Brett Graham (Ngāti Koroki Kahukura, Tainui) is known for his large-scale sculptures exploring indigenous histories, politics, and philosophies. His recent show at New Plymouth's Govett-Brewster Art Gallery show has been described as ‘a cautionary tale about human endeavour in Aotearoa New Zealand’. Tai Moana Tai Tangata addressed the architecture of colonial warfare, the language of war memorials, and historic political pacts between Tainui and Taranaki iwi. It is one of the most ambitious and impressive solo shows of recent times. City Gallery is presenting a second iteration of this project. Two of the key sculptures—Maungārongo ki te Whenua Maungārongo ki te Tangata and O’Pioneer—offer contrasting takes on engagement with an other.
Maungārongo ki te Whenua Maungārongo ki te Tangata combines the forms of a pātaka and a wagon. It refers to the way Taranaki iwi trucked water and food to Pākehā surveyors and road workers in their campaign of passive resistance. As mana whenua, they recognised a hosting obligation to the settlers: a confusing gesture asserting sovereignty and manaakitanga. The carving style is based on the Motonui Panels, the historic pātaka panels now housed in Puke Ariki, New Plymouth. Carved sometime between 1750 and 1820, they were buried in a swamp for safekeeping during intertribal warfare. Discovered in 1972 and illegally sold, the Motonui Panels have been the subject of an extensive repatriation campaign and were acquired by the New Zealand government and returned as part of Waitangi settlements.
Soon after Queen Victoria’s representatives signed the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s government began to conduct war against its own citizens. O’Pioneer is based on a gun turret from the armed steamer Pioneer, which was commissioned by the New Zealand government to invade the Waikato in 1863. The form is clad—or disguised—in a cast-relief ornamental pattern that recalls the ‘royal icing’ used to decorate Queen Victoria’s wedding cake in 1840, the year the Treaty was signed. Both of the Pioneer’s original gun turrets have been transformed into war memorials, one in Ngāruawāhia (addressing the New Zealand Wars) and one in Mercer (addressing the First World War).
The show, which will feature further sculpture and videos by Graham, will be accompanied by a programme of New Zealand films addressing the Land Wars and their aftermath, organised in partnership with Ngā Taonga, Wellington.
The title Tai Moana Tai Tangata is taken from a remark Ngāti Toa rangitira Te Rauparaha made to Te Wherowhero, who would become the first Māori King: ‘Ka pari te tai moana, ka timu te tai tangata’ (When the ocean tide rises, the human tide recedes). It was chosen for its relevance to the current global warming crisis causing rising sea levels—making the past relevant to the future.