The position of collections of moa bones and taonga Māori (valued customary possessions) within museums in Aotearoa and abroad are the subject of a collaborative project between jeweller Areta Wilkinson (Ngāi Tahu) and photographer Mark Adams (Pākehā).
Over almost a decade the artists have visited and recorded anthropology, archaeology and natural history collections with provenance to Te Waipounamu - the South Island. A 2009-17 residency at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) at Cambridge University, UK, allowed the artists to respond to those parts of its collections with personal significance. The museum as subject had long been a part of their respective practices but this was the first time an institution had supported them in this way.
Wilkinson's focus began with wearable taonga collections that link directly to Te Waipounamu and her whakapapa (genealogical relationships and histories) connections. Adams' interest lies in the history of anthropology, museums' collecting, and the contested situation of taonga and objects absent from their rohe (geographical region) as a partial index of that complicated history.
Their research began by identifying taonga in the Museum collection catalogue they could provenance to known places in the Ngāi Tahu rohe and Te Waipounamu. This inquiry included Totaranui Queen Charlotte Sound and the Wairau Bar site. Aotearoa's earliest Māori body adornments, carved from moa bone, were unearthed at Wairau Bar on the northeast coast of the South Island. Though outside the Ngāi Tahu tribal boundary as it stands today, this region is important to Māori histories prior to the 16th century when the peoples that eventually coalesced as Ngāi Tahu migrated south, and later for the crucial exchanges that happened during James Cook's several visits to the area.
At the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) the pair found a small number of taonga from home. It was also apparent that there had been a history of object exchanges - including taonga and plaster casts of taonga - between New Zealand museum staff and their counterparts in the United Kingdom and Europe. Personal connections were traced between these people who made the exchanges and the places the objects originally came from. The pair were guided by the key question of how to respond as artists in a useful and meaningful way. Secondly, they considered how their work might be received, especially at home by communities with investments in the objects.
Wilkinson and Adams collaborated to produce unique photograms of moa and other extinct bird bones, stone tools and other taonga made by placing them on light sensitive photographic paper. Not many artists get to trap museum curators, archaeological artefacts and ancient specimens and taonga in a red safelit dark room - blacking out museum storerooms, or offices with black polythene, plunging rooms and artefacts into a gory gloom.
Their first experiment was to use a sheet of cyanotype photographic paper to make a blueprint photogram of a tiki with provenance to a place familiar to them in North Canterbury. The tiki was a swap between Directors Julius Von Haast of Canterbury Museum and Baron Anatole Von Hügel of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA). The resulting image was the catalyst for a new collaborative project.
For Adams, the project opened a way of engaging with the colonial relationships these artefacts, taonga and specimens are enmeshed in without messing with them. The pair emphasise that this is a conceptual collaboration: the work exists as a delicate balance of Māori and Pākehā actions and interests in the making of the photograms, unlocking new territory for them to collectively explore.
For Wilkinson, the shadow images provoked a new way of relating to ancestral forms beyond simply reproducing them. The shadow activated a shift towards intangible Māori worldview concepts, such as mau mahara (remembering), āhua (the form or semblance) and taonga tuku iho (treasures passed on).
This inquiry resulted in Wilkinson's doctoral investigation that included consultation with hapū (sub-tribe) and other cultural experts alongside her studio practice. For Wilkinson, the project allowed a direct engagement with her whakapapa as a maker, and to produce new works from the absences in these photograms that directly reference the mātauranga Māori (knowledge and cultural practices) of her moa-hunter and later ancestors.
Some of Wilkinson's objects in this exhibition are created from the negative space inhabited by the object in the photogram. Most recently, her adornments and other objects are constructed using 3D printed replicas of Māori customary tools held in the MAA collection. Wilkinson selected seven stone tools of South Island provenance for her toolbox. The kit was comprised of a stone drill head, cutting edges, a scraper, a filing edge, a hammer stone and grindstone. Some of these original tools were part of exchanges made in the 1920's by Henry Devenish Skinner from Otago University Museum with Baron Anatole Von Hügel. When used as her tool kit to make new artworks, the tools are no longer copies but authentic objects of cultural production. Stone age technologies applied through contemporary practice to keep the whakapapa connection alive.
The first adornment taonga that survived to come down to us were made from moa bone, dolphin and shark's teeth and shells. Extinguished by moa-hunter peoples, moa are now legend and their bones are dispersed across the world. Wilkinson and Adams conducted their own Great Moa Hunt in the stores.
Repatriation returns the shades of this cultural material to our eyes here at home.
Areta Wilkinson is an artist of Ngāi Tahu descent, a Māori tribal group of Te Waipounamu the South Island of New Zealand. Wilkinson has investigated the intersection of contemporary jewellery as a form of applied knowledge and practice with Māori philosophies, especially whakapapa (genealogies) and a worldview informed by Ngāi Tahu perspectives. These ideas are articulated in her 2014 PhD in Creative Arts with Massey University. Wilkinson's work is featured in New Zealand public collections, and current artworks will be featured in the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in late 2018.
Mark Adams is one of New Zealand's most distinguished photographic artists. He was born in Christchurch, and attended Canterbury University School of Fine Arts from 1967 to 1970. He subsequently became well known for work concerned with cross-cultural interactions around Rotorua, Samoan tatau (tattooing) among the diaspora in New Zealand, the voyages of Captain Cook and other dimensions of colonial history in New Zealand, elsewhere in the Pacific, and in Europe. His work has been exhibited at biennales in Sao Paulo and Johannesburg, and otherwise in countries including Australia, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand. Adams will present work in the major Oceania art exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in late 2018.
Press release courtesy Two Rooms.