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Rainbow signals hope for the submerged

Review of ‘Aniwaniwa’ by Brett Graham and Rachael Rakena at City Gallery Wellington

By Rev Mark Gibson

I recently had the luxury of a free morning to explore downtown Wellington. With so many choices what does one do? Well it is the art capital isn’t it, so when in Wellington do as the Wellingtonians do. "Let’s go to the City Gallery" I suggested to my companion.

Creators of Aniwaniwa Brett Graham and Rachael Rakena. Image courtesy of Jennifer French.

I had no idea what exhibitions were running but we were hardly in the front door before I was drawn into the exhibition ‘Aniwaniwa’ by contemporary Maori artists Brett Graham and Rachael Rakena. In part I was intrigued by the name Rakena, a prominent one in Te Hahi Weteriana; I later learned that Rachel is the niece of Taha Maori presbyter Rua Rakena.

The exhibition was mesmerizing. We entered a darkened wharenui-like room and were invited to lie on the floor on mattresses to view the video images screened from five large circular suspended vessels, or wakahuia, on the ceiling.

A powerful soundtrack featuring contemporary Maori musicians accompanied the images on screen. The overall affect was hypnotic and dream-like and I felt transported to another time and place. I moved in and out of consciousness. The images on the screen were of the constant changing surface of the water as seen from below.

The gallery programme noted that the exhibition is a tribute to a place now submerged – Horahora, a Waikato village flooded 60 years ago to feed a new hydro-electric power station downstream. Graham has ancestral links with the vanished village. Many sites significant to his hapu were lost forever.

The dominant theme of Aniwaniwa is cultural submersion and survival. Beyond the inundation, life still goes on. There is hope. The hapu that lost its village was called Ngati Koroki Kahukura. This is a connection with the rainbow – aniwaniwa. Eventually the image of turbulent water changes to human bodies floating below the surface. A first they appear dead but then you begin to realise that they are going about their daily business of lighting a fire, and putting out washing.

In the Christian faith tradition there are similar stories of engulfment. The flood that enabled the world to be cleansed of violence is the most famous. The flooding of Horahora marked another kind of cleansing from the point of view of the colonisers. All that stood in the way of the Pakeha progress had to be washed away.

But there is another perspective from below. What appears from above to be defeated lives on. ‘Aniwaniwa’ tells of resurrection and new life in the face of drowning.

Is there a message of hope here for those of us who feel as if we are drowning in the flood of consumerism that envelopes our planet? We are discovering that the engulfment of colonisation is the same tide that threatens us. It is no longer an "us" and "them" situation. The submergence of Horahora could well become the submersion of Takapuna or Sumner. In climate change and rising ocean levels we are reaping what we sowed as we sought to colonise the land and the people of the land.

We live in times where the fear of engulfment is a very real possibility as climate change and rising ocean levels loom large on the horizon. Is this the time of reaping for those who have sought to colonise nature and its people?

There is always another way though. Those who seek to live with creation instead of against her will always find life.