From 2000 to 2005, I photographed interiors of Aotearoa New Zealand prisons and psychiatric hospitals and since 2007, I have worked on a large body of work with the  Mighty Mongrel Mob. By revealing the strains and legacies of a colonized and bicultural society, both series have led me to consider more closely my own relationship, as a fifth generation Pākehā, to the history of modern Aotearoa New Zealand.

My matrilineal forebears came from the British Islands and settled in Hawkes Bay in the mid-19th century. My great-great-grandfather built a large house on the flank of Ōtātara Pā in Taradale. The family’s day-to-day existence would have depended on interactions with local hapū and I’ve found photographs of Māori in family albums: men dressed in European uniforms, families living on the grounds of the estate, and women sitting on a whare stoop with Pākehā men’s arms around them. During this period, an implacable future was transforming the pre-European ways of Aotearoa and my forebears were a part of this process. This relationship—between Māori and Pākehā—is the fundamental cultural dynamic of modern Aotearoa New Zealand and is a primary line of enquiry in my work.

My current work harnesses the prismatic view afforded by old photographs. The approach has been to treat period prints and glass-plate negatives as venerable objects, and photograph them as such: not only as images, but also as physical residues of the past. By surviving the passage of time, each piece represents a haptic connection to the ecology from which it was emitted and is an avatar of the historical, ideological and interpersonal dynamics of its era. A glass-plate negative was in the same space as the subjects depicted and the chemical emulsion was not only touched by their projection, it also shared their oxygen. Each making of a photograph was thus an act of transference. When using an 8x10 analogue camera to make my images, I feel the subject is absorbed into my film. This visceral communion is amplified by the monumental, finely detailed prints I exhibit. The old likenesses within these large photographs of photographs are an initial and arresting facet, but on closer inspection, the faces disintegrate and are usurped by the topography of the photographic object. Every crack and erosion bears testament to the distance travelled by the filmic entity.

In February 2016, I produced a suite of images that draw on the events at Ōmarunui in1866. On October 12th, 200 militiamen and a similar number from local hapū surrounded a party of approximately 100 Pai Mārire followers, mainly comprised of Ngāti Hineuru. After an invitation to surrender was rebuffed, the occupied kāinga was besieged. Many Ngāti Hineuru were killed with the balance taken prisoner and exiled to Rēkohu / the Chatham Islands, along with whānau who were taken prisoner at Herepoho near Pētane. Those events and the subsequent outcomes remain contentious; conflicting perspectives endure. My forebears were geographically close and although perhaps not directly involved, they arguably benefitted from the outcome. Beyond my ancestral proximity, I feel that the events at Ōmarunui are a microcosm of the wider tectonics of that period in the nation's history, and hold relevance to this day.

The six works I am exhibiting are an attempt to distill and transmit the forces that met on that day. Five works examine glass-plate negatives from the Alexander Turnbull Library. Four of these are portraits, including the man who led the settler militia and portraits by Samuel Carnell of three of the chiefs involved in the attack. As a technology, photography can be viewed as a small but integral part of the colonial machinery that changed the country so dynamically. Carnell's negatives represent an interface between two cultures and because of a complex interplay that led to that image being made, they offer a refracted view of the folding together of Māori and Pākehā. The three chiefs, while bearing the carved lines of traditional tā moko on their faces, are dressed in European garb. While such portraits assert that these men are part of the nation's DNA, the dearth of images of Pai Mārire and Ngāti Hineuru represent an archival erasure. A fifth photograph in the exhibit is from an earlier event, the siege of Waerenga-a-Hika pā. The battered negative shows Pai Mārire prisoners on the Napier foreshore, evoking the atomization of their people and, by virtue of being one of the few primary images remaining of Pai Mārire, cements the branding of them as rebels. The sixth image is the only one not of a negative. In 1916, on the day of the 50th anniversary of the Ōmarunui events, veterans unveiled a memorial. The focal point was an eight-foot granite obelisk that was deliberately knocked off its pedestal many years later in the 1990’s. Photographing this obelisk—a corroded and prone power symbol—enables an exploration of the idea that violent events are not contained or neutered by the passage of time. Rather, they reverberate in the present.

My photographs are pictures of pieces of tarnished glass, and while I have ownership over my artwork, I cannot assert the same for the tīpuna depicted within. To this end, I have engaged descendants of those depicted in each image, in order to develop an ongoing relationship between that particular work and those related to it. With the Ōmarunui work, I aim to encourage conversation about the enduring impact of such events. By involving the descendants of those depicted, I hope for the work to be of most use to those directly related to it, adding dimensions to the evolving relationship with history and nourishing a present that is inextricably connected to difficult events in the past.

Installation Views & Selected Media


2016 / Ōmarunui / Parlour Projects / Hastings, Aotearoa New Zealand

All work © Jono Rotman.