Taniwha through Maori eyes – Israel Tangaroa Birch exhibit

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For many people, the idea of seeing a taniwha alive today is as unlikely as catching a glimpse of the Loch Ness Monster. Yet, points out Reuben Friend, Maori and Pacific Art Curator at City Gallery, taniwha occurrences do happen in Aotearoa. These encounters have become the impetus for Palmerston North based artist Israel Tangaroa Birchs major new installation entitled Ara-i-te-urucurrently on show at City Gallery Wellington.

The exhibition in the Deane Gallery aims to create a broader context to explain taniwha and explores the historical back stories which have made these creatures so vital to Maori communities today.

To help see taniwha through Maori eyes, Birch has constructed a large floor-based, red-gold coloured steel sculpture and placed a gigantic mirror in the space, referring to the reflection as the taniwha. Like reflections, taniwha may not be held but they can be perceived and represent something very real, and usually something standing right in front of our noses, Friend explains.

Birchs installation plays in the space between mythology and actuality, where legend meets contemporary reality. Referencing some of the collaborations between artists Ralph Hotere and Bill Culbert, such as AramoanaPathway to the Sea (1991) and Blackwater (1999), Birch uses light and shadow to explore relationships between things in te ao marama (the physical world of light) and their metaphysical counterparts in te p? (the spiritual world of darkness).

The exhibition shares the same name as Ara-i-te-uru (also known as Araiteuru) Birchs ancestral taniwha who lives in the Hokianga Harbour. She came to Aotearoa New Zealand several hundred years ago from Hawaiki as a guide and guardian for the early ancestors of the Northland tribes of Ngapuhi. She is said to have personally caused numerous shipwrecks along the headlands and her children were said to have carved the valleys and rivers around the harbour.

Friend cites recent examples where taniwha have reared their mystical head. In 2002 a Tainui iwi, Ngati Naho, expressed concerns about Transit New Zealands new layout for State Highway 1 which encroached on the lair of their one eye taniwha Karu Tahi. Fourteen months after heeding the taniwha warnings and rerouting the Highway away from the lair, the Waikato River flooded, swamping what was the proposed highway layout. In the same year, Northland Iwi unsuccessfully protested against Ngawha Prison being built on an old swampland kainga (home) of a taniwha named Takauere near Kaikohe. In 2007, after ignoring the taniwha warnings, the Government admitted the Prison was sinking into the ground, says Friend. So as you can see they are a very tangible and potent presence for Maori.

Artist Biography

Israel Tangaroa Birch (b. 1976) is of Ngapuhi (Ngai Tawake) and Ngati Kahungunu (Te Iwi o Rakaipaaka) descent and holds a degree in Visual Arts from the Eastern Institute of Technology, Napier. In 2010 Birch completed his Masters in Maori Visual Arts through Te Putahi-a-Toi School of Maori Visual Arts, Massey University, Palmerston North where he currently lectures on Maori Visual Culture. He regularly exhibits nationally and abroad and has won several awards including the Nga Karahipi a Te-Waka Toi Creative New Zealand Excellence in Maori Arts Award and was a finalist in the Norsewear Art Award in 2004, 2005 and was awarded the supreme prize in 2006. Birch is represented by Page Blackie Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand and Martin Browne Gallery, New South Wales, Australia.

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