Ngāi Tahu and Ngā Puhi artist Rachael Rakena boasts an art practice that spans almost 30 years. Her immersive, collaborative and often performance-based work has been exhibited nationally from marae to galleries. In 2006 she represented New Zealand with Brett Graham at the Sydney Biennale; in 2007 their collaborative work Aniwaniwa was included at the collateral events at the Venice Biennale.
Rachael’s practice work continues to build on her 2005 thesis Toi Rerehiko that explored Digital Arts For Māori by centering the concept of space between fluidity, immersion and continuum within the Māori paradigm.
I first saw Rachael’s work Rerehiko (2003) in Te Puāwai o Ngāi Tahu, one of the opening exhibitions of the Christchurch Art Gallery in 2003. Rerehiko made me realise that I too could be a Māori woman that makes moving image works. I later met Rachael in the wharekai of Robert Jahnke’s marae at Waipiro Bay and was fortunate to have her as a lecturer and supervisor during my time as a student at at Toioho ki Āpiti. The Māori art world is small but supportive to say the least. When I sat down to talk with her in late 2018, Rachael had recently returned from an indigenous digital arts residency at The Banff Centre in Canada.
Bridget Reweti (BR): Can you explain a little bit about your work ...as an individual and not under the name of Ngāi Tahu (2001)?
Rachael Rakena (RR): I went to the Dunedin School of Art, and in my first year computer art became a core subject. Tom Field had done this research and set up this suite of computers, there were Commodore Amigas.
BR: This was mid-'90s?
RR: It might have been '89. '80s! It was the first time computer art became one of the disciplines. And he sort of just managed to stay ahead of us by spending his nights learning Amiga programming.
I had never turned a computer on before. That's how first it was. I pushed the button, and fell in love with it. I thought I was going be a painter until I encountered that.
I started collaborating with one of my classmates during that year and playing with the camera, bringing the video into Deluxe Paint. I think we started with 16 colours. It moved up to 32 and I think we got to 64 by the end of it, so you can imagine the aesthetic. That old stuff is so graphic when you bring video in, such a limited colour palette. We got hold of an underwater casing for our camera and we spent a lot of time in all the pools in and around Dunedin, and we'd take turns at filming. That was the beginning of the moving image stuff for me.
BR: And collaboration too?
BR: So quite a few Māori going through?
RR: That might have been about it. There might have been one or two others. In my final year I collaborated with my friend and called it a multimedia dance. It was basically a rave. And it was the first of its kind in Dunedin. We had both separately, and unknown to each other, been to a rave on New Year's Eve in Sydney the year before. We'd never seen anything like it. So we developed this concept and got 50 people to perform on stage. We'd approach people that looked cool, or would dance cool at nightclubs or wherever and ask, "Oh, do you want to be in a dance party?"
We got a choreographer on board and—this is a little embarrassing—we called the times in between performances the "Times of Sweat," where you danced. We had three large video screens, and as it was prior to VJ’ing, the footage was all pre-edited. It was all new material, all original. Driving around Dunedin, people dancing, overlays, underwater sections.
We made about 15 hours of finished edited footage across three screens so five hours straight. We advertised it with these little "New York, London, Paris, Dunedin" short 40 second adverts and we'd go into the big lectures at University where there were hundreds of people and ask if we could show it before the lecture started.
My collaborator was Katherine Kaan, she's Simon's cousin. So it was like a Rakena/Kaan Production. We had posters all around town because we were scared people wouldn't come. And then we met all these young teenagers who used to get together to do hip-hop. We told them they could get in free, as long as they were up dancing from 8:30pm. We needn't have worried, because the venue could hold 1500 and we were full by nine, and we had a queue 'round the block. It became a one-in, one-out scenario.
Louise Bryant, you know, the dancer? She was 15. She danced en pointe with her two sisters, and they did one of the performances. It's funny when you look back who was there doing what.
BR: Sounds like an amalgamation of performance, video and collaboration.
RR: Yeah. I do think that my interest in the potential of the computer stuff was all around music, dance, movement.
I just remembered Nathan Pohio's grandmother, who is my dad's first cousin, she directed a stage show with all the kids from Rapaki Marae to raise funds for our new kitchen. So me and Nathan, who were both six at the time, were in it. My brother was a teddy bear, my sister was a rosebud.
BR: And what were you?
RR: I was a daffodil. I really wanted to be the bluebell, my cousin got to be the bluebell. She was the only bluebell. We performed Teddy Bear's Picnic, Dance of the Flowers to raise funds. Nathan was a bumblebee.
