing.  Evison was also a South Islander.  He was born in Beckenham in Christchurch in 1924.  He studied at Victoria University in Wellington and in 1952 completed a masters in history.  His masters thesis The Canterbury Māori and the Land Question.’ aimed, like his later research, to ‘restore the integrity of the Ngāi Tahu historical record’  as is quoted in the Ngāi Tahu Te Karaka magazine, 27 June 2014.  In the same article Evison said, ‘ It had always puzzled me that Ngāi Tahu were down and out… The orthodox idea was that Māori just couldn’t cope with civilisation, and that was based on the idea of a clash of cultures. ‘Supposedly when two cultures came in contact, the weaker would wither away. You don’t hear much about that now, but it was all the rage from the 1940s until the 1970s…

His masters thesis research made clear that Ngāi Tahu had been prosperous and developed trade with Europeans early and very successfully, it was the removal from land that changed everything.  ‘They coped very well until their land and other mahinga kai was taken away from them. When Ngāi Tahu were put off the land, things started to go wrong’.  Evison published other books that re-looked at the colonial history of the South Island including Te Wai Pounamu – The Greenstone Island in 1994, which he received an honourary doctorate for, The Ngāi Tahu Deeds: A window on New Zealand History in 2006, that looked at the 10 Ngāi Tahu deeds by which the Crown acquired land in Te Waipounamu from 1844 to 1864 and his final book published in 2010, New Zealand Racism in the Making: The Life & Times of Walter Mantell, that explored Walter Mantell’s disingenuous actions towards Ngāi Tahu.  Mantell was the Crown agent who from 1848 worked on securing land for the Crown. Because of his work, Evison was also employed by the tribe to contribute to Te Kereme, the Ngāi Tahu Waitangi Tribunal claim which was settled with the Crown in 1997.

The notions of trace, memory and history that Mark Adams works with and has for many years, are also strong themes in Areta Wilkinson’s work. Wilkinson is of Ngāi Tahu and Polish descent. She is Ngāi Tahu through her Mother and is connected to the Rapaki Papatipu rūnaka, Te Hapū o Ngāti Wheke and to Ōnuku Rūnanga, in Akaroa on Banks Peninsula. Wilkinson is a descendant of Teone Taare Tikao, a Ngāi Tahu Rangatira and leader, who in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand is said to have had ‘an encyclopaedic knowledge of Ngāi Tahu natural lore and history pertaining to the Canterbury area’.  In the Te Ara entry written by Ta Tipene O’Regan, Tikao is described as an ‘ influential figure…with a ‘lively intellect, wide knowledge, and willingness to fuse tradition with the modern world. ‘ Wilkinson’s maternal Grandmother Marewa McConnell, who her Ngāi Tahu whakapapa comes through, was associated with the Māori modernists, the Māori arts and crafts specialists employed by visionary art educationalist Gordon Tovey.  The Maori arts and crafts specialists included artists such as Ralph Hotere, Marilyn Webb, Muru Walters and others. McConnell was also related to Ngāi Tahu Tovey generation artist, Cath Brown.  So Wilkinson, like Adams has a background that has interesting intersection with aspects of New Zealand art history along with her strong Iwi affiliations to Ngāi Tahu.

Wilkinson was born and raised in the far North of the North Island, in Kaitaia, ‘about as far away from her Ngāi Tahu tribal area as one can get with without leaving the country’, Art Historian Dr Deidre Brown stated in her essay for the exhibition Wai – Recollected works, Areta Wilkinson, held at the Canterbury School of Fine Arts Gallery in 2000.   She ensured connection with her tūrangawaewae stayed strong through her relationship with her Grandmother, by being involved with her family Marae at Rapaki and Ōnuku and by actively developing her tribal links.  Her connections are also celebrated and expressed in much of her work with jewellery that carry names such as Te Wheke after her hapu at Rapaki and representative of the tāhuhu and heke, backbone/spine and ribs, of her meeting house there. Ōnuku, shown in the Christchurch Art Gallery, Te Puna o Waiwhetu opening exhibition – Te Puawai o Ngāi Tahu – used the form of the paua shell eyes on carved poupou in her Akaroa meeting house. Other works contain memories of the idea of ‘home’ and her Grandmother, such as her Turangawaewae brooches which feature string game configurations, male and female, that Marewa taught her. The silhouette forms of whanau and friends, that she displays some of her jewellery on, included in the final room of Archives – Te Wāhi Pounamu, also reference her Grandmother. The idea of the silhouette partly inspired by an image – a silhouette of her Grandmothers face – she has in her home.

Her Labels works in Archives – Te Wāhi Pounamu, speak about another aspect of her Ngāi Tahu identity, post colonisation; that of dislocation, acculturation and the difficulties of maintaining a Māori identity in a Western setting. They were works that also marked the beginning of her exploration and use of Museum collections. Wilkinson’s jewellery work is conceptual.  A hallmark of her practice is how she approaches ideas laterally.  Her Labels works are key example of that approach.  After looking at Museum-held taonga, rather than creating jewellery that drew on Māori forms such as tiki, she instead decided she would create the labels that were attached to the taonga; the system used to categorise, register and document the taonga.  A process that often re-contextualised the taonga, shifted them from taonga with connection to people, whakapapa, history and place and repositioned them as artefacts, a Western construct.  Taonga within that construct became artefacts; dislocated objects of buried purpose and lost meaning, often devoid of history apart from their Museum collection history.  I also like to think her Labels works were a response to the 1988 Bone Stone Shell exhibition which sought to find a New Zealand vernacular for jewellery.  I saw them as a critique of the work of two Senior New Zealand jewellers, who I also know Wilkinson has huge respect for, Alan Preston and Warwick Freeman.  Alan, I know she sees as a Kaumatua, a revered elder, in the jewellery fraternity she works within. However, her Labels works I think are a response to and critique of their particular practice in the 1980s.  A practice which referenced Māori and Pacific taonga, seen and studied in Auckland Museum, very directly.

