Ki Mua, Ki Muri: 25 years of Toioho ki Āpiti edited by Cassandra Barnett and Kura Te Waru-Rewiri (Massey University Press, 2023), 344pp, $70; Artists in Antarctica edited by Patrick Shepherd (Massey University Press, 2023), 240pp, $80
We carry the genes and culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves and how we make sense of our time and place. Two new illustrated books from Massey University Press consider ancestral mythologies of time and place, one in the form of the Māori Imaginary and the other in the form of the Antarctic Imaginary. Of course both of these cultural formations are also lived realities, but these books show how artists respond to them as aesthetic concepts.
In Ki Mua, Ki Muri: 25 years of Toioho ki Āpiti, twenty-one contributors present a variety of essays, conversations, interviews and artworks around the topic of what is contemporary Māori art, who might make it, and how it might be taught as a tertiary level academic subject in Aotearoa New Zealand. This is a big and complex subject, and this book, ably edited and collated by Cassandra Barnett and Kura Te Waru-Rewiri, focuses on the story of one Māori art school, Toiohi ki Āpiti, which was set up within the School of Māori Studies Te Pūtahi ā Toi at Massey University in Palmerston North in 1996 as the first indigenous four-year fine arts degree programme of its kind in the world.
Ki mua, ki muri literally means moving forward while looking back; the use of this phrase in the book’s title is intended to emphasise the progressive philosophy of Toiohi ki Āpiti: the way it has remained connected to tradition while also being innovative. The name of the art school translates as ‘the awakening of visual art at Āpiti’, the gorge of the Manawatū river. Māori art historian Ngāhuia Te Awekōtuku and Māori art contemporary art curator Nigel Borell—a graduate of the school—both provide introductory essays to set out the historical context.
The revival of a revitalised indigenous Māori culture began in the 1970s and developed momentum with the first gathering of Māori artists and writers on Tukāku Marae at Te Kaha in 1973, which Ngāhuia Te Awekōtuku attended. The Māori parliamentarian Sir Apirana Ngata had established a state-funded school of Māori arts and crafts, which opened in Rotorua in 1927 to teach traditional tohunga whakairo; while after World War II there was the Gordon Tovey generation of young Māori artists trained as art teachers, such as Ralph Hotere, Marilynn Webb and Kāterina Mataira. They were the Māori Modernists, fluent in the language of European abstract art, to which they added a subtle indigenous perspective. But there remained a disconnection between customary Māori art as practised on the marae for the Māori community and what were seen as elitist Pākehā-influenced aesthetic values for a middle-class art market.
By the 1980s Māori art courses were being taught at Elam and Ilam within the university system, but they were tokenistic gestures, while Māori art training at the various polytechnics was practical and craft-oriented in an unchallenging way. Nigel Borell takes up the story: ‘Much of the art discourse throughout the 1990s was preoccupied by the debate around what is Māori art and who is a Māori artist. It was at times a polarising debate that often leaned on dated discussions about authenticity and radical essentialism.’ In the mid-1990s, as part of this ferment, Mason Durie, then head of Māori Studies at Massey, invited artist and educator Robert Jahnke to found and develop the curriculum for Toiohi ki Āpiti (or TOKA) and also to recruit staff. Jahnke sought out artists such as Kura Te Waru Rewiri, then teaching at Elam, Shane Cotton, then teaching at a high school in Christchurch, and Huhana Smith, who had recently returned from Australia as a fine arts graduate. It was a time, in the wake of the 1990 Sesquicentennial celebrations and government privatisation schemes, when various Crown agencies were corporatising notions of national identity. In 1994, Toi Aotearoa Creative New Zealand and a separate entity to promote Māori art, Te Waka Toi, were set up.
