Brett Graham
Artist - Sculptor
Moenga Roa
War in the Head



The memory of water

Sean Cubitt

Where water and electricity meet, sparks fly. At Horahora, they took the power of the waters to make electricity for the goldmines at Waihi. You have to wonder at this marvellous alchemy, that transformed water into gold.

The mighty Waikato river, as it tumbles past, is named Aniwaniwa, a word that might be translated through an obscure but beautiful meaning of the English word 'glory', which along with all its other meanings, is used to describe the effect of a rainbow fringe appearing around a shadow cast on clouds, a phenomenon only witnessed by mountaineers and pastoralists for most of history until the invention of air travel. A radiant halo of light that comes from the play of the electromagnetic spectrum displaced and dancing in veils of water droplets, like a cloud halo round the moon.

What electricity we have that is not derived from the fossil remains of ancient forests and their denizens (and the tiny fraction from direct sunlight) comes from water, Aniwaniwa is a tribute to that transformation of flow from the liquid to the energetic state. In its organic sculptural forms it speaks of the cycle of matter and energy. Throwing the solid state of the mould into a relation with the flow of images raises new thoughts about stewardship and witnessing. Brett Graham's grandfather who tended the turbines on the Aniwaniwa witnessed and guarded the river's transformation into power. His grandson witnesses and guards in the feather-chest of his sculpture the transformation of water into images, and the holding of the flow of images in the sculpture's screen, like a river holds a feather up to the sun, like an engineer tends his machine, like a man tends a memory in the floodstream of his life.

The memory of water: how is it possible to remember the infinite variety of its ripples and curls? In Gaelic poetry, there is a form reserved solely for the praise of water: and this work has something of that form. But how to praise what is unceasingly unstill? And how to hold the memory of the element that is our shared metaphor for all that changes? Water's surface flickers and froths where it meets the wind. But under the surface, where we go so infrequently, there it is not a question of how a woman remembers water, but how water remembers us.

A river remembers not the waters that have run through it for all its thousands of years, but the shape of what is not the river. The riverbed and the riverbank are, to the river, the boundaries of its own native shape. Only when the storms rage and the river forgets in its fury, only then do the banks and beds dissolve, change shape. But everyday in the rapids, the river plays with its edges, throwing itself into the air, transforming itself from water into light.

The electricity of the camera and projector remember that leap into air. In the endless stream of images, where every image can be replaced with any other just like any drop of water, these images are kept in pools, in jars, in treasure boxes so that the memory of water and its bounty shall not vanish.

I like the edges where the projected light bounces from the lacquer. It sanctifies the light.

If water no longer knows its boundaries and swallows the coral atolls it has nurtured for so long; if the foreshore forgets its edges and rises, will the water recall the people of the sea? Gently the images teach water how to remember the people who have lived with it for so many centuries. Deep as the turbine drowned at Horahora, will water recall the shapes that entered it, that gave it new, living, diving, dancing forms inside itself? As Rachael Rakena teaches electricity to remember water in the form of streams of images, and as Brett Graham teaches the fluid formless fibreglass to remember the mould, these pools suspended in a gallery remote from rivers and seas remember, and teach remembrance.

Like a sea-cave which has trapped bubbles of air in cavities in the rock ceiling, air that the water recalls in its pulsing and lapping, these inverted pools of electric water remember the shape of lives, projecting time as they invert gravity.

For water is the shape of time, time in all its tragedies and transformations, its living and its dying, its way of forever coming to birth. Sage heraclitus at the very dawn of writing knew that no-one could step into the same river twice, and yet the river, that emblem of life, is always the river, even if the river is never identical with itself. Just as the person who steps into it is the same person and yet changed, utterly changed.

It is time that we experience here, the strangeness of a treasure that is always treasured, even though it is never the same twice, treasured because it is never the same twice. The stillness of the box tells us of endurance, of the long memory of things. The fleeting images speak of the rippling ever-changing micro-geography of events as they occur within us and without.

There is no still point. Soft illuminations flicker at the lip of the curved carved forms, bounce from faces turned upwards to them, a corona at the interface between phases of the light, the water, the electricity, of time itself.

