Welcome to the Review Repository - an archive of reviews that were originally published in the Saturday edition of the Taranaki Daily News from September 2007 – April 2008.

The reviews were written for a general audience and therefore tend to be descriptive and educational in focus.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Woven Memories

Roimata Toroa 2007 (detail) by Ngahina Hohaia photo: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Stones cannot weep but yet they inspire many to do so. By this I am referring to memorials that, despite being solid and inert monuments, are emotive vehicles that enable remembrance, contemplation and celebration. The purpose of memorials is to help the understanding of trauma and aid the stages of remorse – so that some good might result. Many in New Zealand would associate the term memorial with the ubiquitous concrete or stone war monoliths erected on civic locations around the country. One of the most moving war memorials in my opinion is the Hall of Memories within the National War Memorial Carillon, Wellington. The design of the hall is such that immediately upon entering its vaulted white interior the visitor is bound in hushed reverence. It is through the careful choice of building materials, design of space and symbolic use of poetry and art that the Hall of Memories commands such a powerful response. Memorials, whether a simple gravestone or grand temple, help us enter in an in-between state of being where the flow of time appears to halt. Sometimes as in the case of a funeral or Anzac dawn ceremony ritual in addition to a memorial helps lead those involved into a contemplative state of being where they are unaware of conceivable time. This experience, which exists in all cultures, came to be termed liminality by the anthropologist Victor Turner. Liminality or the threshold in anthropological terms is the perceived in-between state of being that occurs in religious and cultural experience that results in a transition or transformation of some sort. Most art by its visual or sensory stimulation evokes liminality through which the artist provides the viewer with a meaningful experience. In art the transformation usually results in the greater understanding of a different perspective.

Aspects of the memorial and liminality are present in the work of Ngahina Hohaia entitled Roimata Toroa currently on exhibition at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Roimata Toroa which translates as “Tears of the Albatross” commemorates the Parihaka passive resistance movement of the late 19th century. However, unlike the authoritative architectonics of the memorial or the conceited anthropological study of liminality, the work of Hohaia elicits more complex poetic and sensual nuances.

Framed by two wide flanks of stairs the experience of Roimata Toroa is very much enhanced by the gallery’s architecture. The folding of distance and height as the viewer ascends the stairs instils anticipation and awe. Since each step that the viewer takes reveals glimpses of an impressive wall installation of 392 poi. The poi are made from second-hand woollen blankets most of which are creamy white with some of the cords plated with pink and sky blue wool. Reflecting the weave of the blankets the poi are hung in staggered zigzag formations. Each individual poi also bears one of 60 different machine embroidered insignia in mostly gold thread - with a portion in either black, pink and sky blue.

(installation view)

The work in full view is hard to fathom in its entirety and therefore it entices you to visit its detail – and it is upon inspection of the detail that we journey into the works many narratives. Browsing the array of symbols it becomes apparent that some have direct relevance to the history of Parihaka. For instance, the three white albatross feathers which is a prophetic religious symbol of the Parihaka leader Tohu Kakahi – the image of a plough symbolising how the people of Parihaka obstructed colonial forces from occupying their ancestral lands. Other symbols are related to the history of Parihaka but have more general significance. For example, the Christian crown of thorns, the shackled hands of slavery and the innocence of a girl skipping with a rope. Through to commonly identifiable colonial symbols of sailing ships, British solders, and cannons. Running across the middle row of poi are the fervent words of Tohu Kaakahi inspiring his people “to overcome evil with good”. Being dispersed over many poi leads you to read the speech in fragments making each word resonate in your mind.

The materiality of the poi holds further symbolism specific to Parihaka. As the wall label informs us the blanket was used as a metaphor by leaders Tohu Kaakahi and Te Whiti o Rongomai indicating their good will to share their ancestral land with Pakeha - a benevolent offer that was savagely violated by Pakeha. Therefore, the woollen blankets transformed into poi by Hohaia stand as a poignant memorial to the pacifist ideologies of the Parihaka movement. Also of significance is the static existence of the poi. Being frozen in sacred reverence on the gallery wall these poi will never be used in performance. Collectively the poi sit as an ethereal monument - a monument that despite its apparent material fragility communicates with heart seizing impact.

While a significant portion of Roimata Toroa’s meaning is steeped in cultural tradition and historic intensity it also lends itself to other interpretations. This is due to the works diverse grouping of experiential, symbolic and aesthetic components that encourage individual contemplation rather than making a didactic statement.
Roimata Toroa ends 2 March 2008.