Jamie Berry (Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga a Mahaki, Ngati Porou, Ngā Puhi) is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice is steeped in whakapapa. Her practice weaves together sound, moving image and design to create new expressions of story-telling. Jamie is a founding member of 7558 Collective, a wahine Moana Nui collective made up of artists Te Kahureremoa Taumata, Leala Faleseuga and Pikihuia Haenga.
In this interview, we talk about A prophecy of darkness: AA 06101769, a moving image work commissioned by the Maritime Museum, which showed in Tākiri: an unfurling. This exhibition was foregrounded by the contentious Tuia 250 voyage, a national commemoration of the first onshore encounters between Māori and Pākehā. I first encountered 7558 Collective on Instagram and stumbled across A prophecy of darkness online.
I sat down with Jamie to talk about her creative process and her connection to this kaupapa. We also touch on her role as an editor and story-maker at CORE Education and the conscious shift to tell history through a non-colonised lens.
Israel Randell: Kia Ora e hoa mā, I always start off with ko wai koe? Nō hea koe?
Jamie Berry: My name's Jamie Berry, I am a multidisciplinary artist, I’m originally from Tūranga-Nui-a Kiwa and my iwi are Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga a Mahaki, Ngati Porou and Ngā Puhi and I’ve been based in Wellington for the last 17 years.
IR: How’d you end up in Pōneke?
JB: I always liked Pōneke as a place, it's got a creative vibe to it and my favourite Aunty and her family lived here. After I studied in Palmy for a few years doing painting, I moved to Pōneke to try and finish that off, but that didn’t happen. I ended up managing a clothing store for five years. Then my aunty got sick. She had a brain aneurism that caused a stroke, she was bedridden for 6 years and during that time I was one of her caregivers. [After?] and I decided to go back to studying all things multimedia design and film.
IR: So you went from painting to film? How was that transition?
JB: Well, for me, my paintings had lots of layering. I was never happy with the end result, so I’d just keep layering, which wasn’t as satisfying. But before film and design, I was in the fashion industry for a bit. But learning what goes on behind the scenes in the fashion industry also made me rethink that. I’d go over to China on buying trips and see their processes... yeah, that wasn’t really me so it made me re-evaluate my direction in life. I knew I had creative powers. I just didn’t know how to utilise them at that point in time and realised I needed to go back to study, especially because I didn’t know much about the digital world other then DJing.
IR: True? DJing?
JB: Yeah. Music has always been in the background of everything I do. I still DJ now but maybe two gigs a year. I have old lady criteria now, lol. My last gig was Troy Kingi’s residency at Massey (which finished by 9.30 pm, tick) which was buzzy as I was given the challenge of remixing one of his songs as he walked through the door, no pressure!
IR: Can you tell us about your film processes and how you take an idea or concept and actualise it?
JB: Ideas and problem solving come to me in dreams. Before I had the skills I would have constant dreams and visualisations of mahi. I’d see the end product and it was always moving and had sound. Initially, that drove me to go back to study and learn those skills so that I could actualise these dreams. So the process of creating for me will happen in the dream world. But I also do a lot of research, especially if I’m gonna do a project based on history or iwi.
IR: I came across A prophecy of darkness: AA 06101769 while I was doing research around counter-narratives. But visually this work is stunning! Could you talk a little bit about the process of making it?
JB: We were invited by Bridget Reweti to be a part of the show (Māori Moving Image: An open archive, Dowse Art Museum (2018)), but we had to decide what we were gonna talk about. Initially, there were talks about possibly doing this poetry piece by a tipuna from Ngāti Whatua, but it didn’t sit well because none of us whakapapa to that tipuna and the poetry didn’t really resonate. So we decided to do our own research into our relationship to encounters. That’s how we came about Tiwha tiwha te Pō.
IR: What is Tiwha tiwha Te Pō?
JB: I whakapapa to Rongowhakata. "Tiwha tiwha Te Pō" is a prophecy that was said by a Ngati Maru Tohunga, Toiroa. In 1766 he foresaw the Endeavour (ship) coming and recited this prophecy. He drew in the sand his visions of a large vessel with white sails and men dressed in tailored jackets with strange weapons. The second part of the prophecy refers to the arrival of Te Kooti Arikirangi, who was Toiroa’s grandson.
