Winter 2009 Studio

Cross-cultural convergences

A profound admiration for the work of the great 19th century carver, Tene Waitere, was the genesis for Mark Adams’ latest photographic project.

Enter through an innocuous doorway on Auckland’s Karangahape Road, take the stairs, turn down a dim corridor into an even dimmer space – and you’ve arrived in Studio La Gonda – the photographic base of Mark Adams and Haru Sameshima, two of our best practitioners of that challenging art of capturing light through a lens and transfiguring it into a compelling visual image.

Mark Adams went to Christchurch’s Ilam Art School in the 1960s along with Chris Booth, Neil Dawson, Phil Clairmont and Boyd Webb, and since then has built up an impressive folio of varied projects – at first glance disparate and at best tenuously connected – but once you start talking to Adams you realise there has been a pursuit of cross-cultural histories overlaying and interweaving his practice. He recalls, “There’s the work I’ve done on Samoan tattooing, a lot around Rotorua over the years, then the South Island historical Maori sites, and Pacific colonisation in general, with Cook’s voyage material and the associated encounter history”.

And his current project has a strong Rotorua connection. He and writer Nicholas Thomas, who collaborated on Cook’s Sites (Otago University Press 1999) have recently completed a new book, Rauru, celebrating the work of Rotorua-based Tene Waitere, who was one of the greatest Maori carvers of the colonial period in New Zealand. The book and accompanying body of photographs, which will be launched at Two Rooms gallery, Newton, in May, focus on three of Waitere’s surviving meeting houses – Hinemihi in the grounds of Clandon House near London, Tiki-a-Tamamutu in Taupo, and Rauru, which is housed in Hamburg’s Völkerkunde Museum.

Adams takes up the story. “This all started with John Perry, who had been appointed Director of the Rotorua Art Gallery in the late 1970s. He’d seen some of my images of carvings, so got me to come down to Rotorua and introduced me to the weirdness and fabulousness of the place. Once there, I was hooked, I felt it was an amazing nexus of a place. I was intrigued by the carvings – public sculptures really – in the streets. Many of the works are Waitere’s and over the years I’ve rephotographed many of them as they’ve been moved around, constantly reconfigured and resurrected. It’s a restless place.”

Tene Waitere was born in Northland in the early 1850s and as a small child he moved to the Rotorua area with his Ngati Tarawhai (Te Arawa) mother, who was originally from there. He then trained as a carver under Wero Taroi, master carver of the Ngati Tarawhai school, and possibly worked on the last of the big carved canoes. However, he made his mark working on wharenui (meeting houses) in the Rotorua – Taupo area. Adams’ interest in the carver was further heightened when he read Roger Neich’s thesis on Ngati Tarawhai carving. “I became a fan of Tene’s work and saw him as a key figure in the carving movement; he was one of the first to appropriate European ideas about art into his carvings. There were marble statues in the Tudor Towers sanatorium it’s possible he may have seen, and you see in his work an emerging three-dimensional effect. Neich talks about the old carving being ‘aspective’ – that is stylised frontal images with no depth, existing in a ‘timeless space’ – and the new style ‘perspective’ with greater relief and more unique images and poses, which express the time-space that the viewer occupies.”

Documenting Waitere’s carvings has been a lengthy project for Adams, particularly when two of the best examples of Waitere’s art are on the other side of the world, and Adams’ instrument of record is a large format 8 x 10 inch view camera. “Post 9/11, moving my cameras around has become a real circus. I’m now limited in what I can carry onto a plane, and I tend to courier film back home rather than risk someone in airport security opening the film box and blowing the whole trip.”

Of the meeting houses Adams has photographed, Hinemihi in Surrey has the most direct link with Waitere because he and his family survived Mt Tarawera’s eruption in 1886 by sheltering in the meeting house at Te Wairoa. Shortly after this the house was purchased by Lord Onslow, the then Governor, and transported and re-erected in the grounds of his country estate, Clandon House in Surrey. It now has a thick English-style thatched roof, which Adams says resembles the heavy mud layer that covered it, which was evident in photographs taken soon after the eruption.

