Profile Autumn 2020

Memories carved in relief

A major exhibition of sculpture and film by Brett Graham opens in New Plymouth this autumn. Hanahiva Rose contextualises the histories, prophecies and revisitations in Graham’s work.

Sculptures for Tai Moana Tai Tangata in progress at Brett Graham’s studio, February 2020. Courtesy of the artist

Based in New Plymouth in 2019 as artist in residence at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Brett Graham (Ngāti Korokī Kahukura, Tainui) has been thinking about place. Recent work by the sculptor and installation artist has engaged with landscapes, with monuments and with narratives. In film and sculpture, Graham challenges the practice of memorialisation by asking how and why we privilege the histories that we do.

In some ways, the roots of this work go back almost 30 years. Jonathan Mane-Wheoki recalled in 2007 that “Graham was a recent Masters graduate in Fine Art from the University of Hawai‘i when, in 1992, the five hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the Americas and the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Abel Tasman’s ‘discovery’ of New Zealand, he launched his career in Auckland with 14921642”.

That exhibition, held at Te Taumata Art Gallery in Auckland, was an Indigenous response to those histories and how they had been remembered and recorded; a challenge issued by large, free-standing wooden carvings. “I was fascinated by the idea of big shapes telling a story and forms telling a narrative,” Graham explained in an interview at the time.

Now in 2020, 28 years after 14921642 and a year after the country has variously celebrated, commemorated and contested the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s first ‘encounter’ with New Zealand, Graham is preparing for a major exhibition of new work at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Tai Moana Tai Tangata, curated by Anna-Marie White, will present five monumental sculptures, accompanied by three digitally animated short films made in collaboration with Animation Research Ltd, which revisit key events and locations in the history of Tainui and Taranaki Māori. The exhibition has its own geography: divergent narratives weave in, around and between the works, meeting briefly before splitting again. This is not a landscape easily navigated.

While in Hawai‘i, Graham had begun to look beyond the Māori visual traditions in which he had been raised and out to the wider Pacific for his work. His graduate exhibition Te Ara a Papatūānuku included sculptures formally inspired by a figure of the Nukuoran goddess Kave held in the collection of Auckland Museum. As Teresia Teaiwa has pointed out, Graham’s time in Hawai‘i came at a significant moment in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement – a movement that was deeply felt at the university. More broadly, the last quarter of the 20th century brought a new wave of Pacific Studies theory that emerged in the wake of the administrative decolonisation of a number of Pacific territories. This theory, expressed most emblematically by writers Epeli Hau‘ofa and Albert Wendt, stresses connection across Pacific Island cultures. It was, and continues to be, highly influential in the way it emphasises a need to draw on these unifying links to the past – and helps explain a similar interest in Graham’s current work.

Sculpture for Tai Moana Tai Tangata in progress at Brett Graham’s studio, February 2020. Courtesy of the artist

The first artwork visitors to Tai Moana Tai Tangata will encounter is a 10-metre-tall niu: a mast-like structure often erected by followers of the Pai Mārire faith in the mid-19th century. The ceremonial poles, usually surrounded by a fence, were designed to catch wind-messages, making them a vessel through which God and his angels could communicate with Pai Mārire followers. Graham’s niu has pātaka hovering on its outstretched arms; their architecture referencing the historic bank building at Parihaka pā. The bank at Parihaka, which received and dispersed funds for land and community development projects, offering an alternative to Pākehā lines of credit, is an example of the innovative and aggressive adaptability of Māori culture at the time: marked not by assimilation but appropriation.

The film that sits alongside the niu depicts Te Namu, on the Ōpunake Coast. In 1862, when the mail steamer Lord Worsley beached at Te Namu, Te Ua Haumēne had a vision – one that enabled him to resolve the conflict of his divided allegiance between Christian values and Kīngitanga tikanga. As The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography puts it, the vision “assured Te Ua that he was chosen by God as his prophet, commanded him to cast off the yoke of the Pakeha and promised the restoration of the birthright of Israel (the Maori people) in the land of Canaan (New Zealand). This would come after a day of great deliverance in which the unrighteous would perish”. From this vision, Te Ua Haumēne began to establish the foundations of the Hauhau Church – also known as Pai Mārire.

