Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Ancient stonefields reveal a rich mine of Maori history

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A photograph by Qiane Matata-Sipu from the Ihumatao exhibition at Mangere Arts Centre. Photo / Supplied
A photograph by Qiane Matata-Sipu from the Ihumatao exhibition at Mangere Arts Centre. Photo / Supplied

"Ans Westra is my Brad Pitt!" says photographer Qiane Matata-Sipu. "I met her once but I couldn't say much; I was gob-smacked."

The similarities between Westra's celebrated and controversial 1964 Washday at the Pa school bulletin and Matata-Sipu's exhibition IHUMATAO taku tangata - taku whenua, on until tomorrow at the Mangere Arts Centre, are clear: black-and-white documentation of loving home life. But whereas Maori aspired to leave behind the lack of electricity and sub-standard conditions which Westra photographed and which, some feared, unhelpfully cheerfully framed one whanau's poverty as picturesque, Matata-Sipu fears that the communal lifestyle (in acceptable physical conditions) in her photographs is fast disappearing.

And though Westra was an "outsider", Matata-Sipu is as inside as insiders get. The 27-year-old lives at what she calls "the pa", where she grew up - 75 houses in Ihumatao, a little-known village of Te Wai O Hua of the Tainui waka (yes, this far north), near Auckland Airport.

It is arguably the longest continual human settlement in Aotearoa-New Zealand, which means, says Matata-Sipu, that "we got off the waka and didn't move", even as the country's largest city grew up right beside them, their maunga was quarried and their awa (river) polluted.

Matata-Sipu grew up surrounded by whanau - she could enter any house in the village without knocking, and kids and dogs roamed free. Protest and event documenters John Miller and Gil Hanly are also inspirations for Matata-Sipu; of Westra, who lived among rural Maori for five months, Matata-Sipu says, "she would have gained trust - it was honest, real life".

After her artist talk last Saturday, Matata-Sipu and her aunty took us to the Otuataua stonefields archeological site beside Ihumatao. The ground was muddy. Matata-Sipu's answer was to go barefoot. Her Aunty Kowhai Olsen wore a pair of bright yellow trainers.

"I like that your shoes match your name!" said artist Lisa Reihana, who was on the tour. "We're not tour guides," stressed Olsen. "But sometimes we share our history."

The Otuataua stonefields deserve to be better known; they are chaotic, crumbly landscape - full of knolls and scoria slides and unseen "wormholes" - lava tubes. (The area is waahi tapu, because, Olsen tells us, people were laid in the caves, wrapped in leaves, after they died.) The lumpy land is scattered with volcanic stones, cowpats and lichened drystone walls and too-few plaques interpreting the traces of those who lived and gardened here for centuries. Maori gardeners were joined by Pakeha here in the 19th century; the namesake stones were used to warm the soil to lengthen the growing season.

To get to the stonefields, I recommend cycling 12km along the Manukau Harbour coastal walkway path from Mangere Bridge, though you could just take the motorway out to the airport. Either way - you'll find yourself in a rural backwater, but one from which you can see the Sky Tower, Mt Eden, One Tree Hill, the Manukau Heads, Mt Wellington - and even the top of Rangitoto. Ancient ruins and continuing history: a little piece of unknown Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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