Ngāi Tahu exhibition showcases Papatipu Rūnanga

Ngāi Tahu artist Nathan Pohio curates his first exhibition.

Ngāi Tahu artist Nathan Pohio curates his first exhibition.

In “Te Rua o Te Moko,” eighteen watercolours and pencil drawings hang upon the walls of a small room at Christchurch Art Gallery in a homage to significant land sites for each of the Ngāi Tahu Papatipu Rūnanga. It is a ‘quiet,’ elegant show that acknowledges and supports the rūnanga and reaches out to the people of Ngāi Tahu through art.

For artist, Nathan Pohio (Ngāi Tahu, Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha), it is his first outing as an exhibition curator and from the outset, he felt a keen responsibility to “look wide” in the representation of his iwi within the gallery.

“I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to curate this show and I knew this was a significant opportunity so needed to deliver something I could walk away really satisfied with because the chance may not come again,” he says.

His starting point was a map of Te Waipounamu on the Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu website showing the location of the eighteen Papatipu Rūnanga. That was the genesis of his kaupapa, the starting point in finding mid to late nineteenth century artworks depicting significant sites within each rūnanga. It was a big job that required his liaising with each of the rūnanga over the artworks selected, and it was one he completed to an extremely tight three-month deadline.

“I came up with an idea and I followed it like a needle pulls a thread. The show presented itself. I was very fortunate that it all came together – especially as it was so difficult to find early works representing some areas,” he says.

Watercolour: John Gully. The Inland Kaikouras from the Awatere Valley, Marlborough 1871. Collection of Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. C-096-013.

Watercolour: John Gully. The Inland Kaikouras from the Awatere Valley, Marlborough 1871. Collection of Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. C-096-013.

Nathan, who lives and works as an artist in Ōtautahi, is an exhibition designer and assistant curator at Christchurch Art Gallery. He has an established national & international reputation as a conceptual artist producing works that draw on a variety of photographic and cinematic practices. Since he first began exhibiting in the late 1990s, he has exhibited widely and has been the recipient of the James Ormond Wallace Artist Residency and a Creative New Zealand Te Waka Toi travel grant to residencies in France and USA.

In his first official engagement as exhibition curator, he says he has learned a huge amount about early Ngāi Tahu life.

“These are very telling images that illustrate how our ancestors lived. It adds to the richness of what we already know and for me personally, has again enriched and increased my understanding of what it means to be Ngāi Tahu. That has been a privilege.”

Nathan, who affiliates to Ngāi Tūāhuriri and Ngāti Wheke, says “Te Rua o Te Moko” works to rediscover principles of Ngāi Tahutanga within the images presented – the land as identity and Ngāi Tahu as tangata whenua.

Sketchbook drawing: Walter Baldock Durrant Mantell. Waiteruati. Oct.6 1848. Pencil. Collection of Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. E-334-049.

Sketchbook drawing: Walter Baldock Durrant Mantell. Waiteruati. Oct.6 1848. Pencil. Collection of Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. E-334-049.

It brings together watercolours and pencil drawings by artists such as John Gully, William Mathew Hodgkins, Walter Mantell and Isabel Jane Hodgkins.; and it draws from the collections of Canterbury Museum, Alexander Turnbull Library, Hocken Library and Toitū Otago Settlers Museum. The catalogue has been translated by Corban Te Aika (Ngāi Tahu).

Curated for all to enjoy, Nathan does hope that it also attracts more Ngāi Tahu visitors.

“I’d really like to see more Māori in places like this,” he says.

“I’d like Ngāi Tahu people particularly to come in and experience all the great things art has to offer. I’d like to help break down the perception that art galleries are scary Pākehā institutions where people stand in front of paintings speaking a scary or boring language, that’s just not the real picture at all, the fundamental purpose of public art galleries is to provide a place to contemplate, to seek special, personal and intimate experiences as well as shared ones

“A big part of our kaupapa is about caring for things for the future and Māori understand that. It’s something we carry within us as a value. An art gallery is exactly another whare – and like a wharenui, it’s a place to unite with your ancestors.”

Te Rua o Te Moko continues at Te Puna o Waiwhetu Christchurch Art Gallery until April 10.