Expecting to fly

Apr 5, 2015

The Paemanu rōpū brings together a diverse group of artists dedicated to the development of Ngāi Tahutanga through contemporary visual arts. Kaituhi Matt Philp reports.

In 2006, a group of Ngāi Tahu contemporary artists exhibited in a group show at a cultural centre near Melbourne. For several of the 14 artists involved, it was the first time they’d met. “It seemed crazy that we had to go all the way to Melbourne to do that,” says Dunedin-based painter Simon Kaan (Kāti Irakehu, Kāti Mako). “We began looking for a way to create a more cohesive voice.”

Born from a 2012 hui at Rāpaki, the Paemanu rōpū brings together a diverse group of artists dedicated to the development of Ngāi Tahutanga through contemporary visual arts. Jeweller Areta Wilkinson (Ngāti Wheke, Ngāti Irakehu, Ngāi Tūāhuriri) is the chair and Simon is deputy. Other trustees include photographer Neil Pardington, video artists Rachael Rakena and Nathan Pohio, Priscilla Cowie, Jon Tootill, and artist-designer Ross Hemera.

Importantly, it is an artist-driven and independent group, albeit with much-appreciated support from the Ngāi Tahu Fund. Simon and Areta pay due credit to earlier efforts by Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu to foster visual arts, citing Cath Brown, Moana Tipa and Megan Tamati-Quennell as important figures, with Moana and Megan employed by the tribe as arts development facilitators. Tahu Pōtiki and Suzanne Ellison provided support from a strong iwi base.

“These leaders have been proactive, and as a result we had a number of fantastic exhibitions. They were the reason why many artists from my peer group got picked up and shown by public institutions,” Areta says.

The problem was that continued progress relied on the passions of a few individuals, and once visual arts advocates were no longer employed by the tribe, events and exhibitions ceased to happen. “So we thought we could take charge of it as artists – to strategise how we wanted Ngāi Tahu visual arts to look now and into the future,” says Simon.

Paemanu rōpū has attracted ceramicists, video makers, designers, carvers, print makers, fashion designers, painters, sculptors, and jewellers. It has run the gamut from established international names to emerging talent. “We wanted to be inclusive; it’s a key part of who we are,” says Simon, who says anyone who identifies with the kaupapa is welcome to join.

The key to the vision lies in the name ‘Paemanu’ which translates as collarbone. It can also be looked at as ‘pae’, meaning “perch”, and ‘manu’, meaning “bird”. The name derives from imagery found in rock paintings throughout Te Waipounamu, in particular the well-known Frenchman’s Gully image of a birdman figure with baby birds perched on outstretched wings.

It was Ross Hemera (Waitaha, Ngāti Māmoe, Ngāi Tahu) who brought the image to the attention of the group when they met that first time at Rāpaki. The quietly-spoken Professor of Māori Art and Design at Massey University is highly respected by the younger members of Paemanu, so when he spoke about the significance of the rock paintings, they listened. Specifically, he cited the “birdman” image that has become a motif in his art.

A bird’s perch is a launching platform, and Paemanu’s vision is to foster Ngāi Tahu artists by creating opportunities to soar through residencies, exhibitions, and the use of publications such as TE KARAKA. “But the image also encapsulates the notions of nurture and sanctuary, the idea of learning being passed from an older to a younger generation – in fact, the concept of whakapapa and whanaungatanga,” says Ross, who stresses the significance of the group choosing a symbol from the art of their tīpuna.

These are ideas that cut against the image of the artist as an autonomous renegade, Areta says. “The Ngāi Tahu worldview considers collective responsibilities and values. That’s part of our world.”

“A fundamental part of being a Ngāi Tahu contemporary artist is being part of a community, responding to our stories, helping to visualise those stories,” says Simon. “Our willingness to engage as artists with our whānau and community is key from my perspective.”

For many of those involved in Paemanu, making art has been their “way in” to the Ngāi Tahu world – to stand up and say, “This is who we are; we are Ngāi Tahu.”

That was certainly the case for Areta, who grew up in Kaitaia, outside the rohe. “Growing up in Northland I felt like a bit of an outsider, so a Ngāi Tahu art exhibition for me was a way to participate, to be seen, and to get to know people. Having benefited from those relationships, we’re now creating spaces for other Ngāi Tahu artists to have similar whanaungatanga experiences.

“Art practice is another way to communicate world views, and also to experience the world. I’m learning about the world by responding to what’s around me, learning about whakapapa as I go. That’s the ‘why’ for me when it comes to forming Paemanu.”

This eagerness to identify as specifically Ngāi Tahu artists is a relatively new thing, according to Ross, who began making art in the early 1970s. “Back then I wasn’t aware of any other Ngāi Tahu artists apart from my brother. I thought, ‘We’re the only ones.’ But during my career there has been a huge upsurge in the desire of Ngāi Tahu artists to identify that way. It coincided with Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu development across a raft of different fields and areas of interest for Ngāi Tahu iwi, and [was fostered by] key Ngāi Tahu people such as Tā Tipene O’Regan, who could see the importance of the arts.”

The younger generation of artists now driving Paemanu are “really stepping up and showing leadership”, Ross says. “This is about our artists who have a real passion and dedication for the development of our arts.”

Under this kaupapa, they’re already making progress. Since Paemanu was granted charitable trust status in July 2013, the trustees have held several hui to build up a database of contemporary Ngāi Tahu artists. They recently produced a 20-year strategic plan.
A website is now being built to better connect people and share information.

The trust was also heavily involved in preparations for Te Matatini, held in Christchurch from March 4–8. Coordinated by Areta and video artist Nathan Pohio, a team of Ngāi Tahu artists dressed the venue for the biennial kapa haka festival. The project He Ngākau Aroha puts contemporary artists together with traditional weavers. So what is the relationship between Paemanu and customary Ngāi Tahu art?

“We see ourselves as part of a bigger family all connected to the Ngāi Tahu creative spirit,” says Ross. “We’re visual artists who work in a contemporary manner, but we are also very aware of our whakapapa and of our relationships with the forms and practices of our weavers and carvers in particular.”

Simon notes that a recent wānanga toi organised by the trust was attended by Ngāi Tahu weavers and carvers. “Over the years, the customary and the contemporary have always crossed over. Those collaborations are still happening and are an important part of Paemanu.”

He believes that contemporary Ngāi Tahu visual art is in good heart. “Forming these bonds just strengthens us as artists and as a collective. Other Māori artists are taking note – they think Paemanu is a great initiative, and the fact we’re such a strongly bonded group is looked up to by artists from other iwi.”