Tiwhatiwha te pō, Ko te Pakerewhā, Ko Arikirangi tēnei rā te haere nei. Dark, dark is the night. There is the Pakerewha. There is Arikirangi to come.
Once we decided that’s what we were going to do, the dreams started to happen. One dream was very clear. We were at Kaiti beach in Gisborne where the encounter happened. This piece here, which is my whakapapa, was floating in the air, and the collective were lined up. I could see the water and hear the waves and everything was high contrast in colour—this is how I know its a vision rather then just a random dream. Then, I felt behind me, someone’s hands on my shoulders. From that point, things started to fall into place. Initially I was scared of the thought of portraying visually what it would have been like from the shore's point of view. I wanted to be very sensitive about that, and also check in with the collective, with my whānau, to see if this was ok to do. There’s a constant back and forth internally for me about whether or not this is the right path. Once it was decided, opportunities to research further came up. I attended wananga with Rongowhakata where we visited different spots where encounters happened and [I] learnt about each event. The right people for each job came at the right time easily and at times effortlessly. Things like this seemed to fall into place when I’m on the right track.
IR: I love it when that happens. My dad always says when you start to research, the tipuna start to visit you, and I feel like that’s a good signifier.
JB: Yeah, and I felt like we’re always having to ask if we can do something, like an elder or someone who knows more than you. I had that in my mind at the start and realised after a korero with my mum about it that this is a conditioning I need to let go of. My mum said, "You don’t have to ask, that’s your whakapapa and if it’s coming from the heart, you’ve done your research and your tūpuna are visiting you, you don’t have to ask for permission."
IR: What are your film inspirations that influenced this aesthetic? I feel like this work has a distinctive point of view visually.
JB: I love Ralph Hotere and we had done some research on him for this particular work. I kind of want to live like how Ralph Hotere lived, just creating art, a hermit life, but I’m also very whānau orientated, so perhaps that hermit life is back in Gisborne.
IR: Oh what a dream, I wish I could do that too.
JB: But through him, we use black a lot. And although he was a painter his design aesthetic was so on point. A prophecy of darkness uses black, white and red to symbolise the Rongowhakaata colours. But when it came to the edit, I also wanted to play with scale, I wanted to add a modern feel to it, so the editing/colourisation process was influenced by graphic novels and the movie Sin City (2005) emphasising certain key moments in the soundscape visually.
IR: I feel like simplicity says so much more too.
JB: We also didn’t want to go overboard with symbolism because we wanted the story to be portrayed in the movement of the dancers as well. Once we did the soundscape, I handed it over to Tupe Lualua and her three dancers to interpret it through movement. The soundscape was the main driver and our thought when beginning this project is that it will be heard before it is seen.
IR: I like how the symbolism is super subtle too, I know this story is set on the shoreline and I love how the patterns move. To me, that symbolises the ebb and flow of the water but there’s also a lot of mirroring going on.
JB: Yeah, We wanted the audience to be totally immersed in that moment so the projections are scaled from ceiling to floor. It was installed in a corner section with two projections creating a mirrored effect. Everything lined up so that the lines crossed over one another. The reflection of the screen bounced on the ground so it made another cool mirrored effect too. Those things are amazing little surprises that you can’t anticipate.
IR: During the process is there much room to be experimental? Or are things quite structured?
JB: In film production, everything is structured. Especially when you work with so many different people/roles. You have to get the soundscape done (which went through 4 versions) and then there’s steps and processes that you follow in order. But once that stuff is all done and sorted, it gives you time to play in the moment. The actual creation of each part is where we experiment and play.
The soundscape is very important to me. It’s the first thing I do. For the soundscape, we came together and I created a basic timeline of what happened. Beginning at 1766, when Toiroa first said the prophecy, to 1769 when Cook arrived. I used that to figure out how it was going to sound. I kinda compare this process to DJing, you start your set with low bpm and then work your way up and then come back down. It’s the same kind of process; easing people in, creating an impact, and then easing people out.
