Much as I’m opposed to over-utilised, populist aphorisms there’s one that’s particularly pertinent to our previous posting on advocacy and activism. It’s ‘walking the talk’ and the piece by Jermaine Reihana is an example of this as he describes Depot Artspace exhibition Te Kuia Moko, prints of the lost paintings by Harry Sangl. Rather than continuously engage in a fruitless search for the works, Depot with the invaluable assistance of Soar Print produced prints of the originals in honour of painter Harry Sangl’s 97th birthday.
A nation can be rich in every material sense, but, if it fails to provide for and nurture creative expression, it is impoverished in immeasurable ways. Our arts, our culture and our heritage define and strengthen us as a country, as communities and as individuals. This sector expresses our unique national identity. Our government has a vision of a vibrant arts, cultural and creative sector which all New Zealanders can enjoy. Helen Clark, 2005
BACKGROUND: A NATIONAL IDENTITY
This paper poses many necessary questions which are the foundation for a robust strategy whereby the arts and culture are able to infuse our nation and national identity. They relate to the perceived gaps in understanding about what it is to be a creative country.
Exploring Aotearoa New Zealand’s diverse, prolific and rich spectrum of arts and culture is in many ways pioneering, as the territory is largely uncharted over time, space and diversity of disciplines. Our writers, visual artists, craftspeople and those populating the evolving creative landscape are vast in number and along with experience and perspective are able to more overtly and meaningfully enrich Aotearoa, and to provide greater/more multidimensional national definition.
In many ways it is also an archaeological endeavour, because we appear to have a diminishing kete of knowledge about our arts and culture heritage. In 22 years since the Depot Artspace’ inception we have noted anecdotally across all participating schools (*) tertiary institutions (**) ArtsLab/PACE creatives (***) creatives across all disciplines who have independently exhibited here (****), a surprising and disappointing lack of knowledge about the arts and culture and identities who have populated this landscape. It’s as if we have adopted the developer’s mantle; compromising the earth, its landmarks, gradations, its character and identity for primarily fiscal considerations.
Our sporting life has so far largely dominated the public arena and subsequently infiltrated the perception of who we are as New Zealanders, but the significance of the arts to our society has not permeated as deeply or as far. Sport especially references our perception of ourselves and our appreciation of and involvement in NZ society.
While arts and culture are evident in our cultural institutions, public events and activities, these are neither omnipresent nor imbued in our national psyche as part of our identity or in our passions, as sport has been. When the All Blacks, Team NZ, the Black Caps (to a lesser extent the Silver Ferns, but that’s another important issue to be addressed at another time), even NZ-bred horses, compete, they are ‘our’ teams, and if they win, we win; ‘we’ won the rugby, or the Melbourne Cup. There are visceral judgements around this attitude or engagement.
People might like having art around, and enjoy events and exhibitions, even recognise the cultural significance of the arts and contribution to Aotearoa but generally they can’t understand how it is intrinsic in the national identity, rather than merely peripheral to it, and subsequently the need for investing resources in support and development of the arts to any great extent. There is no national identity that references the arts and culture in the way of sport, or even farming, both of which have a significant presence in the world.
We should take a leaf out of te Ao Maori ethos in which the transmission of heritage through ancestry is unequivocal in its influence on the present. Tupuna are acknowledged as the source of celebration and inspiration for evolving forms and materials so an evolving heritage continues to reference and represent its ancestry.
Our heritage is fused to the contemporary from which it takes its meaning.
(1) WGHS; TGS; Kristin; AGS;
HARRY SANGL AND TE KUIA MOKO: HONOURING A DREAM
Haromi Rutene Karaitiana with Harry Sangl
As part of its 2019 programme Depot Artspace is honoured to host Te Kuia Moko, an exhibition featuring thirty four prints from the original paintings by artist Harry Sangl of kuia who bear traditional moko kauae.
Depot Artspace has a strong grassroots kaupapa that means we both initiate and facilitate events and exhibitions which are meaningful to the community they are a part of.
So, when we heard the story of these kuia whose portraits Harry painted in the early 1970s, and the mystery of their disappearance we met with Harry and his daughter Michaela to discuss the possibility of showing the prints of the original works. From the time Harry painted te kuia moko it was his intention to honour their history and culture and to share their lives with the Aotearoa NZ public. He described his work as “a once in a lifetime opportunity to capture those beautiful faces on canvas and so to preserve them for future generations to admire.” RNZ, Radio One, 1993
Kuia had an important leadership role and were the matriarchal figures of the whānau. They would make decisions concerning the whānau land, the control and use of whānau property, the nurturing and education of children, and were the spokespeople for the whānau in tribal councils. The significant role they played within and for Māori society was evident in the issue of land loss when thousands of Māori and supporters from all over the country, led by Dame Whina Cooper marched on Parliament in October 1975.
Most of the kuia Harry painted were of Tuhoe descent and all sat for him over a period of 4 or 5 years. This body of work highlights the relational aspect of Harry’s approach; with an open mind and open heart he developed a close bond with each kuia, many of whom were in their eighties upwards and some centenarians.
Taurima Terewaamu and Harry at their second sitting
There’s a lot to be said about the wairua or spirit of this connection and how it has been documented alongside some of the most comprehensive research into the traditional practice of Tā moko covered in the publication by Harry Sangl called ‘The Blue Privilege Te Kuia Moko.’ Although these kuia have since passed on Harry and his whanau continue to visit their kāinga and reminisce in the memory of these Kuia with their uri or descendants who remain there today. As Depot Artspace’ Māori Liaison I have been pulled toward the wairua and kaupapa that speak to our community to be better informed about the rich history of our collective identity as people of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Ngahikatea Whiriana with her daughter and Harry
In the absence of the original portraits, the prints allow us to honour Harry Sangl’s dream and for the first time bring these remarkable kuia together in the true spirit of aroha.
Jermaine was interviewed by Justine Murray from RNZ. This interview includes a conversation with some of the whanau of one of the featured kuia (Rangi Ruri) and an additional interview with Harry Sangl himself. Everyone in the piece speaks with purpose, emotion and flows with Wairua. Please click through and listen: