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Essay

Toro Whakaara: Ngahuia Harrison

Kei te haere au ki te moana mō whakaora. The smell of salt, a ripple of wind, the gentle murmur of the tides are sharply juxtaposed against the Marsden Point oil refinery, which looms on the horizon and dominates the landscape. The moana is a source of healing but also a fresh reminder of mamae. The refinery sits opposite Manaia, the maunga a physical embodiment of our Ngātiwai tūpuna Manaia tuatahi and a vessel for our pūrākau. I squint into the sun and hold up my hand against the sky as I try to block out the view of the refinery. I close my eyes and listen to the waves lap against the rocks. I reflect on the recent news that the refinery will soon be decommissioned, and hope that in its absence, hapū rangatiratanga will be upheld and space will be made for new possibilities that will restore the mauri of the harbour and sustain tāngata.

This exhibition invites us to consider cities, towns and landscapes as sites of inclusion and exclusion, and to critically interrogate the role of architecture and architects. For mana whenua, colonial cities and settlements have long been sites of exclusion: through the theft or transfer of land, the distortion and reshaping of maunga, awa and moana (significant physical landmarks as well as metaphysical markers of cultural identity) beyond recognition, the displacement of kāinga and desecration of wāhi tapu, and the destruction and pollution of māra kai and mahinga kai. Historic survey maps and aerial photographs of Whangārei city and around the harbour reveal a rapid loss of control of the land and foreshore, followed by the radical and forceful reshaping of watercourses and land, and a shifting ecology marked by the movement of silt and the expansion of mangroves.

Sited around Whangārei Te Rerenga Parāoa (Whangārei Harbour), the lens-based work of Ngahuia Harrison (Ngātiwai, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Pukenga) explores the tension between our rights and responsibilities of stewardship as mana whenua, and the expansion of industry within our rohe. Through our shared whakapapa to Ngātiwai, I connect with Harrison’s work on both a personal and political level. The stories of our tūpuna are centred on the harbour, both the ancestral pūrākau that ground and connect us culturally as mana whenua, as well as the more recent recollections of our nannies and kōroua, aunties and uncles. They tell stories of abundance and loss at a time of immense societal and cultural change, of experiences of unimaginable hardship but also moments of joy.

In the time of our grandparents, the moana was a source of nourishment and a physical connector, linking our kāinga that are dotted along the harbour. My grandfather Haki Kake and his siblings were raised at Te Rewarewa, on the shores of the harbour between Portland and the Port. My aunties and uncles fondly recall playing amongst the ruins of the cement works on Matakohe (also one of our tūpuna pā sites) as children, and of later experiences living in Portland. In the 1950s, my great-grandfather Toki Kake died of a heart attack, out on a fishing boat in the harbour. I’m told he used to drag his waka from the corner of our whenua, over the sand and into the channel, to collect kai for our whānau. My great-grandmother Hohi Kake (née Wipaki) is buried at Toetoe next to her youngest daughter who shares her name, in an urupā perched on the hill overlooking the harbour. Our bones are literally and figuratively embedded in the ground.

Harrison’s work explores the uneasy balance between environmental degradation and the reliance on polluting industries for employment and financial well-being, founded on a complex history of loss – the loss of land (in Whangārei rohe the whenua Māori that remains is around 4%, with the Waitangi Tribunal acknowledging Whangārei hapū were left virtually landless), the loss of kāinga and mahinga kai, urbanisation, and the ongoing relationship and obligation to whenua, moana and te taiao that persists regardless. The Marsden Point oil refinery and Portland cement works are dominant features in the landscape, the harsh industrial architecture signalling who is in control (of the environment, of the landscape) – and who is not. Yet, in spite of everything, we – the living descendants – are still here.

Harrison’s work builds on her previous work, including photographs as part of I huti a Manaia i te ika and his heart was broken (2017) and Coastal Cannibals (2020). Harrison’s work is inherently political, yes, but more importantly her work is marked by a loving and careful examination of relationships between people and place, connected through whakapapa.

Harrison’s work makes me want to wānanga on our shared whakapapa, weaving our way upwards and across, untangling strategic marriages, picking up loose threads. It makes me want to kōrero about our personal whānau and shared hapū and iwi stories of the moana. It reminds me to treasure precious time spent listening to our kaumātua, their first-hand memories of direct tūpuna who I will never meet. It makes me want to plunge my body into the cold water and trace my hand along the sandy bottom, seeking out the kai moana nestled there. I want to race to the surface as shafts of lights cut through the water and bubbles spill out of the edges of my mouth. I want to burst out into the sky and feel the oxygen rushing into my lungs.

 

 

Ngahuia Harrison (Ngātiwai, Ngāpuhi, Pākehā) is an artist and researcher based in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and Whangārei. She completed her Master of Fine Arts from Elam School of Fine Arts in 2012, and is a current doctoral candidate at Elam and the James Henare Māori Research Centre, University of Auckland. Working with a 4x5 large-format camera and other lens-based media, Harrison’s images explore tribal narratives intertwined with bodies of water. Harrison is interested how heavy industry, particularly in and around the Whangārei Harbour, either overshadows or is overshadowed by longer tribal histories and attachment to place.

Jade Kake (Ngāpuhi, Te Arawa, Whakatōhea) is an architectural designer, writer and housing advocate living and working in Whangārei. Her design practice is focused on working with Māori organisations on marae, papakāinga and civic projects, and in working with mana whenua groups to express cultural values and narratives through urban design.

 

 

This text is republished from Toro Whakaara: Responses to our built environment, a publication produced by Objectspace to accompany an exhibition of the same name. The publication is edited by Tessa Forde, and copy-edited by Anna Hodge.

(above & below) Ngahuia Harrison's ongoing series Coastal Cannibals in Toro Whakaara: Responses to our built environment. Photograph by Alt Group.