Essay by Hattie Pervan as part of Contextualising Practice course.
Ko Ngongotaha te maunga (Ngongotaha is my mountain)
Ko Rotorua te roto (Rotorua is my lake)
Ko Te Arawa te waka (Te Arawa is my canoe)
Ko Ngāti Whakaue te iwi (Ngāti Whakaue is my tribe)
Reciting pēpeha (introduction of self) and pouring through pages of genealogy books tracing whakapapa back to Te Ao Marama (the world of light). Hours of wondering, is it enough? Am I Māori enough? This is my space to explore, but is it? I sit feeling guilty and confused at times, clutching pounamu (New Zealand jade) in my palm tracing back and forth over the carefully carved double koru, centring myself if I can. I don’t have the Reo, like my great-grandfather did and every time I hear a word slip off my tongue, I feel unworthy and clunky. Which, I suppose, was exactly how this was all intended to play out.
My yearning to explore this subject matter, as mentioned in the opening vignette, was induced from conversations within my own whānau (family) — about our cultural heritage and the agency we have as individuals to carefully foster personal connection to cultural practice. My current personal practice is one the requires me to engage with a variety of sensitive intersections. Utilising my works to discuss the topic of colonial blood quantum usage and erasure – navigating this personal cultural loss and reclamation has birthed a complicating set of questions I am struggling to resolve. My practice has evolved into a symbiotic relationship between my own growth of cultural knowledge and the art I produce, neither existing without the other. My practice exists as both a means for me to learn more about my cultural heritage and express learning through form — each form taking on a narrative of its own becoming taonga that holds wairua (spirit).
Before I delve into my works and practice, it is useful to discuss a few of the research theories that help me to understand my practice. Two key methodologies that may help me to understand my works are Kaupapa Research Theory (Smith, 2021) and culturally safe research. First and foremost a culturally safe research approach is a priority for me when it comes to understanding my work. A culturally safe lens allows me to critically reflect, whilst ensuring a level of cultural care is implemented as I continue to learn. It is with this in mind and the recognition of the current knowledge I hold, that I begin to navigate Kaupapa Research Theory as an avenue of culturally relevant methodology. Kaupapa Research Theory is a methodology that allows for complete Māori agency, as it is tailored by and for the progression of Māori culture and wellbeing. As Walker, Eketone and Gibbs suggest ‘Kaupapa Māori as an approach has provided a space for dialogue by Māori, across disciplines, about research’ (Walker, Eketone & Gibbs 2006,).
My recent body of work explores whakapapa vs blood quantum as Indigenous identification markers. It navigates the discourse between the significance of whakapapa as a primary identifier and the introduced notion of blood quantum that was historically used to minimise and alienate Indigenous communities. Elizabeth Archuleta (2005, p. 1) discusses this in relation to the First-Nations people of America, arguing ‘[b]lood quantum standards divide and alienate American Indian communities and perpetuate a colonial discourse that promotes internalized self-hatred, alienation, and fractionation’. In Aotearoa a similar pattern has occurred, one which Indigenous communities are slowly working to undo. I aim through my work to dismantle the personal and familial damage such erasure has caused, as well as explore feelings of imposter syndrome these laws trigger in myself and others with Indigenous heritage.
WORK ONE: Whakapapa bleeds red
Whakapapa refers to the genealogy and linkage of both inanimate and animate objects, or quite literally ‘the process of layering one thing upon another’ (Ngata  2011, cited in Mahuika, 2019). As seen through Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) we all whakapapa back to the land and taonga around us as well as our physical ancestors. Land, people, and objects are inextricably linked both physically and spiritually. For me I whakapapa back to Te Awara iwi and Ngāti Whakaue hāpu, the Ngongotaha maunga (mountain), and roto (lake) in Rotorua. As reinforced by Nēpia Mahuika (2019, p.32), ‘Whakapapa is part of our cultural practice, supported by songs, proverbs, karakia (incantations), and best presented in the Māori language.’ The pounamu that hangs around my neck holds its own whakapapa and it holds mine, absorbing the wairua of the wearer. I am deeply interested in exploring taonga, as a concept in my work, examining the interaction between both tangible and intangible forms and the mauri (life force) they may hold. Taonga is often seen as an extension of oneself, acting as a substitute and additional physical representation of one’s personal mauri (Mead 2016).
The work displayed below employs an element of physical care for the mediums at use. The crimson paint was added to the yarn by hand. I coated my fingers and applied the hue directly onto each strand of yarn before it was intertwined, resulting in the slow bleeding out of the colour throughout the piece. Although tedious it became evident to me throughout the process of making, that a slow and tangible consideration of the work was necessary to fully explore the wairua it held. As Ellis Ngarino (2016, p.445) examines, ‘[b]iography is also recorded within the materials that taonga tuku iho (heirlooms) are made from. Taonga are living treasures, and as such they retain the mauri of the materials from which they are made. The materials are part of a living genealogy’. My works must foster a respectful relationship with these philosophies, honouring the emotional, physical, and political space it holds, without extending into space that may not be mine to hold. As an individual with Indigenous heritage that has not faced the discrimination that comes with presenting as physically Indigenous, it is of great importance to me that I do not speak too loudly over those who have. It is because of this consideration that my current works predominantly explore my personal emotional response to the loss of culture within my family. Adopting a more introspective approach has been a constant throughout my practice. The continuous presence of varying shades of red throughout the work a nod to the notion that whakapapa is ever present regardless of what blood quantum policies may imply.
