How colonisation affected tangata whenua in Taranaki captured in new exhibition

By Jessica Tyson

The impact of the arrival of British settlers and colonisation on tangata whenua in Taranaki have been captured in a new solo exhibition by sculptor Brett Graham.

The exhibition, Tai Moana Tai Tangata takes the form of a site-specific installation ranging through all floors of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.

In 2018 Graham, of Tainui and Ngāti Koroki Kahukura, undertook part of his two-month residency in Taranaki to research local strategies of resistance to colonisation, to then create new works for the exhibition. During this residency, he researched the history of the relationship between Taranaki and Tainui, and a pact of solidarity, known as Te Kīwei o te Kete forged during the New Zealand land wars.

 “When it comes to colonisation I was looking at some of the things that Taranaki and Tainui had in common and this expression of King Tawhiao, Te Kīwei o te Kete, says Graham.

“He talked about how Taranaki had one handle of the kete and Tainui had one handle of the kete and even though the two iwi had been at war because of the threat of raupatu, confiscation, that bound the people together in that sense of common experience of colonisation.”

One of five sculptures in Tai Moana Tai Tangata / Source: Brett Graham.

Graham is a sculptor who creates large scale artworks and installations that explore indigenous histories, politics, and philosophies. Graham works from Auckland but has been a constant traveller through his career, undertaking a range of residences through Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, North America, Asia, and Europe.

He says his own whānau also has a connection to Taranaki.

“On the big scale of things there was Tawhiao who sent down his Tekau Ma Rua to Taranaki, his prophets or disciples, to observe what was going on in Taranaki with Parihaka leaders Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi," Graham says.

“But on another level, my family was quite closely connected there so we have Grahams in Taranaki. So the smaller picture was looking at all of those intimate connections in our family that made it real for me.”

Source: Brett Graham

Tai Moana Tai Tangata

Tai Moana Tai Tangata includes five sculptures including one that has taken the shape of a pātaka, pantry, on wheels.

Graham says the carved pātaka was inspired by quotations by Te Whiti and Tohu Kākahi.

“When the soldiers and the surveyors came to essentially mark up their territory and take land away from those people at Parihaka, they sent out wagons of food, and of course, those wagons of food were interpreted as an act of generosity but they were really a statement about mana whenua, about the fact that they were the true occupants of the land but, of course, it went completely over the heads of these surveyors and soldiers.”

Source: Brett Graham

Another work, called Grande Folly Egmont which looks like a lighthouse, says Graham.

“That again relays that experience that Māori would have known when Pākeha soldiers built many redoubts throughout all of Taranaki and all of Waikato. I’ve called it Grande Folly Egmont as a play on how ridiculous it is to change those beautiful names like Taranaki to Egmont and Ngāmotu to New Plymouth.”

Grande Folly Egmont / Source: Brett Graham.

The exhibition has been extended until May 2, 2021.