Adams’ images capture the house strangely at ease in its sylvan parkland setting, deep in London’s commuter belt. Adams also photographs the grounds and interior of Clandon House, which has an extensive collection of Maori and colonial memorabilia collected by Onslow, who was fluent in Maori and whose son Huia was made an honorary chief of the Ngati Raukawa tribe. Hinemihi is currently being renovated and will soon serve as a marae for the expatriate Ngati Ranana community in the Greater London area.

Adams considers Rauru, housed in Hamburg’s Volkerkunde Museum since 1907, as Waitere’s tour de force. Built originally for Charles E. Nelson, manager of Whakarewarewa’s Geyser Hotel, it was designed with carvings featuring mythological and legendary images, which illustrated the tales recounted by the tourist guides of the time. Consequently, it lacked any specific tribal ancestral theme but instead adopted a pan-mythological approach. Adams’ close-up images of the poupous in this well-preserved wharenui capture the increasing ‘perspective style’ of Waitere’s carving, and the accompanying text in the book by renowned Maori sculptor Lyonel Grant provides a vivid counterpoint to the photographs. The museum survived the Hamburg firestorms of World War II, and Rauru stands as an enduring testament to Waitere’s creative skill.

Tiki-a-Tamamutu, the third of Waitere’s wharenui represented in the book, stands in the prosaic grounds of the slightly down-at-heel Spa Hotel in Taupo, surrounded by rose-gardens and oak trees. Adams sees this meeting house as a unique cross-cultural collision, commenting, “It was redecorated in the 1970s and when you walk in you’re surrounded by a retro feeling, which adds an interesting layer to the place. It has an orange and brown colour scheme with teal-blue carpets, ceramic tile topped occasional tables and overstuffed sofas. There are framed Goldie and Lindauer prints on the walls between these amazing ‘full-round’ carved wall pillars. It’s a complicated and interesting interior and the meeting house sits in the middle of this English-style garden.”

The images in Adams’ books and the latest suite of photographs emphasise the allure of the large-format negative. As Nicholas Thomas writes in his essay in Contemporary New Zealand Photographers, describing Adams oeuvre, “It is possible to enlarge a print from an 8 x 10 negative to more or less mural scale, and it will still possess extraordinary intricacy and sharpness, and remarkable depth of field”. Or as Adams comments, “With other enlargement processes, all you end up seeing is the chemical structure of the image. A sheet of 10 x 8 film is completely omnivorous – it engulfs the subject in a way no other medium can achieve. The detail captured on a sheet of emulsion doesn’t break down and blur when enlarged. To me there’s a huge difference between looking at a 10 x 8 and any other photographic enlargement – it’s just far more satisfying.”

Adams continues to utilise sets of unmerged images in this current series, an approach he first used in Land of Memories (Tandem Press 1993). He explains, “I was photographing contested spaces, destroyed tribal sites, and as the series was to be published in book form, I hit on using two images for each site, reflecting the two views of the land and resource, Maori and pakeha. I use the multiples to take more in at the periphery, the ‘what’s that out of the corner of my eye?’ approach.” He takes this approach even further in Cook’s Sites, where his tribute to William Hodges’ A View in Dusky Bay – the well known circular work of a Maori warrior standing on a rock outcrop (in Auckland Art Gallery’s collection) – becomes a 360º panorama. “It’s thought that Hodges used the circular format as he’d first seen the warrior through a telescope. My response was to turn the picture inside-out, and put the camera where the warrior was, so I took eight frames to get the full panorama.”

In his essay Thomas also comments that Mark Adams’ photographic work differs from both Magnum-style photo-journalism and the staged, manipulated postmodern images crowding gallery walls, yet paradoxically his purist approach with the camera brings him closer to the postmodern critique. Adams concurs, “He’s right in that my image-making over the years is a form of critique and I’ve chosen to stick to representing it in this large format practice. It’s a critique of past practices, previous styles of image-making, New Zealand social and political realities, cross-cultural histories, who we are, what we’re doing, past and present, Europe and Polynesia.”

Dan Chappell

The book launch of Rauru, by Mark Adams and Nicholas Thomas, and the exhibition of photographs by Mark Adams, open at Two Rooms, 16 Putiki Street, Newton, Auckland, on 20 May. The show runs until 28 June.

Enquire about ordering this issue
Back to Top