Alice Te Punga Somerville (1998) provides an alternative understanding of identity that is discussed frequently in Te Ao Māori — if “you have one spot of Māori blood, you are Māori”. It is through this lens that whakapapa is seen as a core component to identifying as Māori as opposed to the more clinical and removed understanding that blood quantum offers. Questioning the absurdity of blood quantum my work poses a question much like the one Alvina James Edwards (2019, p.33) puts before us, as she contemplates:
I am uncertain what they wanted to experience. Maybe they wanted to be told who they are with the precision that fractionated their individual person into percentages rather than according to what we already knew about our whakapapa and genealogy.
Whakapapa bleeds red (Fig.1) is installed in a descending manner referencing the descent of whakapapa throughout generations. The knitted piece hangs in such a way that a shadow is cast over my body whilst the video piece plays, creating an inherent interaction between the two pieces despite their physical disconnect. The video piece in this work depicts the body being painted white whilst the knit work is being created. The red from the knit contaminates the white on the body creating a blended hue in some areas. The video work has had the original audio removed, this was a decision made not only to create a certain level of discomfort within the viewer as they sit with their thoughts, but also to address questions of ‘Indigenous authenticity’. This reflects what Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2021, p.82):
These debates are designed to fragment and marginalise those who speak for, or in support of indigenous issues. They frequently have the effect also of silencing and making invisible the presence of other groups within the indigenous society like women, the urban non-status tribal person and those whose ancestry or ‘blood quantum’ is ‘too white’.
Paired with these two elements is a satirical writing piece I have used to make a more direct comment on colonisation and its impact.
The work reads:
I am yet to decide on the relevance of the text in terms of the additional context it provides. Aesthetically I believe the text deducts from the overall presence of the work and may be too literal. However, the satirical element it adds allows for a direct and sharp playfulness that promotes audience accountability and understanding when interacting with the work.
WORK 2: untitled
The use of knitting and braiding in untitled is a small nod to the tikanga of weaving. Tikanga Māori places extreme importance on weaving practice, the process involving Karakia (prayer) and initiation ceremonies that can begin as early as birth.
A special karakia may be recited over a female child at birth to dedicate her to the art of weaving. This was done during the Tohi ceremony (baptism) and provided the child shows interest in weaving and willingness to learn, she may then be inducted into the whare pora (house of weaving) (Mead 2016).
An example of traditional Karakia recited at a tohi ceremony is:
‘Hahau kai mau, tangaengae;
Haere ki te wahie mau, tangaengae
Whatu kakahu mau, tangaengae’
‘Seek food for yourself, make this bind
Go for firewood for yourself, make this bind
Weave garments for yourself, make this bind’
(Mead 2016, ch.15, p.9)
During the creation of untitled, I found I was able to be slightly gentler with myself. It was at this time that reading through the experiences of other individuals, I was able to work with a small amount of compassion towards myself and the confusion of the experience I was navigating. Niki Grenfell Hawke and Keith Tudor provided an apt description of the feeling I was struggling to put into words, stating, ‘[a]s her skin colour is white, she has experience not knowing whether she could identify as Māori and Pākehā with unexplained feelings of connection and political action’ (Hawke & Tudor, 2019).
WORK 3: whetu o karukaru
Kirsten Lyttle is a Melbourne based Māori artist and RMIT alumni who works with traditional weaving methods and video art. Lyttle observes that (2013):
In the urban reality of Melbourne, it is easier to find misappropriated Māori cultural icons and images (i.e. plastic tiki, painted Māori figures on tea-towels or the tourist postcard showing a “Māori Maiden”), than empowering contemporary expressions of Māori identity.
The reclamation of such symbols in a considerate manner is a process I am navigating whilst I continue to educate myself on the meaning and customs behind them. As I learn, I find that the more I connect to culture, the more I am fuelled to create and honour my tupuna (ancestors). As Hirini Moko Mead (1996, p.6) reasons, ‘[t]he best way to protect it is to practice it’. Symbolism is a large aspect of my recent works, with a particular focus on the use of the koru (fern symbol) which symbolises growth, new life, and progress. This feels especially relevant at this point in my life as I discover cultural connections and progress in my understanding of identity. As Panoho describes ‘[t]he traditional meanings of Māori designs have been used and are still being used creatively in Māori community art forms and in work by individual Māori artists’ (Panoho 1995, p.19). They are utilised to tell cultural stories and display whakapapa in a physical sense. Figure 2 is an oil painting, focussing on contemporary symbols that appear to float in a dimensionless space with no true beginning or end. It contains a contemporary and fractured use of kōwhaiwhai (cultural patterns) mimicking a split from culture. Once again, the use of pink and red hues is a clear nod to blood, whiteness and culture, and the mixing of these elements into what is defined as cultural hybridity.
Māori identity is a dynamic and constantly evolving experience, that is enriched by involvement and commitment to learning about culture (Huia 2015). From my individual perspective my involvement and commitment to this via the creative arts has fostered deeper understanding of my own position within the community.
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Grennell-Hawke, N & Tudor, K 2018 ‘Being Māori and Pākehā: Methodology and Method in Exploring Cultural Hybridity’ The Qualitative Report, Vol. 23, Iss. 7
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The Evolving Worlds of Our Ancestral Treasures’, Biography, vol. 39, no. 3, pp. 438-460.
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Somerville, A T 1998, ‘Two Rivers within Me Flow: An Exploration of Mixed Race Writing in Aotearoa/New Zealand’, Master’s dissertation, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand.
Walker, S, Eketone, A & Gibbs, A 2006, ‘An exploration of kaupapa Māori research, its principles, processes and applications’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, p. 331-344, viewed 2nd of June 2022