What is past comes back to us as the memory of all the ancestors accumulated in our 21st century technologies. Crowding round in the shape of things, the Western tradition has forgotten the names of its ancestors, burying them anonymously into the black boxes of cameras, projectors, tools, devices. In Aniwaniwa, the cruel technological trick of depriving the dead of their names and enslaving them is unravelled.

Time reversed in the upside down pools reflects the actions of ancestors perhaps as yet unborn, the last dance in the sea before the rising tides obliterate homelands, as they obliterated the town of Horahora. These memories are not only those of the ancestors past whose shapes water recalls, but those of the future dead, a remembrance before the event of an event we must fear even as we work to prevent it.

To live well, one must live with the world. This art is a lesson for people, for the green world, and for technologies, a lesson in how our memories are inseparably intertwined in the flow and ebb of time. Be still, throw back your head, attend to how the present is the moment in which the past and the future alike come to birth.

UFOB: Brett Graham and Rachael Rakena

Biennale of Sydney 2006 - Zones of Contact Catalogue

Peter Brunt

The title of this installation is not hard to decipher. It combines the familiar acronym for those alien visitations from beyond (UFOs) with an acronym for new migrants (FOBs) to form an insult. You FOB. The acronyms are also the basis for the work's narrative conception. A fleet of 'unidentified flying objects' hovers above us. Through their 'portholes' we see, on embedded television screens, digital video loops of brown bodies absurdly wrapped in plastic carry-bags, floating surreally underwater and washing up on Sydney's Bondi beach. The scenario here is comical, a Pythonesque allegory of migrant 'arrival' stories or a sci-fi parody about encountering the 'other' with its rampant metaphorisation of the alien and the stranger: giants, gods, cannibals, spirits, savages . . . SPICs, WOPs and FOBs.

But if the work is about projecting the 'other', it is also about imagining the 'self' in the Pacific 'contact zone'. The bags, we might recognize, are the kind typically used by Polynesians as luggage in their frequent air-crossings of the Pacific Ocean – part of the modern business of keeping up connections and relationships in the diaspora of the last few decades. Like cyberspace and digital media – like the Ocean itself once upon a time – the bags are a medium and symbol for this dispersed, expanded and mobile idea of contemporary Pacific identities.

Brett Graham and Rachael Rakena are two artists whose work has recently attempted to complicate the question of indigeneity in the Pacific. They have done this by allegorizing indigenous histories of migration or displacement to reflect conundrums of identification in the present – for example, in Graham's Kainga Tahi Kainga Rua (2003), a sculptural meditation on the island of Banaba, which was strip-mined for phosphate in the early twentieth century to the point of requiring the removal of its indigenous population to a new home in the 1940s. The artists have also done this by exploring the role of new technologies and media as vehicles for cultural expression in the present – as in Rakena's video installation, Rerehiko – a play on the Maori word for computer – in 2003.

What is the nature of the commitment to indigeneity when the land itself has been scattered on foreign soil and 'home' is divided between a first home and a second, between here and there, now and then? What do we do with the contradiction between the commitment to place and the apparent placelessness of the media through which that commitment is expressed? Faced with these questions, the usual line is to assert a continuous flow between old media and new ideas and new media and old ideas: Graham creates new sculptural forms but he is still a carver continuing the practices of his ancestors; Rakena adds cyberspace and digital technology to the toolbox for communicating cultural ideas in a dynamic continuity between the past and the present. But the question is: are new media simply tools? Or are they forms of consciousness discontinuous with older media and ways of being? If they are not only the medium but the message, then what is the message saying about the nature of indigeneity?

Moenga Roa

If You Delve Deeply Enough Things Will Declare Themselves.

Ngahiraka Mason
Indigenous Curator Māori Art.

Brett Graham is a serious and 'cool' personality-as in Māori film director Lee Tamahori meets Wellington's fine-act band Trinity Roots' cool. A traditionalist when it comes to explaining things to his audiences Graham likes to prove things to himself. A high achiever and model child, Brett is confessional, in a caring way.

