Essay

Transmission

Kereama Taepa

While the techniques are global, the philosophies remain Māori 1 – Professor Deidre Brown (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu) Head of School, School of Architecture, University of Auckland

Transmission is a major installation by multi-disciplinary artist Kereama Taepa that presents three new artworks commissioned by Objectspace. Ambitious in its scope, this exhibition charts a new course in Taepa’s investigation of the tradition of innovation within te ao Māori (Māori world), mapping links between taonga pūoro (musical instruments), Māori creation stories and toi whakairo (the art of carving) through the lens of digital technologies.

Kia Mataara explores ngā taonga pūoro (sometimes called taonga pūoro), a collective term meaning ‘singing treasures’ and refers to traditional Māori instruments. Personified as individuals with their own distinctive sound, taonga pūoro are given names and generally grouped in whānau. Taonga pūoro are believed to be the children of atua (gods), therefore the sound emanated from these instruments is regarded as the voices of atua.
In particular, pūkāea is a long wooden trumpet, belonging to the family of Hineraukatauri (goddess of flutes) and delivers a strong male sound. It is used both as a signalling device during war, and in ceremonial occasions during times of peace.

Pūkāea are usually made from a long wooden stem bound tightly together with vine however Taepa has created this body of pūkāea in PLA filament and wrapped in nylon cord. These elegant pūkāea feature intricate designs that can be seen in the kōngutu (mouth piece), the narrow end which have similar wheku (a representation of a human face). However, each of the whara (end pieces) have distinctive treatments. Some flare out widely and have a gaping bell-like mouth, while others have a wheku or serrated edges. In this exhibition, Taepa’s pūkāea are suspended at the entrance of the gallery space and create an opening for us to cross into a cultural and spiritual threshold, where the transmission of the tradition of innovation, mātauranga Māori and whakapapa flows freely.

Taepa comes from a family of makers who demonstrate a tradition of innovation as part of their personal whakapapa. His father is senior clay artist Wī Taepa who descends from a line of Te Arawa master carvers and is also a founding member of Ngā Kaihanga Uku which was established in 1987. In search of an alternative to wood as a medium of expression, Wī was introduced to clay which he shaped by hand and found it to be the ideal medium to express Māori cultural values. This accumulation of whakapapa through wood and clay mediums was passed down to Kereama and his brother Ngataiharuru, who were among Wī’s first students. Both have built upon their father’s innovative approaches; Ngataiharuru through a painting practice that closely examines the significance of kowhaiwhai and in his role as Director of Toi Rauwhārangi Māori Art College of Creative Arts Massey; and Kereama through a broad practice that encompasses contemporary art, design, teaching, fashion and digital technologies.

Whakapapa is kept alive through active participation and is central to Māori art practice. In the virtual reality work Te Oru, whakapapa gains its charge each time viewers engage with it. Taepa identifies Te Uira, the god of lightning as a potential beginning for a whakapapa that contextualises digital spaces and practices within a Māori cultural paradigm asserting, “Te Uira is the closest parallel of a visual and physical representation of electricity.” Once the headset is worn, the user is immersed into the realm of Te Uira who appears in a humanoid form and adorned in stylised tā moko. As viewers move through the environment, this charge accumulates and appears as bolts of lightning.

Kōauau (open ended cross-blown flute) is also rendered in this virtual realm to emanate whakapapa through its use and sound. Viewers can play kōauau using a hand controller, shifting between the three wenewene (finger holes). The sounds bring to life the voices of Tāwhirimātea, (the god of winds), which encompasses and activates the gallery space.

Tāne-auaha tests the abilities of digital technologies to be used for cultural enhancement, particularly the Māori creation story of Ranginui (Sky Father) and Papatūānuku (Earth Mother) who were locked in a never-ending embrace and their children lived in the darkness between them. Each of their six children attempted to separate their parents without success until Tāne-nui- a-rangi (Tāne Mahuta of the heavens, who is also the god of the forests and birds) took on the task. He struggled to part them with his hands so he lay on his back, digging his shoulders deep into his mother’s body and rested his feet against his father, he fully extended his powerful legs to force Ranginui to the heavens and let the light into the world. This is understood as personifying the transition between te kore (a void of emptiness which is also full of potential), te po (the night) and te ao marama (the light).

This process of bringing existence into being through innovation is articulated in Tāne-auaha which consists of three stacked 3D printing machines that will print throughout the course of the exhibition. The fused deposition mode of 3D printing production unfolds in real-time, offering viewers an intimate view of a form that builds layer by layer to manifest four poupou (carved wall panels). Components will be printed and then reconstructed to reveal personifications of Tāne, who is represented through figures that take on the tuare (serpentine) style of Te Āti Awa carving, with long sinuous bodies and wheku and peaked foreheads. As the last artwork to ‘arrive’ in the exhibition, its completion embodies transmission as the movement of knowledge and information akin to the lineage of whakapapa.

Transmission is an installation that challenges and reshapes the role that digital technologies will play in our collective future. Taepa’s employment of technologies allows us to cut across physical and digital thresholds; first, into the realm of Hineraukaturi who exists in a whānau of pūkāea. Witness machines printing personifications of Tāne Mahuta of the heavens, who is also the god of forests and birds into existence. Immerse yourself in the virtual reality of Te Uira (the god of lightning) and hear thevoices of Tāwhirimātea (the god of winds). Questions of ‘authenticity’ are redundant within the context of this exhibition which celebrates innovation in te ao Māori, attesting to the continued relevance and power of Māori expression in Aotearoa and beyond.

– Ane Tonga

1 Dr Deidre Brown, "Te Whare Mahi Hiko: the Powerhouse" in Hiko! New Energies in Māori Art. Christchurch, N.Z. : Robert McDougall Art Annex 1999.

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Kereama Taepa has a Masters in Māori Visual Arts from Massey University in Palmerston North. His involvement in the arts have been broad and varied including working as a Bronze Technician at the Dibble Arts Foundry, fashion designer through his label Urbanmāori and an arts educator at Te Whare Wānanga O Awanuiārangi. Taepa has exhibited his art nationally and internationally, and has works in collections across New Zealand. His public commissions include sculptures in the Four Plinths Sculpture Project outside Te Papa, Wellington in 2016 and a public sculpture in New Plymouth in 2015 as well as facades of two civic structures in Rotorua in 2014. Taepa was the Supreme Award winner of the Molly Morpeth 2D Award. His projects include Pōhutukawa on the Tauranga Waterfront (2018); a (very) brief history of aotearoa for the Four Plinths Award in Wellington (2016); Matatoki: Mata ā Waka at Tauranga Art Gallery (2020) and Te Whāinga: A Cultural Lab on Civility (2019).

Transmission is curated by Ane Tonga. Tonga worked as an independent curator and artist before her recent appointment
as the inaugural Curator Pacific Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi
o Tāmaki. She is from the villages of Vaini and Kolofo’ou in the Kingdom of Tonga and was born and raised in Auckland. She is Deputy Chair of Contemporary Hum Trust Board and has served as a Judge for the Molly Morpeth Canaday Award (Painting, 2019) at Whakatāne Art Museum, Estuary Art Ecology Award (2017) at Malcolm Smith Gallery and the Miles Art Awards at Tauranga Art Gallery (2016). Tonga has written for numerous art publications and catalogues with a focus on female artists of Māori and Pacific descent such as Fiona Pardington, The Pacific Sisters and in 2017, she published the monograph Te Ringa Rehe – The Legacy of Emily Schuster.

Kereama Taepa, Te Uira and kōauau, 2020.

Kereama Taepa, Te Uira, 2020. Image: Samuel Hartnett.