BR: And did you do it at Rapaki Marae?
RR: Yeah. I mean when I think about it now it’s kind of crazy those performances in the context of marae. I didn't meet Nathan again until a Te Atinga hui at Rotorua when we were both students. We had one of those conversations, "Oh hi, where are you from? Oh Canterbury. Oh whereabouts? Banks Peninsula. Oh what, marae? Rapaki. What family are you? The Couch family. Who are you?" And we realised that our grandmothers lived next door to each other.
BR: Oh nice, in Rapaki?
RR: Yeah so, my Auntie Elma is his grandmother. And then realized we'd both been in this play.
RR: And when I think about moving image, I think its whakapapa goes to performance. If you look at the elements of kapa haka there are some really great things to call on, to bring in. It’s storytelling. I've never been very interested in having video that hasn't had people in it neither.
BR: Yeah, so fitting.
RR: Yeah. So I did a Māori Studies degree and a post-grad at Otago and when I was there that's when I got into kapa haka, and Māori politics and student's associations. We set up a group called Kāi Tahu Whānau of which I was a founding member. And our version of social media at that time was you would CC everybody into a conversation so everybody could keep track of what was happening. And I was interested in the notion that you reach a collective decision on the pae, that Māori talk until it's resolved.
I remember being in a few situations where discussion went all night to make a decision. Including at somebody's tangi, somebody made this impassioned speech and I thought, "Oh yeah we should take him back up there." And then the next person made an impassioned speech. "Aw yeah no we should keep him here."
BR: And it goes until 4am or something.
RR: Yeah. And so in our Kāi Tahu Whānau, this whole email conversation happened where an email newsletter came out saying that Ngāi Tahu and Creative New Zealand were hosting a pōhā wānanga.
My flatmate was the organiser who'd applied for the funding. An email came through to the group saying, "Hey check this out." Sort of like, “Who gave him permission to share that with the public, that knowledge?” And then he sent an email saying, "Before you all get your knickers in a twist, I applied for funding as an individual and not under the name of Ngāi Tahu." It was one of those kind of instances where it blows up but then got resolved all via email.
In the work ...as an individual and not under the name of Ngāi Tahu you see these email addresses and emails on CRT monitors, the video camera is in front of the monitor zooming in so you're getting the pixels and the patterns of the pixels. So you've got a mixture of texture of the pixels and then that flickering is the difference between the CRT frequency and the camera frequency.
I was looking at those as patterns in this environment in which a Māori community are operating. I was thinking about the idea of a digital whare, what is this digital space made up of?
BR: Yeah how do we occupy that space?
RR: The other thing of course was the internet was just kicking off and we were "surfing" the net so the language around it was about water, you now, no sort of standing place. So I was looking at Māori identity in terms of water, fluidity, and not being fixed. This went into (the exhibition) Techno Māori in 2001.
BR: How did the issue with your flatmate get resolved?
RR: People calmed down. It was just for Kāi Tahu Whānau. It wasn’t for anybody else, we weren’t going to host anybody that turns up. And you know there is an interesting issue of being protective over our knowledge when we barely knew it ourselves, and all that stuff.
BR: Did the pōhā wānanga take place?
RR: Yeah at Moeraki and we learnt how to make pōhā, a pre-bucket, bucket. It’s made out of bull kelp.
The other thing I was interested in was democratising the camera. So, when I had access to a video camera, I'd bring it along and we'd share it around. I'd just sort of hand it about.
BR: So that those taking the images were also in the images?
RR: Yeah. I was trying not to exploit the community. They had agency in the making and the editing. I had been reading Our Own Image (1990) by Barry Barclay and he talks about the importance of Māori making things themselves and literally operating the camera. So we edited the wānanga footage and showed it alongside as an individual...
It’s that whole banal everyday life. And also the activity, where there's cultural revitalisation, really active measures. When you share the camera around, some people don't mind talking. You share it around and get everybody's humour and personalities. I mean, you can see my flatmate who applied for the funding…
BR: As an individual…
RR: Yeah haha. Not under the name of Ngāi Tahu. He's trying to teach this group of academics who are uncoordinated how to make pōhā.
BR: How did you edit it?
RR: They had a big part of it, I operated the editing equipment and they told me which parts to keep or discard.
BR: Was Kāi Tahu Whānau a University students association?