His knowledge and practice of Maori concepts such as manaaki (putting others first) are exemplary. Graham is outstanding at extrapolating tough conflicts and emotions, because to him , feelings are strong things. His recent art explores pre-quel and sequel events in New Zealand's social history and if you delve deep enough, things will declare themselves. All 'cultural developments' come filled with struggle, surreal outcomes, love, tragedy, celebration and loss, and Brett Graham's art explores all of these issues. Although Colonial history is psychologically murky from an indigenous perspective, that which emerges from the shadows might actually present as hope for a yet-to-be-spoken-about future.

The terms indigenous Māori and Pākeha (a white New Zealander descendant from Colonial settlers) are distinct to Aotearoa New Zealand. They identify two groups of people that are inextricably linked-stuck with each other for better, for worse. For the most part conflicting but self-preserving social and political ideologies have driven Māori Pākeha relations to many extremes. Add Colonial Government assimilation policies and New Zealand's peculiar style of biculturalism to the association and the country's social and political fabric starts to question everyone's identity and world-view. Some New Zealand made films that speak to this burden in differing ways are the part-documentary, part- constructed and part-authenticating productions such as The Piano 1993 (Director Jane Campion), In Spring One Plants Alone 1081 (Director Vincent Ward), Heavenly Creatures 1994 (Director Peter Jackson) and Once were Warriors 1994 (Director Lee Tamahori).

Moenga Roa (eternal sleep) comprises a dramatically lit bed, pillow and sheet made from moulded plastic designed to look like soap. Graham's rendition of the sheet is a large light box which sheds light on the over-writing of indigenous place names that were replaced with Europeanised Pākeha ones, which Brett has accurately recorded, and studied obsessively. Similarly, the oversized king-bed lays bare the clear split of a bi-racial heritage, which represents New Zealand's particular style of biculturalism. The moulded pillow- a less than smooth headrest-completes the installation. But, is Graham presenting a site which Māori and Pākeha would like to crawl-out-from-under?

The entry points to Moenga Roa are laden with emotional layers, some that can't be seen, such as the everyday realities and pressure to be bicultural. Graham's focus is a combination of integrations and adaptations that require huge emotional investment by him. By staring 'biculturalism' in the face he is clearly someone who has an unflagging quest to investigate race as a powerful agency. He has carried his investigations even further by shifting from his comfort zone and use of traditional materials such as wood and stone to the newer material of plastic. Then again, Graham's use of plastic materials can be read as a pledge to set his practice in motion in other ways.

Moenga Roa is both cynical and hopeful and, to some extent ambivalent. The project deliberately revives old territories that are an accumulation of both put-downs and accolades to do with Māori identity and New Zealand nationalism. Less encouragingly, the title has uncertainty about it, for to speak of Moenga Roa is to stand before a tūpāpaku (deceased person) and pay tribute to and recount the life of the loved-one, farewelling them onto the next world.

While the politics of questioning is not exclusive 'questioning' is more easily rejected and misunderstood, rather than comprehended. Making meaning of race, identity politics and Colonial history is daunting. For all New Zealand's social, cultural and political stumbling, Moenga Roa provides a meeting point that is challenging, exposing and directional. Which can lead to a place that considers the future in-depth and opens up thinking. As you make your bed, so you must lie on it-everyone must bear the consequences of his own acts.

Moenga Roa

Bathroom And Bedroom Politics: The Black And White Of It

Jonathan Mane-Wheoki
Dean of Music and Fine Arts , University of Canterbury.

In 2001 Brett Graham spent six months as artist-in-residence in Scuol, the Swiss alpine town that lies on the Lower Engiadina, close to the Italian Border. From Scuol he attended the opening, in June, of Bi-Polar, the exhibition marking New Zealand's first official presence at the Venice Biennale. The artists represented, Jaqueline Fraser and Peter Robinson, are, like Graham, high-profile contemporary Maori artists who have profited both from the international exposure of their work and their exposure, in turn, to a global frame of reference.

For the artist-in-residence, the first task was to take stock of the immediate environment and try to make sense of the place. What was the relevance of Switzerland-the Southern Alps' near antipodes, in fact—for a politically focused young Māori artist so far from home? Graham's information-gathering uncovered some promising material about formative influences on European attitudes to race which to this day cast dark-skinned people into the role of 'other'. Jean-Jacques Rosseau, the moralist whose concept of the uncomplicated 'noble savage' living in harmony with Nature gained wide currency in later eighteenth century Europe, was Swiss in origin, as was John Lavater, the proponent of the long since discredited, racist pseudoscience of physiognomy, in which character was judged from facial features. John Webber, the official artist on James Cook's third (and fatal) voyage to the pacific, was also of Swiss parentage.

