Brett Graham

Congratulations to Brett Graham, who has been invited to be part of the 2024 La Biennale di Venezia Arte: Stranieri Ovunque, Foreigners Everywhere, curated by Adriano Pedrosa.

When I went to school, in the twentieth century, we weren’t taught New Zealand history. I remember studying the histories of England, Europe, and Japan, but not of New Zealand. Like many Pākehā, I grew up in a convenient state of cultural and political amnesia. It wouldn’t be until I was an adult that I’d learn about the New Zealand Wars (1845–72) and the myriad mechanisms by which Māori had been separated from their lands. Discovering that – the detail of it – was disorienting.

Such ignorance was symptomatic and systemic. In the introduction to his 2019 book The New Zealand Wars | Ngā Pakanga O Aotearoa, Vincent O’Malley writes: “The wars loom large in the national narrative, but we have not always cared to remember or acknowledge them. For much of the period from 1872, most Pākehā clung to a highly romanticised version of these wars that emphasised mutual chivalry and heroism, avoiding more disturbing truths. When this position was no longer tenable, many simply chose to ignore them altogether.”

These days, as the Wars and their legacy move to front of mind, the past floods the present. Old markers and memorials cease to feel quaint, and previously benign street names – Cook Street, Victoria Street, Greys Avenue, McLean Street, Wakefield Street – turn toxic. In this time of reckoning, people ask: Should memorials be left standing? Should the curriculum be revised? Should place names be changed? Should the flag be ditched? What forms should remembrance take? And whose?

Sculptor Brett Graham has thought a lot about monuments and memorials. He’s one of the so-called “young guns” generation of Māori artists that emerged in the 1990s. He studied in New Zealand and Hawaii, and has travelled extensively, immersing himself in Indigenous histories and issues, politics and philosophies. He’s known for his large public works, like his Kaiwhakatere: The Navigator, 2001, in Parliament grounds, in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. Late last year, Graham opened his career-defining project exhibition Tai Moana Tai Tangata at Ngāmotu New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. The show addressed the New Zealand Wars, focusing on the historical relationship between the local iwi, Taranaki, and his own, Tainui, from the Waikato. During the Musket Wars, they had been enemies, but, during the New Zealand Wars, they formed a pact, finding common cause in their resistance to colonisation. Each would lose over a million acres. 

Graham’s project itself claimed the entirety of the old Govett-Brewster. Mixing the architecture of war from the colonial frontier and the language of war memorials that followed, it felt like a return of the repressed. Consisting of four monumental sculptures, a carpet, and three videos, it exploited the Gallery’s distinctive split-level architecture, which determines the order in which works are encountered while generating complex sightlines between them.

The first work – Cease Tide of Wrong-doing/Taiporohenui, 2020 – was based on niu (news) poles. In 1862, in Taranaki, in the face of colonisation, Te Ua Haumēne founded the Pai Mārire faith. His followers erected the poles as antennae for communicating with God via the winds. The poles’ arms terminated in knobs, representing the gods Riki (war) and Ruru (peace). Graham’s nine-metre-high, matt-black version rose from the Govett’s ground floor, through a void, symbolically puncturing all levels of the Gallery. It felt futuristic yet traditional, with its sleek sci-fi rocket profile and surfaces embellished with pākati patterns. Its arms had house-shaped cross sections, suggesting pātaka (Māori storehouses or treasure houses). The title quoted Te Whiti o Rongomai, opposing confiscation of Māori lands. Even if you had no knowledge of the history of niu poles, the form itself – this big black spike – felt awesome.

From there, you ascended a staircase that Graham custom carpeted. Purutapu Pōuriuri (Black Shroud), 2020, featured the long-forgotten insignia of British regiments that served during the New Zealand Wars. Visitors had little choice but to tread on the mana of the Crown. The carpet looked distressed and the insignias’ original colours had gone, yet it was also lush, velvety, like new. Its patches of floral patterns suggested charred wood, perhaps prompting us to recall the Crown’s “scorched earth” tactics. The title was a nod to the queen of New Zealand, Queen Victoria, and the veil she wore for decades following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. But, if this was a widow’s veil, what or who was it mourning? Might it imagine an empire lost? How far could you take the metaphor?