In Graham’s imaging of Te Namu, the coastline is marked by the latticed, disembodied limbs of oil rigs. “I wanted to extend on the idea of ‘prophecy’ by looking into the future,” says Graham. This imagined future has its roots planted firmly in the region’s past. In 1865, only three years after Te Ua’s vision, an exploratory well was dug at Moturoa, on the New Plymouth foreshore. The well, which struck gas at 7 metres and oil at 20, was the first in the British Empire. One hundred and fifty years later the Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand reported that there were “20 oil and gas fields in operation, all in Taranaki and, as of 2014, almost 6,700 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 450 million barrels of oil have been produced in New Zealand”.

Brett Graham, still from Te Namu, 2020, video animation, 4 minutes 30 seconds. Courtesy of the artist, Ken Gorrie and Animation Research Ltd

Graham’s work has approached the effects of human intervention in the landscape before. Bravo Bikini (1996) confronts the dissonance between popular imaginings of the Pacific and the irrevocable impact of nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Kāinga Tahi Kāinga Rua (2003) is an artistic response to the research of anthropologist Katerina Teaiwa; it seeks to make visual the aftermath of phosphate mining undertaken by the British, Australian and New Zealand governments on the island of Banaba, in the Republic of Kiribati. Āniwaniwa (2007) recalls the flooding of Horahora Power Station­, an act that created Lake Karapiro and submerged sites of historic significance to Ngāti Korokī Kahukura. In each of these instances, indigenous communities were displaced from their homes in service of the political and economic advancement of the West. At the same time, their histories are complex and they raise complicated individual questions. As Teresia Teaiwa has written, Graham’s works hold tightly to the specificities of experience and history: resisting the generic constructions on which colonialism depended and still depends.

Those constructions rely on a resistance to remembering and rearticulating Indigenous agency. In challenging them, Graham’s works interweave a constellation of references. The Tai Moana Tai Tangata exhibition not only stems from the history of interactions between Taranaki and Tainui Māori that it seeks to illustrate, but also belongs to a larger visual language that Graham has practised over his career. As does Monument, shown at Two Rooms in 2018, Tai Moana Tai Tangata borrows from the visual language of memorialisation, in its dimensions, materials, forms and colour schemes. But though the works reference commemorative monumentality, they are not strictly monuments, which are by definition erected in perpetuity. Graham is less interested in the idea of forever than he is in imagining what our future might look like if we better understood the past.

Brett Graham, Monument, 2018, paint on recycled pine, 4200 x 10,600mm, installed at Two Rooms, Auckland, July–August 2018. Photo: Sam Hartnett, courtesy of Two Rooms

In Monument, a 10-metre-long block fort clad in weatherboards was accompanied by eight wood engravings, each recording the boundary lines of larges estates carved out of confiscated land by wealthy speculators in the late 19th century and the names of the Māori who had been dispossessed. The engravings complicated the sculpture and vice versa, refusing to smooth down the dying pillow of that difficult past. In Tai Moana Tai Tangata, a similar tension is created between the videos and the sculptures: an acknowledgement that we cannot read our histories without being able to read our physical landscapes. Both are defined by their relationship to memory.

Last year, as the replica Endeavour traced its path toward Aotearoa, Moana Jackson wrote that “it is the same implacable belief in the unchangeability of colonial power that characterises every colonising memorial or commemoration”. Tai Moana Tai Tangata seeks to hold that belief up to the light, revealing the holes in the silence that shine through. Graham understands that giving history a physical form is not the same as remembering. Memory comes instead from what that form may do to the gaps in and around it. Memory is carved in relief. It is the embrasures that slice through the redoubt; the space where someone stood, then fell; the fissures between what we know and what the land holds to be true.

Ka pari te tai-moana, ka timu te tai-tangata. 

Brett Graham was the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery Creative New Zealand Artist in Residence in 2019. Brett Graham: Tai Moana Tai Tangata is at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, from 26 April to 26 July.

Enquire about ordering this issue
Back to Top