Scuol has been, in the nineteenth century, a fashionable health spa to which Europeans flocked to 'take the waters'. In the grounds of the large hotel built in the 1860s (parallel to the Waikato land confiscations, the artist notes), stands a palatial residence built in anticipation of a visit from Queen Victoria (in whose name the Treaty of Waitangi, the 'marriage' between Māori and the Crown, was, in 1840, solemnized). Graham found his living quarters in the bathhouse 'sterile and white, almost asylum like'. His response to these clinical surroundings was to create from coal an overscaled bath. 'Coal, he explained, 'is dirty and blackens everything it touches, it references racial slurs, yet is of the earth'. Ironically, it is from coal that black coal-tar soap, a legacy of Victorian science and industry, is manufactured. The product was originally marketed with humorous 'coon' and 'nigger' images.

Back home in Auckland, Brett Graham has moved, metaphorically, from the bathroom to the bedroom. These are the most private and intimate enclosed living spaced in our domestic environment. When we submit our bodies to cleansing routines, when our consciousness is almost suspended in sleep, we are at our most vulnerable. The bed, in addition to its primary function as a place of rest, is associated with nuptial consummation, conception, birth, convalescence and death. It can also be a place of domestic violence and sexual violation. The marriage bed in Shakespeare's Othello is a site of miscegenation and murder. Bending over his sleeping wife, the 'Moor of Venice' momentarily hesitates to 'scar that whiter skin of hers than snow and smooth as monumental alabaster' before smothering the blameless Desdemona with a pillow. Sin is black; moral (and by implication, racial) purity is white.1

Stark, shocking and apparently irreconcilable differences between blackness and whiteness delineate the racial and moral divide that Brett Graham critiques. In the permanently colonized condition of Māori, 'creature comforts' of 'civilisation' such as the pillow, the bed and the white sheet loom as emblems of cultural genocide. Anticipating the rapid demise of Māori towards the end of the nineteenth century, Sir Walter Buller supposed that the colonists' role was to 'smooth the pillow of a dying race…' In such a scenario the bed becomes a bier, the sheet, a shroud.

Tension between the descendents of the colonizers and the colonised persists to this day. But, as Ranginui Walker observes, 'the differences from our Colonial past are being settled in the bedrooms of the nation'.2 Just as the bedroom operates as a zone of assimilation in an ideologically bicultural nation, so the bathhouse might signify 'ethnic cleansing'. In 1889 an advertisement in McClure's Magazine depicted a naval admiral in the act of washing his hands. 'The first step towards lightening The White Man's Burden',3 the advertising copy reads, 'is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. Pear's soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances…' In the eighteenth century John Wesley preached that 'Cleanliness is, indeed, next to Godliness'.4 Cultural whitewash could be said to be one of the tragic consequences of European Colonialism and Christian imperialism on the colonized indigenous 'other'.

1 But see "I am black but O! my soul is white" (William Blake, 'The Little Black Boy')
2 Ranginui Walker in Metro, February 2001 in the essay 'Hostages of history
3 The title of an excruciatingly jingoistic and racist poem by the most imperialistic of all Victorian poets: Rudyard Kipling.
4 Evangelical posters in the 1950's, in a parody of washing powder advertising hype, proclaimed, Jesus washes whitest of all'.

War in the Head

Reading the Maps Blog

One hundred and forty-one years ago Gilbert Mair, founder and leader of the feared Arawa Flying Column, chased a man named Aporo into a cave under a waterfall near Tauranga and shot him dead. The killer caught his breath, then began to rifle through Aporo's tatty garments. Mair was hoping to find a message from one of the rebel Maori villages hidden in the densely forested ranges behind Tauranga harbour, or perhaps even a map showing the trails that led into the ranges, and the network of pa that guarded the approaches to the rebel villages.

