He Manawa Whenua: He Puna Wai



In an era of global warming, intensified farming and concerns about pollution, the relationship between humanity and water has become—on local, national and global levels—one of the confronting issues. Water is at the heart not only of physical life on the planet but also the spiritual, cultural and imaginative lives we all lead. Through Aotearoa New Zealand’s history since Cook, the notion of the ‘functional landscape’ has been prioritised—married, as it often is, to a boom and bust mentality. Spanning numerous media—sound and video projection, painting, drawing, photography and sculpture—the exhibition ‘Water\Way’ seeks to redress this imbalance, highlighting water as a ‘source’ as well as a ‘natural resource’.

During a week spent following the waterways of the central South Island in March 2017, the artists involved in the project listened to the rivers, as they did to the people who lived and worked beside them. Passing the flooded valley which is now Lake Benmore, Ngāi Tahu sculptor Ross Hemera—who served as the group’s kaumatua and guide—spoke of the Māori cave art which had been submerged after the implementation of the Waitaki Hydro Scheme. Prior to the raising of the water level, he had spent many childhood hours copying those drawings while his father fished in the adjacent Ahuriri river.

In Hue Wai (2019)—which translates as ‘gourd’ or ‘water container’—Hemera revisits the stylised bird and ancestral symbols of the caves, linking their ancient narrative with the present and future—which he presents in the form of five lengths of plastic piping, arrayed on the floor like the fingers of one hand. These pipes embody the major waterways of the Ngāi Tahu rohe: Waimakariri, Rakaia, Rangitata, Waitaki, and the Mata-au (Clutha); the attached anchor stones highlight the connection of these rivers to the South Alps. A cornerstone of the exhibition, Hue Wai gestures to the distant past while, at the same time, asking where the peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand are headed.

Hemera told us that, in ancient times, if someone was going out on important tribal business, they would paint their face and body accordingly. Such markings were not only a statement of identity, they were a ‘protection’. In ‘Water\Way’, the featured artists have, instead of painting directly on their bodies, rendered their statements of identification and protection onto canvas, paper, aluminium and other surfaces. The works collectively suggest that, by looking imaginatively, intuitively and responsibly at the world around us, we safeguard and enrich both our environment and ourselves.

Curated for Aratoi by Bruce Foster and Gregory O’Brien, this exhibition is a continuation of Ashburton Art Gallery’s ‘Water Project’, initiated by gallery director Shirin Khosraviani.

Aratoi: Wairarapa Museum of Art and History