Exhibition review | Ngahuia Harrison
Curator Matariki Williams reviews Ngahuia Harrison’s recent light-box works, which formed part of The Earth Looks Upon Us / Ko Papatu¯a¯ nuku te Matua o te Tangata exhibition
When I walked into the darkened Kirk Gallery, I was surprised to find tears in my eyes. It was an immediate, and visceral, reaction. A simple effect: dimming the room’s lights to enable Ngahuia Harrison’s (Ngatiwai, ¯ Ngapuhi) ¯ light-box photographs to shine as beacons. In particular, a kuia, Aunty Reo (2018), was positioned in the sight line of the doorway to beckon me in. Her image was there, enveloped in the room alongside landscapes of the rohe (boundary), and opposite another kuia, Aunty Mihi (2018).
Together, these two wahine ¯ encapsulate the title of the artist’s most recent series,
Nga ¯ Paepae Tapu. ‘Paepae’, the noun given to the bench from which kaikorero ¯ speak during occasions such as powhiri, ¯ is not the noun used for this bench where Ngahuia is from. Instead, the use of the word speaks to other meanings, referencing the role of wahine ¯ in welcoming people through karanga (ceremonial call).
Ngahuia is one of five wahine ¯ Maori ¯ artists who exhibited at the Adam Art Gallery as part of The Earth Looks Upon Us /
Ko Papatu ¯ a¯ nuku te Matua o te Tangata, and I was looking forward to seeing her work, in particular. I first came across Harrison in 2015, at the Indigenous Photographic Histories symposium, where she presented a paper on behalf of Natalie Robertson (Ngati ¯ Porou, Clann Dhònnchaidh), before speaking on her own work. I saw within her photos a filmic quality, the work shared that day evoking the wondrous nature of Maori ¯ children that has been replicated in New Zealand film for decades, imagery that reminds me of a favourite childhood movie, Barry Barclay’s (Ngati ¯ Apa) Ngati. ¯
I can’t recall if it was shown at that symposium, but the campaign image for the exhibition, Said, With Salt in Her Eye (2012), is a favourite. Again, it is the innocence and wonder of this work that is so captivating; located within a forest landscape, a young girl’s face is cast skyward and viewers are drawn to ponder what it is she is seeing, what it is she is thinking. Though I am drawn to what this image evokes, I, too, am torn. My attribution of a cinematic understanding to the image of a young Maori ¯ girl, the layered interpretation of hope and departure that I impose on her, makes me contemplate whether this should be a burden for her to bear.
This work is not in the darkened room that provoked my initial reaction. It is around a corner, on a balcony overlooking Ana Iti’s
(Te Rarawa) Only Fools are Lonely (2018), and looking towards Nova Paul’s (Te Uriroroi / Te Parawhau, Nga ¯ Puhi) This Is Not Dying (2010). It is as if she is searching for the source of the Ngapuhi ¯ anthem, Nga ¯ Puawai ¯ o ¯ Ngapuhi, ¯ that echoes through the gallery to her.
In the Kirk Gallery, I am lucky to have the room to myself for most of my time here. It is just the works and me, and our joint silence. It is a silence that is only there in my presence, for silence is not what the works induce in me. When I see her Aunty Reo and Aunty Mihi, I immediately think of my nannies and the time I’ve spent at tables with them, drinking tea, eating rewena with butter and jam; stories falling from their mouths like crumbs for me to pick up.
When I see Ngahuia’s aunties, I think of sitting at my nan’s feet, massaging her legs as she tells me stories from her youth. The relationships captured in Ngahuia’s photos are recognizable, but personal: these are not my nannies, but they make me yearn for home. These are also not the photos of my nannies, who I live so far away from, who grow older in every Facebook profile update. The quality and scale of Ngahuia’s representations reiterate just how inefficient low-res, online images are in contrast with being with your whanau. ¯ Her works are a call home, no matter where your home is.
In her 2017 TEDx Talk, Harrison talked about the capacity of images and words, asserting that both have the ability to carry with them our histories and relationships. This is evident in the venerable space of the Kirk Gallery, the images lit in a manner reminiscent of the reverential way that taonga tuturu ¯ are often displayed. Yet these taonga are contemporary; they are accessible to all who have relationships to the whenua, to the kuia in their whanau. ¯ They are the sepia scenes of our whanau ¯ photos; they are our people alive again.
NGAHUIA HARRISON, NGA ¯ PAEPAE TAPU INSTALLATION VIEW, PHOTO BY SHAUN MATTHEWS
NGAHUIA HARRISON, AUNTY MIHI (2018), INSTALLATION PHOTO BY SHAUN MATTHEWS