What Mair found in Aporo's jacket pocket surprised him. The rebel had been carrying a notebook, but instead of instructions from headquarters or maps of the local terrain it was full of strange black and white drawings. Mair turned the pages, bewildered by the depictions of giant pillars, exploding suns, and impossibly large battle machines. Anti-colonial slogans and cryptic, apparently religious phrases were scattered across the pages. 

Aporo's Book of Dreams has baffled and thrilled generations of scholars. The massive war machines in several of Aporo's drawings have proven particularly difficult for historians to interpret. How was Aporo able to imagine these devices, which today remind us of scenes from science fiction films? Could he have been making blueprints for machines that he and his fellow rebels aimed to build? How could a small band of bedraggled, poorly armed men possibly entertain such a conceit? Did Aporo hope that supernatural forces would bring the machines of death down to Aotearoa and drive the invaders into the sea?

Scholars have tended to suggest that Aporo's war machines were exercises in wishful thinking, scrawled on rainy nights in the bush by a man caught inextricably in the nightmare of war. For all its plausibility, this interpretation ignores the different levels upon which war can be fought. The anti-colonial struggle of Aporo and his comrades proceeded on a conceptual as well as a military plane. Aporo and his band of fighters were all 'Hauhaus' - followers of the Pai Marire religion which had been founded a few years earlier in the Taranaki by the prophet Te Ua. Like Te Kooti, whose own prophetic career was just beginning when Aporo was shot, Te Ua turned the white man's Bible on its head, making the Old Testament a history of the Maori people and the Book of Revelations a prophecy of the defeat of the invaders. Te Ua's followers pronounced their superiority over the adherants of other religions, and revived many Maori cultural practices that white missionaries had tried to stamp out. 

Some historians have bemoaned the transition of Pai Marire from peaceful religious movement to violent resistance struggle, but it was always inevitable that the doctrine of Te Ua would lead to the wars Aporo and others fought. Anglican missionaries had been an essential part of the invasion force which poured into Aotearoa in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Bishop Augustus Selwyn had marched beside General Cameron at the head of the twelve thousand strong army that crossed the borders of the Waikato Kingdom in 1863. Anglican churches in war zones like Franklin and Wanganui were built with especially thick walls, and had rifle holes cut into their sides, so that they could become makeshift blockhouses whenever Maori raiding parties approached. By dethroning the white man's God and proclaiming the righteousness of resistance, Te Ua inevitably provoked the wrath of the invader. 

Aporo's drawings can be considered part of the conceputal counter-offensive that Te Ua began. His depictions of invincible war machines and an apocalyptic end to the British occupation of Aotearoa are not just flights of whimsy - they are attempts to make the notion of British defeat and Maori supremacy imaginable, in the face of colonial politicans' talk about racial superiority and missionaries' condemnations of Maori culture. Like Blake's visions of the divine judgement of the Britain's King and London's industrialists, Aporo'sBook of Dreams is a righteous and furious thought experiment.

Maori have not ceased to challenge the imagery and mythology of colonialism. Four years ago, at a ceremony held to mark the entrance of the Waitangi Tribunal into the rohe of the Tuhoe people, Tame Iti fired an antique gun into a New Zealand flag laid on the grass outside Ruatoki marae. Iti's act prompted outrage amongst sections of the Pakeha population of New Zealand, and led to the massive police raid on a Ruatoki 'terror cell' in October 2007. With his rotund figure, his outdated rifle, and his high public profile, Tame Iti seems an unlikely guerrilla, yet the New Zealand state sent scores of armed men on a dawn raid to capture him and a few of his followers, and then made a farcical attempt to charge him with terrorism.

The fear that Iti continues to inspire amongst many Pakeha comes not from his military prowess, but from his conceptual offensive against the New Zealand state. By attacking the New Zealand flag with the same sort of colonial musket that the Hauhaus used, Iti desecrates a symbolic order which is as important to the legitimacy of the state as the guns of the army and the batons of the police. Like Aporo's visionary drawings, Iti's performance art is a declaration of war.

