WWI and ‘a world turned inside out’
Several major artworks were commissioned for our new war memorial gallery Pou Kanohi New Zealand at War. Learn about the local artists who developed these artworks and the meaning behind them.
Finding the right words to commemorate the massive loss of life in the First World War, or to articulate the impact of war on families and communities, is an incredibly difficult task.
In the process of developing our new war memorial gallery Pou Kanohi New Zealand at War, the Museum approached a number of local visual artists to provide their own interpretation of different aspects of WWI. Where words fall short, the artworks help to express some of the ideas and emotions that the gallery evokes.
Artists Bernard Makoare (Ngati Whatua, Te Rarawa, Ngapuhi-nui-tonu) and Rangi Kipa (Te Ati Awa, Taranaki, Ngati Tama ki te Tauihu) developed their pieces collaboratively with the two artworks telling a united story about people being woven together and communities reuniting after war and loss have torn them apart.
Makoare carved his work ‘Pou-hi Te Whatu-ā-mahara’, which stands over 4m high, from laminated Northland swamp kauri and the whatu (eyes) are made from corian linking them to the main material in Kipa’s work. Inspiration for the design of the pou ihi draws heavily on the weaving theme, with Makoare using the turuturu whatu - a traditional elaborate weaving peg - as a key reference for his carving.
“The term ‘whatu’ in the Maori language has a variety of meanings, to knot intricately as in the finely woven chiefly cloaks and it is one of the physical descriptions of the human eye. The concept of whatu in both of these interpretations has contributed significantly to the creation of these works.”
Kipa, who works with a mix of contemporary and traditional materials, used corian to carve the pare (or lintel) to symbolise the threshold that people pass through as they enter the gallery.
Maori language allows for more natural allegories about the role of the pare but it signifies the crossing of a threshold. For Pou Kanohi, the pare marks the transition as people step from outside the gallery, and their daily lives, into this place of respectful memorial and remembrance.
In Kipa’s work he has chosen to invert the central female figure on the pare, which he says reflects the impact of WWI on people’s lives and on the world.
“The world was turned inside out. Conflict wasn’t strange to us but we had never seen loss of life on that scale.”
When people look at the pare and pou ihi, and reflect on the stories featured in Pou Kanohi, Kipa says he hopes they’re not just inspired to think about the past.
“I hope people are inspired to examine their own humanity. At the moment with what is happening in different parts of the world, and with the rhetoric of some of our world leaders, it seems like the fundamentals of truth, honesty, justice, love and peace are up for grabs,” says Kipa.
“We must value humanity and not just focus on what separates us but be aware of what ties us together.”
Weaver Beronia Scott also contributed to the weaving narrative, using the kaokao or warrior pattern in her panels. A pattern which reminds her of the chevron emblems worn on New Zealand soldiers’ arms and which she used previously in the woven panels on the walls of the Museum’s Pou Maumahara Memorial Discovery Centre.
“This kaupapa has been an absolute privilege and blessing to be involved with.”
Makoare says the symbolism of weaving binds the different artworks together and speaks to the different emotions that are inspired by the stories within the gallery.
“It embodies the weaving of these strands of emotion and humanity, as a symbol of loss and grief but also of creation and hope.”
A wrenching farewell
Artist Maureen Lander (Te Hikutu, Ngāpuhi) was asked by the gallery development team to respond to the theme of ‘farewell, absence and longing’ in her work.
She drew inspiration from a photograph of Maori women from Rotorua who performed a farewell song for the departing Native Contingent at the Auckland Town Hall.
“My research suggested that the song they sang could have been Pō Atarau which was composed around that time and was used to farewell Maori contingents leaving to join WWI.”
Lander’s artwork ‘Pō Atarau - Now Is The Hour’ is now displayed underneath that photo in Pou Kanohi in the part of the gallery timeline that focuses on enlistment.
The work features a series of karu Atua or God’s eye crosses, referencing the ‘papa ki rango’ (fly swat) pattern in Maori weaving. Lander used harakeke (New Zealand flax) for the crosses, echoing the women who wore and waved green leaves as they sang waiata like Pō Atarau and entreated the men to return home safely to their loved ones.
Natural colours within the woven flax leaf strips on the crosses include shades of red which Lander says, fittingly, indicate the leaf has been damaged in some way and the flax gum has stained the leaf in the process of sealing the wound.
“It creates a visual metaphor, highlighting the inevitable wounds and healing processes that accompany war.”
Lander has also used silver on the crosses in her artwork.
“The silver is used as a reference to the 'silver fern' identity established by early New Zealand rugby players and WWI soldiers, and also to acknowledge the reason many Maori went to war, in an effort to claim international recognition and equality alongside Pakeha as New Zealand citizens.”
In the artwork there are 35 crosses laid out in 10 rows of the 3 and 4, surrounded by reflective surfaces, including a background photograph of a light path over water. Lander says these reflections multiply the crosses, first to 70, the average number of warriors in a waka taua or Maori war canoe, and then to 140 which symbolises the motto of the first WWI Maori contingent ‘Te Hokowhitu a Tū’ - the seventy twice-told warriors of the war god.
By the time Lander was born, during WWII, it had become more widespread for Now Is The Hour to be sung rather than Pō Atarau but she remembers the same poignant tune.
“I hope my artwork engages the memories and emotions of older viewers and the imagination and curiosity of younger ones.”
Listen to Pō Atarau - Now is the Hour, as peformed by The Rotorua Māori Choir:
Post by: Auckland Museum
Auckland War Memorial Museum tells the story of New Zealand, its people, and their place in the Pacific.