Meanwhile, a new generation of Māori theorists had emerged and were beginning to develop ‘decolonising methodologies’ based on kaupapa Māori. These included Leonie Pihama, Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Rangi Panoho. Jahnke recalls that Panoho’s well-known essay on the appropriation of cultural motifs by Pākehā artists (such as Dick Frizzell’s ‘Goofy Tiki’ series and Gordon Walters’ use of the koru), which was published in a catalogue for a major exhibition of New Zealand art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, caused heated debates: ‘It was interesting to hear the response to Rangi’s article, particularly from Māori artists like John Ford, Para Matchitt and others who did not have a problem with Gordon Walters’ borrowing of the koru form.’
Shane Cotton points out that when he taught at TOKA between 1994 and 2003, he sought to encourage students into: ‘an understanding of how an image passes through different cultures and how a culture digests, consumes and re-presents that image—all while negotiating complex questions of authenticity.’ What emerges in the course of this book is that not everyone agrees precisely on what Māori art is or should be, and in this way, the book becomes something of a debating chamber as different viewpoints are presented. Borell describes the number of students attending the school as ‘modest … with no more than 10 students entering per year and a maximum of 40 students across the four years of the degree’. This tends to mean students get to know one another and their teachers well, a process reinforced by the annual marae visit and live-in at the beginning of each academic year. These visits, or wānanga, to tribal houses are in order to grasp and understand the Māori visual language associated with wharenui, which differs from iwi to iwi. Jahnke states, too, that early on ‘we had a very strong kapa haka component … that ensured exhibition openings were underwritten by a cultural formality and respect for tradition in terms of the way we as Māori engage with exhibition spaces.’
There are also what Hunana Smith terms the four ‘Mana thematics’ to provide structural guidelines: Mana Whakapapa (or inheritance rights); Mana Tiriti (Treaty rights); Mana Whenua (land rights); Mana Tangata (people rights). While the majority of students and graduates have Māori ancestry, some do not: Pasifika and Pākehā students have also attended, and indigenous artists from other countries have enrolled on the master’s programme. The main requirement is the skill set to achieve a university degree in the production of contemporary art based on Māori kaupapa or protocols. Jahnke remarks he challenges his students to think of what they are making as ‘a product’ in an era of art market globalisation, with its valorisation of indigenous knowledge and the increasing acknowledgment of the rights of First Nation peoples.
Another Māori educator, architectural designer Jacob Scott, who taught at the school in 2001 and 2002, observes: ‘The one thing that really stood out for me was how much Toioho focused on the white cube gallery space. That was a different space from the craft space … Toioho was a stand-out programme (from other Māori art schools).’ Artist, graduate and former lecturer at TOKA, Ngataiharuru Taepa enlarges on this point: ‘Within the Māori world I remember kōrero about Toioho as being different, being weird, not grounded in the continuity of (customary) Māori art practice … The mainstream art world could see that the work that Toioho was producing was different and it fitted into their art priorities of innovation and originality … It took a lot longer for our own people to accept what we did as beneficial.’
Multimedia video and installation artist Rachael Rakena, who taught at TOKO from 2004 to 2017, tells us: ‘In my own academic training at the Dunedin School of Art I had studied on a programme where you learned the materials and processes and played with them … Toioho was the other way around: you were in an open space and you considered a concept or issue, then thought about what materials or processes you might bring to address it.’
Sculptor and installation artist Israel Tangaroa Birch, who graduated from TOKA and then taught there from 2005 to 2020, states: ‘My people would look at my art and say, Oh, that’s different-looking Māori art, so I felt kind of different. Toioho to me is a conceptual Māori art school. It’s kaupapa-driven and therefore it fits with my different style of work.’ Sculptural installation artist Brett Graham, who taught at TOKA in 2005, cautions: ‘There’s a notion that as Māori we can’t be critical. But if you attended the Arts and Craft School in Rotorua and you carved something incorrectly, Hōne Taiapa was known to put his chisel right through it.’ He also asserts: ‘Whenever art becomes prescriptive, it’s a kind of orthodoxy. Artists hate rules. When something becomes prescriptive artists like to rebel against it … the new-generation fundamentalism is a little dangerous. It can limit your openness to new ideas. If we were confident about ourselves we would embrace everything. We’d be able to absorb anything into our indigenous world view.’