At the top of the stairs stood O’Pioneer, 2020. Its cylindrical architecture had a specific reference to the twin gun turrets of the Pioneer, a government gunship commissioned to invade the Waikato in 1863. The turrets were later redeployed as war memorials and still stand: a World War I memorial in Mercer, where the Waikato was invaded, directed toward Te Paina pā, where Te Puea Hērangi would lead her anti-conscription campaign; and a New Zealand Wars memorial in Ngāruawāhia, on the pā site of Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, the first Māori King, where the Union Jack was hoisted by colonial forces in 1863. Graham clad his replica turret with white plaster-relief panels so it looked like a giant wedding cake – albeit one punctuated with gun loopholes. The panels’ decorative floral pattern recalled the “royal icing” of Queen Victoria’s wedding cake from 1840, the year the Treaty was signed. Graham’s message was clear. As Walter Benjamin put it, “There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Don’t candy coat this.

If O’Pioneer made its point swiftly, the third sculpture was enigmatic, ambiguous. In Maungārongo ki te Whenua, Maungārongo ki te Tangata, 2020, an uprooted carved pātaka was placed on wheels, converting it into a wagon. There was something Magritte-like about this metaphoric house on wheels, prompting us to ponder its past and future. Why had the pātaka been uprooted? Where had it come from? Where was it going? Who had drawn it? Had it been abandoned or was someone coming back to collect it? Was anything left inside? Was it a Trojan horse? 

Maungārongo asks to be read, yet it can be read in very different ways. It plays with time. Graham sandblasted the carvings to make them look old, then covered them in graphite to make them glisten like new. Its title translates as “peace to the land, peace to the people,” but it’s more dualistic. The wagon’s arms terminate in stylised faces with different expressions, representing Riki and Ruru (a nod to the niu poles), epitomising the contrasting responses of Taranaki iwi to colonisation – the militarism of Tītokowaru and the pacifism of Te Whiti and Tohu at Parihaka. While the work could refer to Māori being dispossessed of land generally, it could also refer to the way Taranaki iwi specifically dispatched wagons with food and water to Pākehā surveyors and road builders as an assertion of their manaakitanga and sovereignty. Very different ideas. 

But there’s more twists. Graham’s pātaka recalls the Motunui Panels. Carved before 1820, these pātaka panels were hidden in a swamp by Taranaki iwi during the Musket Wars. Some of Taranaki’s Te Āti Awa would migrate south to the Kāpiti Coast and Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. Maungārongo could also refer to that migration. Interestingly, the Motunui Panels would continue their journey. In the early 1970s, they were discovered, disinterred, illegally exported, and acquired by a Swiss collector. After failed legal attempts to have them repatriated, in 2014 the New Zealand government bought them and restored them to Te Āti Awa as part of the Treaty-redress process. They are now displayed in the Ngāmotu museum Puke Ariki, a stone’s throw from the Govett. Those PanelsMaungārongo reminds us – have been passing through history on metaphorical wheels.

In the fourth sculpture, Graham took the positive associations of lighthouses and gave them a malevolent spin. The towering Grande Folly Egmont, 2020, confused the form of a lighthouse with those of military watchtowers and blockhouses. It referred to the Cape Egmont Lighthouse at Pungarehu, which was completed to enable the invasion of Parihaka in 1881. By then, Taranaki was a military complex, peppered with redoubts and watchtowers. The work’s weatherboard logic would become the default settling for New Zealand domestic dwellings, with Graham prompting us to understand our own homes as part of the invasion. 

