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Taking Stock at Matariki

15 Jun 2017
Matariki has grown as a contemporary festival, but how can it be more embraced? Mark Amery speaks to four leading arts practitioners on Matariki’s place and potential.

It’s Matariki, a time to take stock, remember, plan and celebrate what we have. It offers Aotearoa New Zealand a time that is distinctive, connective and grounded, recognised in programmes led by local government, marae and schools up and down the country. Yet falls far short of being more widely embraced.

Two years ago in this column I noted how cultural organisations across the cities were working increasingly strongly together, opening their doors to new communities, and creating impressive programmes of performance, exhibitions and workshops of Māori work. Yet in the visual arts in particular I sense a lull in wider engagement. Here are the thoughts of some Matariki-active arts practitioners on this time’s place and potential.

Tanya Te Miringa Te Rorarangi Ruka

Tanya Te Miringa Te Rorarangi Ruka (Ngati Pakau, Ngapuhi, Waitaha iwi) is an artist and designer who moved to Wellington from Auckland two years ago (her blog). Her recent work is included in Te Taiao with Fred Graham and Pukekohe High School students at the Franklin Arts Centre Auckland over Matariki (until 8 July). The exhibition explores the relationships we have with the natural world, and aim to contribute to dialogue about tradition, environmental challenges and regeneration. Ruka’s art focuses on learning about and understanding the cycles of nature.

“The events and celebrations of Matariki were new to me at the beginning of the 21st Century when the celebration of Matariki was revived. Matariki has developed a deeper meaning for me because of my art practice.

“Over this time, I have lost too many close family members to cancer and various other health issues. The remembrance I experience is one of great loss. Our honoured tohunga with generations of information have crossed into Te Ao Wairua before they had time to share the stories and knowledge of our tupuna. My generation find ourselves in a strange place looking to each other and the few elders left for knowledge. Add to this the turmoil in the Hokianga (where our Marae is situated) due to methamphetamine addictions and the suicide rate of our rangatahi (young people) and I see a landscape of sadness during this time of ‘cultural celebration’.

“Matariki should be about the connection between human and land, honouring the land that nourishes us with food and honouring ourselves and our past in the process. I believe the health issues that plague our communities today are derived from the food that we eat to sustain us. Grown and heavy set with chemicals and plastics that seep into our blood systems and our waterways, killing the natural systems that had sustained our ancestors for centuries. When there is no honouring of the land – there is no connection.

“This is a time where the knowledge of our tupuna needs to be revived, treasured, maintained and celebrated in practical ways that help restore the hope to our communities who are fighting daily to stay alive.

“I can appreciate what local bodies and art galleries are trying to achieve organising exhibitions and firework displays to bring hope to communities by sharing Māori knowledge and cultural practices. I went to see the exhibition Beyond the Dusky Maiden/ Ki tua o te ‘puhi kiri rauwhero in the Turnbull Gallery at the National Library. This show curated by Ariana Tikao and Catherine Bisley is important for young Māori to see. Exhibitions that exemplify the strength in Māori cultural practice and community are needed. It was the sense of community, camaraderie and laughter on the faces of these strong Māori women that appealed to me. It would be good to make this show and shows like it available online.

“The importance of local initiatives and community taking care of each other is integral. It is essential for these local groups to network into the cities too. There are many New Zealanders of different races who are fighting together with Tangata Whenua for our land, our water supplies and our communities. This is evident in more art works and collaborations across cultures. It is hopeful. We need more practical applications of knowledge (and its origins) from our ancestors in communities and schools. I believe art has the power to build connection outside of words and language.

“I am thankful for the efforts of those who strive to make Matariki a time of celebration in our country across the main city centres. But it is not accessible to all communities and some communities need the funds for health and wellbeing resources, for survival. This is perhaps where technology could start to reconnect small communities with the bigger resources of communities working in our cities?

“In the Māori Lunar calendar Pipiri is May to June: Ka pipiri ngā mea katoa i te whenua i te mātao, me te tangata (All things on earth are contracted because of the cold; likewise, man). By recalibrating our mind, work and lives to the seasons and new technologies we are helping people to achieve this goal. We have so much knowledge of land and sea to draw from. The starting point for my research was my great grandmother’s Māori rongoa recipes. Like the stars of Matariki she lights the way and my ancestors inform the journey.

“Toitū he kāinga, whatu ngarongaro he tangata (While the land remains the inhabitants are gone).”

Suzanne Tamaki

Tamaki is a well-known outstanding artist who creates costumes and body adornment. Her work, she says, has a Polynesian aesthetic but doesn’t use traditional materials and is driven by addressing colonisation and the effect on Māori culture and lifestyles.

