By Jono Rotman
Parlour Projects, Hastings, Aotearoa New Zealand, October 05 - November 05, 2016

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.

Said by Jono Rotman at opening / 05/10/16

I understand one acknowledges the dead first, I will try and do so in the correct order.

The foreshore image results from events earlier than Ōmarunui, at Waerenga-a-Hika pā. So I acknowledge these people of Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, particularly Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga a Mahaki and Ngāi Tāmanuhiri. It is said that Te Kooti is in this image, so it is right and, in the wider implications of this work, correct that he, specifically, is acknowledged too.

At the nexus of the events at Ōmarunui, and the parallel occurances at Herepoho, are the dead and the exiled of Ngati Hineuru, Ngāti Matepu, Ngāti Mahu, Ngāti Tū, Ngāi Te Ruruku and Ngāti Kurumokihi.

These men, Tāreha Te Moananui, Renata Tama-ki-Hikurangi Kawepo, Karaitiana Takamoana and George Stoddart Whitmore. Although not depicted in this selection, but because they are of the same firmament, Ihaka Whaanga, Pitiera Kōpū, Henare Tomoana, Te Hāpuku and Pāora Kaiwhata. And Donald Mclean.

To people of Ngāti Rakaipaaka, Ngāi Te Apatu, Ngāti Pārau, Ngāi Te Upokoiri, Ngāti Te Whatuiapiti, Ngāti Hawea, Ngāti Hori.

And those settler ancestors.

To the men who made the original images housed within my pieces, Samuel Carnell, Herman Schmidt, C G Coxhead, Gottfried Lindauer.

To my ancestors, here and in Europe.

And to Pai Mārire, the hau carries forward.

Thanks to those here today. Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi for their powerful engagement with this work, and for it being shown in their rohe. Sophie Wallace, for showing this work within her rohe here and her family for hosting me in theirs. The Alexander Turnbull Library / National Library and the Hastings District council for allowing me to access these artifacts. My wife and children for their forebearance. The iwi of Tūranganui-a-Kiwa for allowing the foreshore image to be shown. Ngati Hineuru for their korero on the these events and their difficult relationship to them. Marei Apatu, Ngahiwi Tomoana and Mike Paku, for your facilitation of this work and its wider implications. Denis ORielly, Taape Tareha, Matthew Mullaney, Arapata Hakiwai, Monique Heke, Adele Whyte, Shayne Walker, Heitia Hiha, John Wano, Moera Brown, David Jones, Tuhuiao Kahukiwa, Charlie Pera, Hugh Harawera, Rose Mohi, Marama Laurenson and others for the ongoing dialogue in putting this together. Denis, Peter Ireland, Brett Graham for essays. And everyone else who has helped put this together. It has not been a straight-forward process, but I believe it has been worth it and I believe in this work.

I’ve been tested in producing this work, it is not an easy subject. Who am I to be scratching at old wounds?

I was born and raised in Wellington and I now live in the US. My mother was born on the kitchen table at #1 Clive square in Napier and died, with the turning of the tide, at Mary Doyle in Havelock North. Her people were here in 1866. My father was from the Netherlands, born 1925 and emigrated here in 1953.
This work is a result of thinking about history and how it resides in, and shapes the present. I’m here with this work in Hawkes Bay today in part because my Mother’s people were here. And it is also because of my father and the perspectives he instilled in me. He suffered as a young man under the Nazi heel and I was brought up under the concept of Holocaust. I have been well aware, from a young age, of the frayed edges of civilization. It is this liminal zone that calls my work out of me. My themes are universal, but in practice some subjects have been from here in Aotearoa New Zealand- sites of incarceration, gangs. I asked myself what my own relationship was to these difficult subjects. Which led me back to my forebears in the Bay, and in turn to the events at Ōmarunui. We were here in 1866 and that day in October stemmed, in part, from the dynamics that brought us here. I used my relationship to time and place as a doorway. That single day, 150 years ago, carried within it the dynamic of an entire period in this country’s history and represented, in the forces at play, repeated events the world over, in the past and happening today. This is what I mean by exploring universal themes.

This work is not about Ōmarunui, it aims to channel what it is, then and now. The narratives differ and it is not my place to tell stories. Instead I have distilled and re-presented forces that met on that day. I have taken artistic license- people are missing, and, of course, the foreshore image relates to another event. So too, these portraits are later. This is all on the continuum that October the 12th sat on, it stretches back in time, and it continued forward, to the New Zealand wars, land confiscations, the erection of this obelisk, and it’s toppling in the 90s. That toppling shows that history doesn’t stop after it happens, pain and anger are inherited, history lives. I know the inheritance of trauma from my own father. The pain of these events have been expressed to me as I made this work. There are many times I wanted to pull up, I don’t want to add to old pain. But I believe in this work, it was called out of me, and these dead allowed it to be made.

There was a hui about this work on Monday, and a theme was that there are many here who are related, by blood, to opposing sides in conflict- Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Hineuru intermarry, have children, Māori and Pākehā have children. I’m the scion both of empire and of an occupied people. My work is an attempt at fusion, by the meeting of conflicting forces, different eras, something new is born.

I know there is discord around the events of Ōmarunui, and I know there is unease at my making this work. This is good, there should be. However, I think the work stands alone, regardless of my role in it being here.

I hope, in this period now, 150 years after the day at Ōmarunui, that these works encourage contemplation, dialogue and a shared understanding about those events today. I would feel it had achieved a primary success if it is of use and means something to whānau related to these events here. Art has the power to shine a light on shadows. These pieces are made to be lightning rods that, I think, can handle all perspectives.

All work © Jono Rotman.