By Brett Graham
Parlour Projects, Hastings, Aotearoa New Zealand, October 05 - November 05, 2016

For a people to take up arms for their land is understandable. But when they are driven by faith and a divine sense of purpose they are truly to be feared and must be suppressed. This is not a discussion of Al-Qaeda or ISIS. This was the reaction of the fledgling New Zealand settler government to the spread of the Pai Mārire faith in the 1860’s.

By Governor Grey’s decree:
“Whereas a fanatical sect, commonly called Paimarire, or Hau Hau, has been for some time, and is now, engaged in practices subversive of all order and morality; and whereas the rites and practices of such a fanatical sect, consisting, as they partly do, in murder, in the public parade of the cooked heads of their victims, in cannibalism, and in other revolting acts, are repugnant to all humanity…I will, on behalf of Her Majesty, resist and suppress, by the force of arms if necessary, and by every other means in my power, fanatical doctrines, rites and practices of the aforesaid character; and I will cause to be punished all persons, whenever they may be apprehended, who may be convicted of instigating, or participating in, such atrocities and crimes; and, in Her Majesty’s name, I call on all well-disposed persons, whether Native or European, to aid and assist me herein to the best of their ability.” *

It is such a declaration that led to the action at Ōmarunui, remembered in the work of Jono Rotman. It is here that Pai Mārire converts of largely Ngāti Hineuru were killed or taken prisoner by a force of 200 European Militia under the command of Colonel George Whitmore, and an equal number under the Ngāti Kahungunu leaders Kaiwhata, Tareha, and Rēnata Kawepō. These are the men whose essence is captured in Rotman’s reinterpretation of their photographs.

This is not the first time Rotman has photographed Māori men, and their environs. From 2000 to 2005 he turned his camera to the interiors of psychiatric hospitals and prisons, and in 2007 began his much publicized ‘Mongrel Mob’ series. He explains “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." ** Appearing at Gow Langsford Gallery and such glamorous spaces as the City Gallery in Wellington, the Mongrel Mob portraits are seen largely by a Pākehā audience expecting to be titillated by fear, like looking into a cage of a wily dog. There is irony in knowing that although these men are said to be the detritus of society, through their gaze, they maintain a psychological power over us.

Yet they reinforce the mainstream’s smug assumptions that in the natural order of things, Māori are, and always will be, at the bottom rung of our natural environment. Just as we accept that 40 percent of Māori males over the age of fifteen have been in prison or served a community sentence, or that tangata whenua, although only 15 percent of the population make up 51 percent, over half, of the prison population. Such statistics are repeated by every schoolboy in the land, and they remain the same, because this is the natural order of things.
Rotman’s Ōmarunui photographs differ from his previous work in that he is attempting to go back to the beginning, to ask how this natural order came to be. Could the creation of such a phenomenon have been because of the actions of the past?

When the veterans of the ‘One Day War’ gathered in 1916 to commemorate their ‘heroism’ against the spread of Pai Mārire ‘barbarism and fanaticism’ and unveiled an obelisk in remembrance, did they ever consider what had happened to the families of the Ngāti Hineuru who were killed, or what might be the fate of their descendants in the future? By banishing them to a distant island and confiscating their very land were they condemning generations yet unborn?

Rotman speaks of his portraits as being almost icon-like, “glass-plate negatives, which occupied the same space as the subjects depicted…the chemical emulsion was not only touched by their projection, it also shared their oxygen…I feel the subject is absorbed into my film.” ** Rather than the penetrating gazes of the Mongrel Mob portraits, there is a separation in time and space, they are ghostly and otherworldly. The chiefs wear waist coats, bow ties and pocket watches, they are comfortable in the world they have adopted. By contrast, the Pai Mārire prisoners do not sit on European chairs but huddle bent and broken on the earth, clinging only to their blankets, worn as pākē or pūreke might have been in the past. The message is simple: if you resist, your culture and your being will cease to be.

And what of Pai Mārire itself? The Ngāti Hineuru followers who did not escape Ōmarunui were either killed or exiled to Rēkohu, the Chatham Islands. Some of them were to escape back to the mainland with Te Kooti, and their Pai Mārire was reborn as the Ringatū church. Elsewhere, as in my area of Maungatautari, the karakia (prayers) were never to be lost, and are practiced to this day.

Rotman does not take sides, and presents only the photographic residue of an event that took place 150 years ago. An event that has played its part in creating the ‘natural order’ of our condition in contemporary Aotearoa. As with the restorative justice process perpetrator and those perpetrated against are represented unequally side by side, just who is who remains ambiguous. The ruptured obelisk, a broken shard of evidence, serves as a reminder that the event has not been forgotten or forgiven. And perhaps a suggestion that the remnants of such events are real, and continue to fill our prisons and psychiatric hospitals. It is the natural order of things, unless we have the audacity to change them.

* New Zealand Gazette, (no.14, 29 April 1865), p.129
** Jono Rotman, Artist Statement (Aotearoa New Zealand: Parlour Projects, 2016)
All work © Jono Rotman.