Painter Rongomaiaia Te Whaiti, a graduate of TOKA who taught painting there in 2018 and 2019 says: ‘When I went on staff at Toioho it was challenging because I was faced with students who wanted kōwhaiwhai and I could not give it to them, so I didn’t. Instead, I taught portraiture … There’s the potential to incorporate games, taonga pūoro (musical sounds) … or even things like maramataka (the Māori lunar calendar) and environmentalism.’
And in Nigel Borell’s words: ‘You don’t need to do kōwhaiwhai to say something pertinent to te ao Māori.’
Sir Edmund Hillary’s bright red Massey Ferguson tractor, still on display at the Canterbury Museum in Ōtautahi Christchurch, became, in January 1958, the first mechanical vehicle to reach the South Pole. Hillary himself was the first person to do so since Robert Falcon Scott in January 1912, much to the chagrin of the British, who had asked Hillary just to bring in supplies before a British expedition group made the final dash. This is just one of the entertaining anecdotes in Patrick Shepherd’s informative introduction to Artists in Antarctica, a compendious volume that profiles 37 New Zealand artists—composers, writers, poets, sculptors, photographers, a fashion designer, a jeweller, and more—who have visited the fabled Great Southern Land in pursuit of artistic inspiration. The year 2023 marks 65 years since the first New Zealand artist (painter Peter McIntyre) worked in Antarctica and 25 years since the Artists in Antarctica programme began—although, in practice, it only ran between 1998 and 2007. It was, however, replaced by a number of other programmes, some run by other agencies, such as the Department of Conservation and the Antarctic Heritage Trust.
New Zealanders, as the actions of Hillary attest, feel they have a special relationship with Antarctica, and indeed, most of the expeditions from the heroic age of exploration involved travelling from New Zealand ports. Today, Ōtautahi Christchurch is an official Antarctic gateway city: the journey takes five-and-a-half hours by air, though sometimes the plane is forced to turn back by weather conditions. Antarctica, once known as Terra Australis Incognita—indistinct, remote, mysterious—continues to haunt the popular imagination as a fantastic and sublime realm. Shepherd, a music composer, writer and academic who lives in Christchurch and travelled to Antarctica in 2004 and over the 2011/2012 season, suggests that those who have been to Antarctica are thereafter possessed by it. In his classic book on Antarctic exploration, The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote: ‘everyone who has been through such an extraordinary experience has much to say, and ought to say it’.
Artists in Antarctica is made up of edited conversations, or else written commentaries by the artistic visitors, along with examples of works created as a result of their visits—most of which were for short periods of around 10 or 14 days. Photographer Laurence Aberhart, in his account, describes carrying an 8 x 10-inch view camera of the same type used by the early Antarctic photographers Frank Hurley and Herbert Ponting and, impatient to make the most of his limited time, wandering off against instructions and narrowly avoiding falling down a crevasse: ‘Luckily, I had my tripod, which stopped me, but my leg went right into it. I learned my lesson not to do that again!’
Inspired by the symbolism of Homelight lamp oil boxes left behind in huts by the Scott expedition, ceramic artist Raewyn Atkinson made bodies of work ‘to express the unearthly beauty’ using porcelain clay, with its ‘whiteness and translucency expressing the fragile nature of the Antarctic environment … I wanted to show Antarctica not as a pristine empty landscape but as a continent full of history, as a stage for heroic exploration, political designs, exploitable resources, and as a tourist destination.’
Painter Dick Frizzell says it was obvious the original explorer huts were not in their original condition: ‘they’ve had to restore them, chip the ice out, put everything back, take it out, put it back. Someone’s very artfully put a tin here and a candlestick there and a sock at the end of the bed.’
Poets Chris Orsman and Bill Manhire, who, with artist Nigel Brown, were the three inaugural ‘artists to Antarctica’ in January 1998, responded to the ‘Homelight’ motif with poems and artworks. Orsman designed and printed a poetry chapbook entitled Homelight. The cover was a linocut made by Nigel Brown with a dessert spoon, and the resulting production was one of the few literary publications entirely written and produced in Antarctica. Orsman comments: ‘It has been 25 years since I headed south. What remains is an abiding sense of having been to a true desert, where most of the ordinary things of life were stripped away and you were face to face with a nature so much stronger and vaster than oneself.’