Tamaki is also Wellington City Council’s festival events producer. For Matariki she has curated a strong exhibition at Toi Poneke Gallery of leading and emerging Māori artists, exploring how symbolism, carving and ideologies have morphed into new artistic practices. Pukana whakarunga! Gaze wildly to the realm above! Pukana whakararo! Gaze wildly to the realm below! (until 24 June). It brings “heaven and earth into closer conversation.”

“The exhibition incorporates augmented reality, where images are superimposed onto art or walls and are viewed through a phone or tablet. These augmented works are taonga from Te Papa Tongarewa’s Māori collections. Physical and augmented works have been paired up to create a narrative about our relationship with the past and how it informs and inspires contemporary work. 

“I love Matariki. It’s a time to celebrate Māori culture and excellence. It’s a chance to tautoko artists and performers and celebrate their successes, as well as eat good food with good people, share knowledge and ideas."

On the role of established arts organisations during Matariki, Tamaki feels the opportunities are still not being met. 

“There’s a huge deficit. With places like Nga Taonga, NZ Film Commission, Embassy theatre, for example, there’s a huge wealth of Māori film and footage. Imagine if every venue in Wellington had a Māori kaupapa driven event?

“Visitors and New Zealanders are interested in a Māori experience. Unfortunately, Wellington fails to deliver, right throughout the year. Also you have places like New World that have a “Matariki Sale’ and then sell product that have absolutely nothing to do with Matariki or the kaupapa. Garden centres could sell plants. Book stores would do well. It’s a time to wananga and learn. 

“More schools and urban areas are having their own Matariki celebrations. When it starts to rise up from the ground level and communities are taking ownership it’s more authentic and genuine. The love and mana is coming from that community. If all different areas of society take part we will see a national festival that everyone can take pride in.”

Is there a lull in Wellington around Matariki?

“The Regional Amenities Fund earmarked a fund to a consortium that was made up of Te Papa, City Gallery, the Dowse, Expressions, Pataka, Wellington Museums, Carter Observatory and Mahara Gallery. The directors were driven and enthusiastic. There was robust korero: what each gallery would deliver and a calendar that was populated so events wouldn’t clash and would spread across the season. 

“This year the consortium hasn’t met as often as in previous years and City Gallery withdrew from the group. They lost their drive and enthusiasm and it appears to have trickled down into other organisations. We need people to push Matariki out, create some excitement and get buy-in from businesses and Wellington as a whole.   

“The Wellington mayor has allocated extra funding for council to do more events, a major fireworks display and also support community initiatives. He’s also said it should be a public holiday – that’s got to get people excited! Come on New Zealand, embrace Māori culture, celebrate and be proud.

“I loved Chris Morley-Hall’s comment (at a recent arts hui) that all marae should open their doors to people. Food, entertainment and a cultural tour – how stunning.  I want more Māori murals and artwork around Wellington – let’s mural whole buildings down Courtenay Place in kowhaiwhai and taniko panels so it’s like walking into a marae. Courtenay Place was our initial pa site. Māori tours throughout Wellington, waka on the water. Bonfires along the waterfront and beaches, beacons on the hills, floating pyres in the water (Matariki is also a time to remember those that have passed). Look to the past to inform the future.”

Vicki Lenihan

Vicki Lenihan (Kāi Tahu) is the new festival coordinator for Dunedin’s annual Puaka Matariki Festival (17-23 June), a community-driven celebration of local knowledge, now in its ninth year under city council administration. Lenihan has lots of experience in museums and in the community as an arts practitioner, organiser and advisor.

“I’m a vocal advocate for the importance of our community seeing themselves reflected in their environs - local stories told by local people. I also believe there is quite a bit about the ways of our ancestors that would improve our prospects if reintroduced into our daily practices.

“The main concepts observed during the Puaka Matariki festival are wānaka and whanaukataka. As a city we celebrate our special place in the world, incorporating the wisdom of the past - observing ancient astronomical markers of seasonal change and an associated time of remembrance, and passing on knowledge - into a modern-day festival of reflection, learning and community spirit. Event producers are encouraged to champion community spirit in their programmes - public access is a compulsory component of inclusion on the festival schedule.

“As is appropriate to passing on knowledge in Te Ao Māori, there are again several events celebrating Toi Māori. Contemporary Māori art is more prevalent than traditional practices, though at least one of the wānaka events incorporates mahi toi. This year, galleries were encouraged to broaden their Puaka Matariki exhibition visitor base from their usual mailing list.

“Winter is spent indoors. It is the ideal time to catch up on that reading list, share stories over dinner parties, binge-watch entire seasons on Netflix, and take in a show at the local theatre. The pre-contact theatre whare tapere concept is showing further revival this year - community based, and learning driven.