Brett Graham is an artist from the Ngati Koroki subtribe of Tainui, and his recent exhibition Campaign Rooms was conceived as a response to the October 2007 police invasion of Tame Iti's homeland. Speaking to the New Zealand Herald about his show, Graham noted that Tainui had been given back an old air base at Te Rapa as part of their 1995 settlement with the Crown. 'I've been fantasising about the weapons we might be building there', he said, in an effort to explain the sculptures, drawings and film he placed in the lower floor of Auckland's Two Rooms gallery.

Graham's show was dominated by two 'Maorified' Stealth bombers sculpted from a mixture of wood and bronze. With a wonderful disdain for the principles of aerodynamics, Graham covered his bombers with carvings of a variety of motifs from traditional Maori art. (There are precedents for Maori treating non-traditional weapons in this way: the Auckland War Memorial Museum museum displays a musket which was covered in carvings by an anonymous soldier in Te Kooti's army.) Graham's exhibition also included a series of intricate and sinister blueprints for his bombers, a large work called Spirit of Aloha made from scrap metal salvaged in Hawaii, and a short, eerie film showing a young man dressed in hybrid Polynesian-Arab clothing performing a war dance.

Campaign Rooms has the same provocative qualities as Tame Iti's performance at Ruatoki marae in 2005. Like the shot Iti fired at the New Zealand flag, Graham's exhibition is a symbolic attack on a state many Maori still associate with injustice and violence.

Yet Graham's art is capable of working at a deeper, subtler level than Iti's bellicose gestures.Campaign Rooms challenges the ideology of colonialism, as well as the state that the colonial era has bequeathed us. Graham's unashamed use of 'gratuitous' surface decoration, for instance, represents a rejection of the modernist aesthetic that seduced many Maori sculptors in the decades after World War Two. In his Herald interview, Graham noted that his own father was a carver and sculptor who was persuaded to abandon traditional Maori decorative motifs in favour of the 'clean lines and smooth surfaces' promoted by modernist gurus like Henry Moore and Le Corbusier. The theoreticians of visual modernism talked about creating a 'universal style', and often connected their aesthetics to progressive, internationalist politics. Le Corbusier, for instance, was a socialist who associated gratuitous ornamentation of buildings and sculptures with the decadence of bourgeois society.

In retrospect, though, we can see that the universalism of modernism hid a strong residue of imperial hubris. The 'clean lines' and 'smooth surfaces' that many modernist sculptors and architects celebrated remind us of nothing so much as the skylines of First World cities. Le Corbusier's disastrous attempts to create an 'ideal city' in the heart of India revealed the distance between his chilly sensibility and the culture of the people he wanted to 'liberate'. In New Zealand, Graham suggests, modernism was the aesthetic corollary of assimilationism, the government policy that sought to 'mainstream' Maori by making them abandon their culture.

By creating innovative work which nevertheless acknowledges the baroque, fantastic qualities of his people's traditional art, Graham reminds us of some of the visionary Maori masterpieces of the nineteenth century, like Aporo's Book of Dreams and the painted meeting houses of Te Kooti.

Despite his intense interest in Maori experience, Graham eschews any sort of cultural nationalism. The work that was gathered in Campaign Rooms reaches out beyond Aotearoa to the northern Pacific and North Africa. Spirit of Aloha is a comment on the situation of the Hawaiian people, who lost their independence at the end of the nineteenth century and have since seen large parts of their turangawaewae turned into an American scrapyard.

For its part, Graham's movie alludes to a painting by Joshua Reynolds which dressed a young Polynesian up in the garb that European painters of the eighteenth century normally gave to North Africans. For Reynolds and many of his comtemporaries, both the Arabs and the Polynesians were defined by their 'otherness', rather than by any positive traits. As such, they were the object of both hysterical fear and patronising curiousity. Graham's film reminds us that a similar ignorance has caused some European New Zealanders to make both radical Maori and Muslims into bogeymen in the years since 9/11. The media's wild claims that Tame Iti had links to Islamist terror groups, and the nicknaming of his non-existent armed group 'Te Qaeda' illustrate this phenomenon.

In an era when sellout Maori politicians hobnob with Tories on Waitangi Day, Brett Graham's art reminds us that not all of the indigenous people of Aotearoa have forgotten the legacy of Aporo and other rebels against injustice. Campaign Rooms is a worthy successor to Aporo'sBook of Dreams and this country's other great works of visionary protest.