RR: We started as a University student/community group at Māori studies. We got together to learn. First thing we did was learn a song so that we could uphold the mana in that context, because we were mana whenua. We went for about twelve years. So weekly kapa haka, and then wānanga at our different marae where we'd learn our different practices. By this time I was a lecturer at the arts school and we'd moved in there too because they have a good carpark and they had a big room we could use. And they loved hearing our singing down the corridors on Tuesday nights. We still had students coming in as well. By then we had set up a trust and all that kind of stuff.
So, in between our weekly meetings we'd email to arrange things. But this email came through saying, “How many people are going to be at the Hui-ā-tau, at the annual Ngāi Tahu hui. Do we want to perform?” It was in Christchurch. And somebody emailed back and said, “How many people in Kāi Tahu Whānau are Kai Tahu anyway? It might not be a duet, but it won't be much more.”
BR: Whoa, really?
RR: Yeah, your eyes say it all. And of course this is CC'd to the whole group. So over a flurry of 24 hours the response to that was, “Well if Kāi Tahu men were reliable enough to turn up, we wouldn't have to rely on a backrow of Ngā Puhi.”
BR: Whoa! Is that a Ngāi Tahu woman speaking?
RR: Yes. And the truth was we did have a back row of Ngā Puhi because at that time there wasn't an adult kapa haka group in the town, so people who were really keen came to us. And you know a number of our Ngāi Tahu are Ngā Puhi as well, which I am as well, but it just exploded.
RR: And the guy that sent the first email replied “I'm offended that you all took my email tone the wrong way, and you didn't realise it was tongue-in-cheek...” It just went on and on.
But again it got resolved with a discussion of what we did. By that time we had been running for maybe 10 years. And so we were well and truly established in what we were, what we had achieved as a group. And it became a recap of ‘This is why we set up in the first place, this is what we tried to achieve you know, aren't we great? Kāi Tahu Whānau rocks!’
BR: Naw, cool one Kāi Tahu Whānau.
RR: I asked them if I could use the string of emails which are the emails in Rerehiko. And also if Kāi Tahu Whānau would be in the water. They agreed as long as they could wear clothes.
BR: Ha ha, "not like that other time when she showed that work in undies."
RR: Yeah. So they all hopped in this diving pool and we tried to do a haka underwater, it was a bit chaotic. By then I wanted to push the idea of Māori identity being solely founded on your tūranga on where you stand on the land. Actually, it's also where you float in the water. And as soon as you take us to water, we start talking about our migration narratives, our creation narratives, you know, that's a really informed site, our food gathering places. An acknowledgement of our whakapapa. And that we still live in a big ocean. This work was made for the opening of the Christchurch Art Gallery, 2003.
BR: Oh I think that's when I first saw it! And that's when I was like, ‘Oh I want to make video’.
RR: That's awesome! I wrote my Masters around Toi Rerehiko at the time. It was around this group of works, and positioning it and centering it as Māori-based practice and discipline. And of course indigenous revitalisation projects and all those digitisation projects. So it was linking and all that kind of material as well.
BR: And water.
RR: Yeah. Because when ...as an individual… was in Techno Māori, at one of the artist floor talks, a Kaumatua, he talked to me about what he saw. And he talked about it as the journey back to Hawaiiki through the water. And that's what he understood in terms of the work being in the water.
So once I left my blue phase, I started moving into black. Black water, black background. And I've actually been making these since 2009. The black space resonates. In 2011 I made Putereraki and we didn’t have suitable clothing so he agreed to go naked.
BR: The dancer?
RR: No. He was the pool guy.
BR: That's the pool boy?
RR: Yeah a guy that came with the pool.
RR: The work explores the creation narrative of Tāne pursuing Hine-tītama into the darkest realm of the night. And he went through multiple realms and encountered Kaitiaki at each entrance who led him through. And when he finally got there she was inside a whare and refused to open the door. They professed their love for each other. Of course this is after she had found out he was her father. And she sent him back to the world of light to look after people in life, and she would look after everyone in death. But on his journey back through the different realms of the night, he came across the stars. And he had been trying to clothe his father, Rangi, the sky, and had tried... tried all sorts. He tried readymades, he tried creating something, collaborating. He tried the red the clouds but they didn't show up at night. Anyway, he got permission to take the stars so on his return he threw them into the sky.
BR: It's beautiful. And at this stage you've swapped to HD as well?
RR: Yes! And the black helps, it’s a way of trying to get into this other realm. The next series is personal family narratives that also reference creation narratives. They explore the relationship between tuakana and mokopuna. And the idea of a mokopuna being like looking at yourself in a pool of water and seeing yourself reflected back.