Associate Professor Ross Hemera.

Artist connects with grandfather's burial place

A Kati Huirapa community project at Puketeraki Marae, in the Otago town of Karitane, has provided an opportunity for a Wellington artist to reconnect with his Ngäi Tahu whänau.

Associate Professor Ross Hemera, from the College of Creative Arts, says his mother told him some time ago that according to oral history his paternal grandfather was buried near the marae, where he is to install a new carved waharoa (gateway) this weekend.

The waharoa project is to be dedicated on Sunday after a two-year collaboration between the marae community and two Ngäi Tahu artists, Ross Hemera in Wellington and James York in Dunedin.

Mr Hemera says his personal connection to the area made it feel like he was following in the footsteps of his ancestors. He says the connection was as strong as the one he feels between himself and the rock drawings left by his forefathers, which are a distinctive feature in his work.

“It has been rewarding on so many levels connecting with the Huirapa whänau, least of which is the opportunity to collaborate with other Ngäi Tahu artists,” Mr Hemera says.

“For me working with Mäori communities, especially my own iwi, validates what I do as an artist.” On the waharoa project, he has collaborated with carver James York. While Mr Hemera has been sculpting the totara and aluminium posts  (amo) of the gateway from his Wellington studio, Mr York has been working on the (maihi) barge boards from his studio in Dunedin and the two compare notes and collaborate most often by phone, email and occasionally in person.

“Working with other artists, and the community, is an essential part of Mäori creative practice," Mr Hemera says. "As Mäori and as Ngäi Tahu I enjoy the opportunity to contribute to the collective aspirations of the community. When working with our art forms the concept of taonga tuku iho is the pervading kaupapa - the knowledge that comes from the atua [gods), and ancestors - this is treasured, added to and developed and then passed on to others. These concepts also underpin my teaching practice.

“As with the rock drawings, with this project I felt that my forefathers were telling me how to make forms, so essentially whänau, or the concept of taonga tuku iho, is at the heart of all my work.”

The waharoa conforms to a traditional amo and maihi convention, with two side posts and gabled bargeboards. "It is made from totara the customary timber for such structures. The carved elements and surface patterns are reduced to a bare minimum. However, some contemporary elements have been introduced through the use of aluminium components. At its widest the gateway spans about 6m and is about 3m high at the apex.”

Mr Hemera has worked at Massey for 14 years in a variety of teaching and researching roles. “Part of my work as an academic at Massey involves creative practice in the visual arts. Another expectation is connecting and working with communities. I feel fortunate that I have been able to undertake both of these aspects within the context of my whänau and iwi.”

Puketeraki Marae manager Suzanne Ellison says the collaboration presented challenges that required negotiation. “The challenge for the hapü was to find the whakaaro (concept) behind the waharoa and the challenge for the artists was to bring this out in the work… the artists can't do their own thing, they have to work with the community and can take it only as far as people want it to go.

“The gateway is based on the whakatauki [proverb], 'Ki uta, ki tai' - from the mountains to the coast, and reflects the stories about the local area and whänau.”

Mr Hemera and Mr York are also part of an exhibition of the works of six Ngäi Tahu artists that opens at Gallery Thirty Three in Wanaka today and runs until 15 August.

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