By Denis O'Rielly
Parlour Projects, Hastings, Aotearoa New Zealand, October 05 - November 05, 2016

Jono Rotman’s suite of portraits and other powerful images relating to the Battle of Ōmarunui demonstrate the power of art to touch our souls and unleash our emotions. We are possibly familiar with most of these images. However, curated as they have been by Jono they have become liminal, eerie transformed negatives illustrating unfamiliar detail and perspective.

They refer to a transformational time in the emergent nation of Aotearoa New Zealand when Māori began responding to British imperialism and were betwixt and between, conjuring up new rituals, finding a new order of things, and being neither quite one thing nor t’other.

Revived by dint of the Treaty process the events that took place at Ōmarunui in October 1866 are almost as contentious today as they were in 1866. In this tumultuous period of our nation’s development this regional conflict included political and military actions, the consequences of which emanate in the present.

The Ōmarunui Exhibition surfaces them all. It invites us to see the complex layers of history; even to consider contemporary geo-political activities wherein monuments are destroyed and dominant narratives are revised and rewritten. It draws us into a dialogue that helps move us past the binary propositions of good and bad, rebel and loyalist, terrorist and patriot.

As uncomfortable as it may be this is actually a required dialogue of love – he kōrero aroha. It seeks to squeeze the festering historical pus of a century and a half of grievance and hurt out of the tribal corpus. With decaying matter removed from our wounds - and there clearly are wounds - the living flesh is encouraged to regenerate and reconnect. This brings fresh vitality to our familial relationships – in a word, whakawhanaungatanga.

Ōmarunui also gives lie to the stupid proposition that somehow Māori have been privileged by the Treaty. The clear fact of the matter is that the Treaty has cost Māori dearly. The Exhibition reminds those of us Pākehā who are resident in Hawke’s Bay that we were intentionally invited here by the region’s rangatira and that our Treaty partners have stood side by side with us for over one hundred and fifty years with a variety of outcomes for both Māori and Pākehā.

These seminal Māori partners were prominent Kahungunu rangatira who formed a Treaty partnership with McLean and Colonel Whitmore, among others, as representatives of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. These rangatira were Ihaka Whaaka (Ngāti Rakaipaaka), Pitiera Kopu (Ngāi Te Apatu), Tareha Te Moananui (Ngāti Pārau), Renata Kawepo (Ngai Te Upokoiri), Karaitiana Takamoana (Ngāti Te Whatuiapiti), Henare Tomoana (Ngāti Hawea) and Te Hapuku (Ngāti Te Whatuiapiti).

The respective parties involved in the conflict at Ōmarunui held differing and different views then as to some extent their descendants still do now.

There has been a degree of reluctance to talk openly and frankly about exactly what occurred and why it happened. This may reveal uncomfortable but necessary truths and address – as W. G. Sebald puts it:
“crucial questions that arise when communities must heal from self-inflicted wounds, not the least being that of who is allowed to claim the mantle of victim.” *

Historical narratives start from a position. In the instance of this essay the stance is that of Ngāti Pārau. We don’t own the only view but it is important to express ours. Semiotics reveal that one of Pārau’s symbols is that of kaokao, the armpit, a colloquial intimation of martial prowess consistent with the hapu’s tradition of intergenerational military service.

However no matter how much we focus on our collective actions as a unified nation in wars against others we cannot escape the uncomfortable truths of our own military history when we differed with one another. Nor should we demonise the respective parties and players.

Louis De Bernieres asks:
"Where does it all begin? History has no beginnings, for everything that happens becomes the cause or pretext for what occurs afterwards, and this chain of cause and pretext stretches back to the Palaeolithic age, when the first Cain of one tribe murdered the first Abel of another. All war is fratricide, and there is therefore an infinite chain of blame that winds its circuitous route back and forth across the path and under the feet of every people and every nation, so that a people who are the victims of one time become the victimisers a generation later, and newly liberated nations resort immediately to the means of their former oppressors. The triple contagions of nationalism, utopianism, and religious absolutism effervesce together into an acid that corrodes the moral metal of a race, and it shamelessly and even proudly performs deeds that it would deem vile if it were done by any other." **

In comprehending the consequences of Ōmarunui it is important to as accurately as possible learn what happened, come to terms with it, and move forward. This requires a willingness to evacuate entrenched positions and look at events from different perspectives: a preparedness to humbly walk in one another’s shoes rather than to arrogantly step on toes.

In line with the ambiguity and paradox that underlie the events of 12 October 1866 Jono Rotman’s efforts to foster insight along the pathway to peace and resolution through this Exhibition have not been without mixed messages and unclear response to his proposition. Indefatigable, the inner artist persevered and he now presents us with tangible artefacts. How we deploy them is up to us.

Tihei Kahungunu, tihei Hineuru, tatau tatau e.

* W.G. Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction (New York: Modern Library, 2003)
** Louis De Bernieres, Birds Without Wings (United Kingdom: Secker and Warburg, 2004)
All work © Jono Rotman.