Properties of Peace and Evil – Brett Graham

12-29 July, Parlour Projects

“Now talking is at an end” is one of the last things Pai Mārire prophet Panapa of Ngāti Hineuru wrote to Hawke’s Bay provinces superintendent Donald McLean before their opposing forces met in the Battle of Ōmarunui in October 1866.

The phrase used by Panapa was the colloquial “kua mutu te korero”, better translated as “that is all for now”.   It appears to have been written as a convenient way to end the letter, rather than as it was received: as a hostile signal of the end of negotiations.  The letter was sent just a week before the battle began and the mis-translated phrase is considered to have precipitated the armed conflict.

The Battle of Ōmarunui saw 200 European militiamen and a similar number of local hapū surround a party of around 100 Pai Mārire followers, comprised mainly of members of Ngāti Hineuru.  After an invitation to surrender was refused, the occupied kāinga was besieged and many Ngāti Hineuru were killed. Those remaining were taken prisoner and exiled to the Chatham Islands.  Many of their whanau were later captured at Herepoho near Petane and imprisoned.

Brett Graham’s exhibition at Parlour Projects explores the Battle of Ōmarunui, and the ambiguity of what is “evil” and what is “good”. Through close examination of language, historical accounts and (mis)translations, Graham raises the subject of historical trauma around our national history and its narratives.

Graham’s exhibition responds to artist Jono Rotman’s 2016 show of a series of photographs at Parlour Projects, exploring Ōmarunui, on the 150 year anniversary of the battle.

Rotman’s show examined glass plate negatives from the Alexander Turnbull Library and a photo of one of two granite obelisks erected in 1916 to commemorate the battle.  Significantly, both memorial obelisks were damaged by protesters in 1992 and while the bases are still in Eskdale and Ōmarunui, the obelisk ‘needles’ remain in local council storage.

Brett Graham’s exhibition presents two site-specific 5 metre panelled wooden towers. The repetition of a chevron tukutuku pattern in the panels has a kind of optical effect as does their massive scale. The view from behind and between the towers is of two large industrial X-shaped structural supports in the gallery space, which was Hastings’ first electrical and power supply building. Exposed beams loom above the white-washed monuments; one might represent peace and the other evil, but they are identical in appearance. The beams also reference ‘nui’ poles that were the totem of the Pai Mārire faith.

Four framed works on paper on the gallery’s main viewing wall echo the flag symbolism of the Pai Mārire faith. They represent Archangels Michael Riki (Ariki) and Gabriel Rura (Ruler), as punisher and pacifier.  On closer inspection, the works transcribe often contradictory historical accounts of the battle, including contemporaneous Crown accounts and the recent findings of the Waitangi Tribunal.

Graham’s work examines language and exchange, and includes passionate correspondence between himself and Jono Rotman prior to the 2016 show at Parlour.

Like the karakia of the Pai Mārire, historical trauma has endured through time. Writing about Ōmarunui, Brett Graham observes ‘the ruptured obelisk’ as though it were forensic evidence; ‘the remnants of (such) events are real’, not forgotten or forgiven.

Given that Jono Rotman’s photographic series Ōmarunui was recently purchased by the Hawke’s Bay Museum Trust for display at the MTG, made with the intention of ..”starting a conversation about the battle” and prompting “…ongoing dialogue and artistic response”, it seems talking is still not at an end.

It will be interesting to see how this show is presented and contextualised at the MTG and how artistic responses like Properties of Good and Evil are interpreted.

Parlour Projects benefits from its accomplished support team helping to create resources such as a video of Brett Graham in the process of creating and talking about this exhibition.

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