The final works in Archives – Te Wāhi Pounamu that I am going to touch on are Wilkinson’s recent works which had their Wellington debut in the Kete exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts as part of the International Arts Festival in Wellington, February in 2014.   The works come out of Wilkinson’s recently completed doctoral research which investigated the idea of ‘jewellery as pepeha’. Pepeha are tribal sayings that give a view into the Māori world. Wilkinson not only used pepeha conceptually, relating the economy of words to the economy of form in jewellery, she also used pepeha as the titles of some of her work.  An example is He Kokomuka te rākau i tunua ai te pouakai. The Korimiko hebe is the wood that roasts the moa.  ‘Jewellery as pepeha’, explores jewellery as a cultural signifier and a cultural locator, reflective of the landscape, environmental context and culture the jewellery comes out of.  It also ruminates on the idea, if developed within a matauranga Māori framework, a Maori knowledge system, that Maori jewellery is a tied to whakapapa and identity.

Part of her doctoral research work led her to an investigation of those notions within South Island taonga. Wilkinson used Professor Hirini Moko Meads definition of taonga Māori.  Taonga reveal, Wilkinson said in her essay ‘Taonga are not Jewellery’ for the 2014 Wunderrūma exhibition catalogue, ‘tangible and intangible understandings’ and ‘link ancestors with descendants’. They are objects where ‘taha wariua resides within’, with their inherent mana and tapu increased by antiquity.  Meads definitions says ‘such heirlooms touch the lives of many people over many generations…’ and that it is the ‘accumulative korero and contact with people that are the transformative and essential elements of a taonga tuku iho’, a highly prize object that has been handed down from the ancestors.’   One element of her investigation manifest as a body of collaborative work she made with Mark Adams. The works are photograms and are included in the central gallery in Archives – Te Wāhi Pounamu. The photograms are esoteric images that record early Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe and Ngāi taonga.  There were waves of Māori settlement in the South Island, with Waitaha the first people of Te Wāhi Pounamu who come from an ancestor called Rākaihautu.  Rākaihautu has a famous pepeha well known within the tribe which was a prophecy about Te Wāhi Pounamu, its nature and the treasures that the environment held. The pepeha extends from an action where Rākaihautu made three pools. The three pools were described by Rākaihautu as; Te Puna Waimarie, Te Puna Hauaitu and Te Puna Karikari – The Pools of Frozen Water, The Pools of Bounty and The Pools Dug by the Hand of Man and expressed the abundance that existed in the South Island and available to Waitaha who were to settle there.

Ever aware of tikanga Māori, the pair ensured their imaging of taonga was appropriate and culturally sound. Wilkinson and Adams photograms are one off images that record the trace of a taonga, they record where the taonga has sat on the photographic paper and been exposed to light. Different from a photograph, photograms do not have negatives so they are not reproducible in the way photographs are, they are recordings of a one off a moment in time.  It is from the photograms that Wilkinson has been creating her recent jewellery work, rough cast silver pendants formed of the outline of matau and other Te Wāhi Pounamu taonga Māori.  With some she also experimented with processes such as burnishing using heat, methods her tupuna employed when working with pounamu.  But like her Labels works, in her new work she has not tried to replicate the original, she instead works with the shadow and trace of those early taonga, the imprints left on the light sensitive paper, which perhaps contain the spiritual residue, the taha wairua of the taonga, that Meads refers to.

Areta Wilkinson, Mau Kaki, 2013

Areta Wilkinson, Mau Kaki, 2013 – 2015-0008-3

A quote from Wilkinson, gained via an email conversation in 2014 about her new works says ‘…It is my journey as a jeweller/maker of personal adornment of Ngai Tahu/ Kati Mamoe/ Waitaha whakapapa, to go back to that early material and make connections and extend narratives.    … When I look into the void of the photogram, to me it is a wahi ngaro, a place that was out of sight now made visible. It is in this active negative space that I can visualise future new works whilst remembering the old, it is where I find a ‘blueprint’ for innovation and perpetuation of form…    I do not seek to replicate an existing image of the world but instead these Taonga alert me to a new way of seeing, from the world in which I stand…

Archives – Te Wāhi Pounamu at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery is well paced and well curated.  The artists determination including the work selection and how the exhibition is laid out and pieces displayed, is clearly visible. The exhibition shows the synergy, contrast and layers of connection between Mark Adams and Areta Wilkinson’s work and their bonds to the South Island through their different experiences, cultural positionings and perspectives. It also expresses a tangible link between the mediums of photography and jewellery.  The connection is not only made visible because of the gold or silver used in both practices (as trace elements in photography in gelatin gold or silver prints), the link is more fundamental.  It is related to the inherent nature of the two mediums which have relationship with the personal, and which offer a ‘view in’, or perhaps a deeper understanding of often closed and private worlds.

Mark Adams photographs can be seen in the current Nga Toi, Arts Te Papa exhibition New Zealand Photography collected, curated by Te Papa Curator of Photography, Athol McCredie.

Jewellery by Areta Wilkinson will be included in a new exhibition that has the working title of Connecting Histories being developed by Te Papa Curator of Decorative Art and Design Justine Olsen and due to open on 18 March 2016, in Gallery 6.

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