Graham’s four sculptures were huge – their scale implied historical weight. They were also colour coded – two were black (Cease Tide of Wrong-doing and Maungārongo), referring to good Māori attitudes; two white (O’Pioneer and Grande Folly Egmont), referring to bad Pākehā ones. They were like giant chess pieces, sitting on their own squares, in separate spaces, but extending their influence throughout the Gallery, perhaps holding one another in check. They were contextualised by three black-and-white panoramic videos of unpeopled landscapes. Manukau, 2020, Ohawe, 2020, and Te Namu, 2020, each pictured an important site in Graham’s story. Te Namu, for example, was where Taranaki repelled Tainui in 1833, where Pai Mārire was established in 1962, and where a future Māori king was baptised into the faith in 1864, forging the Tainui–Taranaki pact. The video, however, showed a landscape studded not with niu poles but oil derricks, signalling its subsequent exploitation by the oil and gas industry. “I wanted to extend on the idea of ‘prophecy’ by looking into the future,” said Graham, picturing the scene as a polluted steampunk dystopia, or like something out of Metropolis. Graham’s videos also played with time; they used drone footage and computer animation, yet their black-and-white, degraded, stuttering quality suggested early film.

In Tai Moana Tai Tangata, conflict and connection between Māori and Pākehā were played out in Graham’s art language, which incorporated logics of construction, carving, and casting, carpentry and carpetry, architecture and engineering . . . and video. Māori and Pākehā were related and distinguished: Māori with their carved decorations, Pākehā with their military insignia; Māori with their serpentine forms, Pākehā with floral ones. Graham drew on customary Māori forms but also on minimalism and conceptualism. He addressed complex, devil-in-the-detail histories, but through radically simplified forms and elevator-pitch high concepts (a pātaka–wagon). His sculptures felt like eyes in historical storms.

Graham addressed human hubris, while perhaps also exemplifying it. His ambition enfolded so much, not only past historical conflicts but anticipated future environmental catastrophes, with nods to rising sea levels with global warming. The show scrambled past, present, and future, echoing the prophetic sensibility that arose in Māori millennial movements like Pai Mārire, where Māori would read the coloniser’s good book only to realise they were the Israelites. Graham would say his non-linear understanding of time is Indigenous, non-Western, but you find something similar in Walter Benjamin’s conception of Jetztzeit (those moments of revolutionary crisis and possibility “shot through with chips of Messianic time”) and in science fiction’s historical uncanny (with monoliths, stargates, and other portals).

Exhibitions are social events. Other visitors are part of the experience. I was lucky to be able to attend the show’s opening-day powhiri, where Tainui iwi (bussed in from the Waikato) and Taranaki iwi gathered at Cease Tide of Wrong-doing, activating it through song and oratory. They responded to it not as a sculpture referring to niu poles, but as a niu pole, a ritual object. For a moment, the Gallery became a different kind of space. But even after this special occasion, visitors to the show would feel self conscious, realising they were looking at it alongside other visitors who may have had a very different relation to it – because they were Pākehā or Māori, Tainui or Taranaki, landed or landless, knowing or unknowing. If you could join the dots, you could appreciate the show in one way, but, if you couldn’t, you got it in another; the gaps in your education – your cultural amnesia – becoming its reference point. Graham emphasised this by having wall texts in English and Māori, where the Māori clearly wasn’t a translation, as if to remind Pākehā that Māori already had different access points to the works and that some things don’t translate. 

Tai Moana Tai Tangata generated interest and accolades, including an Arts Foundation laureate for Graham. Galleries were interested in taking the whole show, but found it wouldn’t fit, literally, perhaps metaphorically (although City Gallery Wellington did show a version of it without its twin towers). Providing a new model for projects that want to both stretch and exploit institutional frameworks, Tai Moana Tai Tangata raised the bar. What will Graham do to top it?

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 57, 2021.
Images courtesy the artist, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, Neil Pardington, and Wellington Sculpture Trust. 

 La Biennale di Venezia Artee: Stranieri Ovunque, Foreigners Everywhere
Arsenale and Giardini venues, Venice, Italy
20 April – 24 November 2024 

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