Ka pari te tai moana, ka timu te tai tangata: When the ocean tide rises, the human tide recedes. This whakatauākī, or proverb—first uttered in 1822 by Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha to Te Wherowhero, Waikato leader and first Māori king—acts as an epigraph for Brett Graham’s exhibition “Tai Moana Tai Tangata,” joining intricate relations between Māori, the structures of settler colonialism in Aotearoa New Zealand, and contemporary concerns around economic and ecological exploitation.
The prophetic caution of this epigraph is made evident through the overwhelming presence of Cease Tide of Wrong-Doing, 2021, a ten-meter tall sculpture that dominates both floors of the gallery, and which takes the form of a niu—an erected pole of the Pai Mārire faith used to divine messages of war and peace. Graham’s niu is cast in raw black, a towering spike expertly carved with a complex pātaki design and winged with model pātaka (storehouses). If niu were customarily raised in times of intense colonial violence, here the form illuminates how historic wounds seep into the present and against the backdrop of a dystopian Taranaki landscape: the only oil- and gas-producing region within the country.
The richness of the contexts that animate Graham’s work is “awoken” by Ngāti Korokī Kahukura’s recital of Pai Mārire karakia (incantation, blessing), featured both at the show’s opening and in its transportive soundscape. These contexts are communicated with spectacular support from exhibition curator and Te Ātiawa scholar Anna-marie White, who recently completed a doctoral thesis on Graham and his place within contemporary Māori art. The artist’s oeuvre and his surrounding scholarship prove to be a significant development in the multitudinous field of Indigenous artistic practice, both here and abroad.
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