From the timeline, I had to work out when an event happened and then match it up with different sound effects. Throughout the soundscape you hear Te Kahureremoa, taonga puoro and voice setting each scene. We wanted the start to sound peaceful, pre-colonial times, but also eerie, like something was about to happen. Like a lullaby gone wrong. You know when the encounter happens and when the dark, dark times have arrived. We also wanted to have a hopeful moment, and that moment being, Arikirangi is still to come, that moment is at the end with Te Kahureremoa, powerful vocals, and the expressive movement of the dancers holding form in the last couple of frames.
IR: What other sound experiments have you done?
JB: All my individual work uses my DNA chromosome sequencing within the soundscape. I asked my friend who is a coding genius if it was possible to translate my DNA into a musical score, which you can add different instruments/sounds to. This gives me direct connection with my tupuna and my whakapapa throughout my mahi. We also did a project called Waimāori (2017) experimenting with what positive sound vibrations have on water and energy.
IR: So did the soundscape for this work include your DNA?
JB: Nah, we made a conscious decision as a collective to not include our DNA to this project as we didn’t want it to be stored away in the museum forever.
IR: I love how dynamic you all are in your skills sets, how does that all scaffold?
JB: There’s four of us within the collective. We all have our skill sets. Pikihuia is a boss director of photography and has an eagle eye for detail. Te Kahureremoa (also known as Ladyfruit) is an amazing musician/songwriter and taonga puoro queen. Leala is a photographer and digital design magician and (she) also has a talent in researching and writing. She works at the Levin Library, so it's very handy if we need to go deep in the research. We all merge into different lanes at times though, and (aren't) set sticking to what we know. I’ve never actually experienced such synergy with any other working collective. It’s like we’re not individuals anymore when we come together and create, the ego drops. It’s hard to describe, but when we’re in that making mode, ideas just come. It’s like our tūpuna bring us together to ponder and create on a topic and they also enjoy hanging out with each other looking over us, having a good laugh.
IR: I love collectives because I feel like there is so much power and mana in the collective.
JB: We do feel powerful when we’re together. Like we can say more in our art without one person taking full responsibility. Also, our skill sets are like a perfect combination. The conceptual ideas of each component is stronger too because we have four minds thinking about the same thing from different angles. The supportive energy for each other is an important part of our collective, we are mama’s, aunties, have day jobs, have lives and are all individual practising Artists. While finding the time to create together can be hard at times, we make the effort for each other because we know the mahi we create together is important and needed in this climate.
IR: How was that work received?
JB: The day after the opening we had to do a small impromptu talk about our work, most of the audience were Pākehā of all ages but mainly 40-50s. The museum staff and volunteers who usually take people around and talk about the work were present as well. After our talk we had two of the volunteer staff approach us, one was in tears and they were quite angry that they didn’t know this side of events, 'why is it not taught in schools?' Both were 60 year old Pākehā women who just realised the lens of which history they have been told over the years. This is why it is important that we tell our stories now. Overall a positive response.
IR: Did you ever feel conflicted to be showing at the Maritime Museum?
JB: As a collective we did discuss this, going back and forth thinking if we wanted to progress further. We had wananga with the other artists, curators and (the) museum team around the tikanga for us to be culturally safe within the process and the museum space as well. What we concluded as a collective was; 'if this is how we’re going to get our reach into an international and national audience, telling a different narrative that hasn’t been told for 250 years, then we should use this opportunity to do that.' We didn’t care about Cook, we wanted to tell the perspective from the shore as best as possible. So we thought it was important to get this work into that space.
IR: And to take up space and reclaim space.
JB: Yeah and to say that this happened!
IR: Did your whanau or Iwi get to see the final product?
JB: My family members have seen it, mostly on social media. My mum and younger sister came to the opening and they’ve also been a part of the making process. I consulted with my mum throughout the whole project and my younger brother Matthew is the voice that you hear reciting the prophecy.
IR: I love when whanau can be a part of projects.
JB: While we were recording my brother, two tātarakihi (cicada) would come inside and chant with him, then we’d stop and they’d go, this happened throughout the recording. They were our tohu telling us were on the right track. My sister Steph and her tamariki also helped me source all the costumes from Gisborne that we got from op shops, they put on the outfits and we figured out what would be appropriate for the feel of the shoot but also comfortable for the dancers to move in. They wore old school clothing (1960s) all made in New Zealand. My mum gave me her piupiu she made and other taonga to use, so all throughout the process, my family helped. They’re all super supportive and creative in their own right.