Choreographer Corey Baker, who went as part of the Community Engagement Programme during the 2017/2018 season, made a short film performed by Madeleine Graham of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, who was with him. They had to create the film on the spot, and in it, Graham cavorts and leaps and turns, loose-limbed, while clad in many layers of clothing.
Composer Chris Cree Brown made sound recordings, which became the basis for later compositions. The recordings were divided into four groups: environmental sounds (ice cracking, breaking, rumbling, and the noise of the wind); the sounds of wildlife (penguins, skuas, the vocalisations of seals); sounds of human activity (panting, boots squeaking on snow, radio communications); and the sound of silence to emphasise how few sounds there were in the vast space.
In her recollections of her two weeks on the Ice, poet Bernadette Hall writes: ‘Antarctica remains a potent force in my imagination. That first moment when the doors of the Hercules open and the phosphorescent blaze of white light blinds you. The shock, the fear, the excitement.’ Novelist Lloyd Jones tells of the ‘unforgettable moments’, including: ‘peering up through a glass ceiling at a deep blue sky at 3 a.m. The enduring odour of Scott’s ponies. The ooze of seal fat in Scott’s first hut on an unseasonally warm day.’
Photographer Anne Noble has been to Antarctica three times and comments: ‘To get to Antarctica takes a lot of thought and effort … You don’t get inspired by a brief encounter with the ice and then make art. That’s got nothing to do with art—that’s tourism. Art serves best as a mode of critical enquiry, as important as science in our understanding of Antarctica and our relationship to it.’
Painter Graham Sydney states: ‘I’d read all the stories since I was a schoolboy, I knew all about the explorers. They were as real to me as neighbours. … As a kid I watched growling Globemasters, tiny specks in the sky above my Dunedin neighbourhood, flying south to the Ice.’ When he finally got there in 2003, he says: ‘I felt as if I was on another planet’. Because it was too cold to paint, he spent time taking photographs. He ends by saying: ‘approaching Christchurch on the return flight home I was shocked by the richness of colours and textures of normal life.’
Painter Peter James Smith confirms Lloyd Jones’s impressions: ‘At Scott’s Discovery Hutt there is so much particulate matter hanging in the air from rotting carcases that you can barely breathe.’ For sculptor Joe Sheehan, taking wood carving chisels to Antarctica ‘didn’t work out … It didn’t feel right. Any wood there is taken there, it’s not of the place.’ He ended up making one large work in the shape of party-balloon lettering out of white marble, ‘which is associated with power and wealth but can also evoke a memorial stone or funereal material … The first thing we were greeted with when we came into Scott Base was the noticeboard with bulletins of accidents and deaths. Danger is ever-present and you have to be very careful.’
Video artist Ronnie van Hout felt ‘kind of alien’. For him, the place conjured up Hollywood science-fiction movies: ‘Antarctica is a frontier where you can imagine a lot of scenarios that could only take place in an environment where human beings don’t belong.’ Fashion designer Fieke Neuman, by contrast, felt the place less dystopian than utopian. She had ‘a very specific plan’ to make ‘six wearable outfits’ based on verifiable scientific research undertaken by marine biologists, together with her own research in understanding the holistic nature of the environment, its interconnectedness. She ended up creating ‘metaphorical clothing’ symbolising place.
Patrick Shepherd’s expansive introduction in this impressive volume includes an account of Brett Graham’s abstract sculpture ‘Erratic’ (2023) on the bank of the Ōtakaro Avon River. Carved out of Norwegian granite, it is a tribute to the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who was the first explorer to reach the South Pole in December 1911. One reason he succeeded and returned to tell the tale was his expedition’s survivalist use of Inuit indigenous knowledge and adaption skills.
DAVID EGGLETON is a writer and reviewer based in Ōtepoti Dunedin.