“In 2017 there are 41 events in the Puaka Matariki Festival. This indicates a willingness by the wider community to continue to take time to reflect on what has passed, share knowledge, and carry on celebrating our unique perspective, despite shrinking public monies for this. It is utterly fitting that Aotearoa New Zealand's City of Literature, site of the oldest university, birthplace of the Dunedin Sound, centre of ecotourism, borrows what was great from history and incorporates that into a contemporary celebration of our stories, told by us.

“It is important to note that while Matariki is nominally observed during our festival, and many folk here share stories about the star cluster's place in mātauraka Māori, Puaka is our principal star in Ōtepoti Dunedin, and there is room for more to be made of this.

“I would like to see more involvement from the tertiary education sector next year in providing opportunities for the general public to engage in wānaka (perhaps participation in or hearing about research), and will be recommending the primary and secondary school sector make greater efforts to seek respectable advice about and communicate mātauraka Kāi Tahu.”

Janet Bayly

Janet Bayly has been the Director of Kapiti Coast public regional gallery, Mahara, in Waikanae for ten years. In that time the gallery has formed a closer relationship with local iwi Te Atiawa, Ngati Raukawa and Ngati Toa Rangatira. A key focus is Matariki where activity fills the gallery and extends into the public space between Mahara and nearby Whakarongotai marae. This year at Mahara Matariki Dawn features an installation by Michel Tuffery and Yvonne de Mille; National Treasure, Whakapapa Panikoti by Ron Te Kawa and ‘Kapiti Matariki Cloak’ by JoAnna Mere with 100 school children (until 30 July) alongside a Matariki Festival 16 to 17 June.

“Each time we have done any of these shows we have drawn favourable comment from visitors saying they don't see enough of this elsewhere. It has helped them to better understand the local history and cultural context.

“Mahara is located on the mana whenua of Te Atiawa ki Whakarongotai and its name was brought down from Parihaka. The name refers to memory and thinking deeply, so is very appropriate to this season of Matariki.

“The Matariki programme has drawn in the wider community. Activities spanning our town centre have aimed to bring to life the 'cultural thread' that links our two houses of art and culture.

“What characterises Matariki most for me each year is the very human nature of it, through the many conversations, stories, performances, laughter and tears that it brings forth. Our wider community tell us how much they enjoy it, and they certainly come out in their hundreds. I heard recently that some whanau had driven down from Napier last year to watch their grandchildren perform kapahaka in Mahara Place, and were so proud. As a result, I was told that the number of children wanting to learn kapahaka at Kapanui School has doubled and they now have 160! 

“I think we are all in this community in a stage of developing closer relationships with the marae. We have also gradually been working increasingly closely with our local library. It has been one of the most rewarding parts of my job, being able to take this exhibition and its ambitious public programme out of the gallery, and to grow our relationships with all of the other businesses and groups in our immediate vicinity. It fills a need and thirst in our community. I see it being very much part of our role as the district gallery to work as widely as possible and help to grow this mid-winter cultural festival which is unique to Aotearoa New Zealand.

“Like all of these relationships, it takes time and patience, and lots of communication, and we don't get it right all the time. It is a short walk but can sometimes be a long gap distance to bridge in terms of shared understandings.

“For the past three years one of the strongest linking elements for the Matariki Wellington consortium of eight museums was the Art Night Bus, which we were included in for the past two years. That is missing this year but there was a lack of clarity I think in the overall programming for a region-wide Matariki festival, which has been addressed this year by Te Papa taking on a leadership role. Their goal has been articulated by Dr Charles Royal as cementing an iconic national celebration of Matariki which becomes strongly identified with Aotearoa and Māori culture on an ongoing basis and creates a new symbol of national identity.

“Within our own context some of our contributors have said they felt this recent celebration of Matariki was a forced or Pakeha marketing construction that wasn't accurate to how it was originally experienced - which was more as just another seasonal element in the natural cycles of planting etc. But then I feel these new conversations are also working hard at articulating or re-finding older knowledges and understandings of the pre-colonial era, and part of that ongoing 'unpacking' which is still going on.

“I have wondered at times whether the Wellington-based LUX festival could be more usefully linked with Matariki, although it lacks the cultural context, but it has captured the public imagination for big events in outdoor spaces in a way that Matariki has not yet. Although that is Charles Royal's vision at Te Papa - a huge outdoor bonfire and communal hangi!”

“Because Matariki can become a pan-cultural festival for New Zealand it also presents a new opportunity for Pakeha and new arrivals to engage with Māori culture in positive and interactive, genuinely educative ways.”