IR: And your iwi?
JB: Not yet, I’ll be doing a screening at my marae, Te Rongopai marae over New Year's. I’m hoping I can get it into the Te Tairawhiti Arts Festival next year and I can see it playing on the water where the encounter happened and having massive speakers, immersive audio.
IR: What were your considerations around cultural safety?
JB: That’s definitely high on the priority list for any project I approach. I’m always making sure that everyone involved is spiritually, emotionally, physically and mentally safe. We have a process as a collective where we wananga together and talk through our thinking, how we feel about it, any tohu or guidance from our tupuna, following our intuition and karakia. It’s an ongoing process from start to finish of each project of checking in with each other. I ask my tupuna to guide me and trust my intuition to look and listen for the signs and tohu that will present themselves during the journey. But as a collective, if one person isn’t good with something and it doesn’t sit right, then we’ll drop it.
IR: Does this extend to others who become a part of the project?
JB: Most definitely, we brought in many brown creatives for this project and we wanted to be transparent so they knew what they’re getting themselves into. We had Tupe choreograph this project and bring in 3 of her Le Moana dancers. We had a lighting grip, we had a sound technician as well, so we made sure they were aware (culturally and spiritually) of our intentions. All up, we had 10 females and 3 males contributing to this project including my whānau. We would do karakia, ask our tupuna to look over us, and talk through our intentions for each session to keep everyone safe within that space where we created our mahi. [We would] end our day the same way.
IR: I’m interested in stories and histories that are told and those that aren’t. I’m trying to amplify untold stories as a way to create more balance. What are you thoughts about this?
JB: I work within the education sector and I think it's time to tell history from a non-colonised point of view. We need to be telling our own stories through our own lens without the gatekeepers making it a mission to do so. I find I have more freedom to tell these stories as an artist as we have autonomy over our narrative without being roadblocked.
IR: I have also just started to realise how important it is to digest information, stories and histories too before we regurgitate it to our mokopuna.
JB: And that process is internal, spending time just thinking about it. In terms of making, I look at all the different ways stories or histories could be told, to invite everyone in and not be too confrontational. Film installation allows us to create spaces in that way, to make people feel something first, in the hope that they’ll start to question what they know or have been told.
IR: Do you think that if our stories and histories were told in schools that the Ministry of Education would do it justice?
JB: I am hopeful, but a lot needs to change. Maybe we need to think about gatekeeping and how Māori should be in leadership positions so that when it filters down, mana is still intact. But I have hope because I won’t give up on our people. In my role I’m always conscious about speaking up when something isn't right, questioning or pulling people up on the ways they are portraying people, which influences the narratives of a story.
IR: I’ve been thinking about sovereignty lately and have started to think about what a sovereign world would look like? Or feel like?
JB: What a buzzy question. I would feel overjoyed knowing I could leave this realm in a better situation, especially with my nieces and nephews and the younger generations. Like just knowing that their future is looking good and they’re not gonna suffer from systemic racism like the generations before them did. They know who they are and (they) are solid in their identity, speaking the reo freely and [they] are not ashamed of being Māori. Being able to tell their stories and our stories with pride, and not feeling so lost on their own land. I also feel like it’ll be next level coolness as a nation.
IR: So at film school did you specialise in animation?
JB: No, I didn’t, it was actually when I left and started working on projection visuals. I self-taught (YouTube) how to do certain effects and then I started working at CORE Education and honed into editing and animating. When I finished my digital media studies I continued my studies in digital film production. The first assignment was to make your own short film, which scared me and the thought of collaborating back then was so foreign to me, following through on your idea with a crew. Looking back, it was the beginning for me in changing that mindset and embracing the power of collaboration.
IR: What’s your hope for the next generation of brown artists?
JB: My hope is that there are more brown artworks in galleries and museums and it's not like “this is a Māori and Pasifika show.” It's just there and it’s not put in a box, it just exists. To express our stories the way we want to express them. That our pay equity is in check and that Māori and Pacifica artists are being prioritised over Pākehā artists that are appropriating our culture. And that the next generation of artists can hold their heads high and not question if they belong there. Actually, I hope this all happens right now.