Whakaahua
Aronui

Communication Design, Visual Arts

Whakaahua Aronui -

Images as knowledge

Photographer and moving image artist Natalie Robertson looks at the effect of environmental change on marginalised indigenous communities.


Robertson tells stories about people and their historic connection with a place. Working with indigenous knowledge and customs, she researches and records the relationship between Māori communities and their natural environment, and particularly the impact of environmental degradation on traditional cultural practices. By setting day-to-day activities like food harvesting and cooking against a complex background of land ownership and management, colonialism, conflict and occupation, Robertson goes straight to the heart of current issues, and highlights potential ways forward.

Her documentary practice, at first glance, appears to be a neutral view of the situation – an image of a wide beach with people gathering mussels, a film of a slow-running river – but on closer inspection, there are more unsettling processes at work. Rocks along the beach are covered in a layer of silt, with the blue Pacific stained brown. Dead branches float downstream and out to sea. The images speak for themselves; Robertson doesn’t need to dramatise what’s going on.

By coupling her work with regenerative projects – such as the Waiapu River Accord (2014) – she collaborates with a wider cross-disciplinary group to produce a record and archive for future generations. Ancestral knowledge and political consciousness make her work informed and informative, and contribute to a wave of stimuli for creative, cultural and ecological reinvigoration. Robertson is part of an international network of indigenous photographers, and shares her research and fieldwork locally and abroad via publications, exhibitions, conferences, and her collaborative practice with Auckland arts group Local Time.

Summary

Project name

PhD thesis, ‘Whakaahua Aronui – Framing counter-narratives through the lens’

 

Department

Communication Design, Visual Arts

 

Researchers

Natalie Robertson

Natalie Roberston

Senior Lecturer (Photography/Postgraduate)

Natalie Robertson (Ngāti Porou, Clan Dhònnchaidh) is a contemporary artist and documentary photographer tracing histories and theories of photography and moving image in relation to matauranga Māori and indigenous studies. This leads her to justice and activism roles as she studies environmental and cultural changes affecting her hāpu in Te Tai Rawhiti, the East Cape region of her tribal homelands. She also works around the Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland region with Local Time, a collaborative arts practice whose focus is events-based stories and histories of place.

Her documentary practice, at first glance, appears to be a neutral view of the situation – an image of a wide beach with people gathering mussels, a film of a slow-running river – but on closer inspection, there are more unsettling processes at work. Rocks along the beach are covered in a layer of silt, with the blue Pacific stained brown. Dead branches float downstream and out to sea. The images speak for themselves; Robertson doesn’t need to dramatise what’s going on.

By coupling her work with regenerative projects – such as the Waiapu River Accord (2014) – she collaborates with a wider cross-disciplinary group to produce a record and archive for future generations. Ancestral knowledge and political consciousness make her work informed and informative, and contribute to a wave of stimuli for creative, cultural and ecological reinvigoration. Robertson is part of an international network of indigenous photographers, and shares her research and fieldwork locally and abroad via publications, exhibitions, conferences, and her collaborative practice with Auckland arts group Local Time.

I want to produce a body of work that means something to people in a hundred years’ time. To document cultural practices and the interdependence between these and our natural resources.

Natalie Robertson

Waiapu River

 

Robertson’s PhD research plans look at the Waiapu River, a river recorded as having one of the highest sediment yields in the world. She begins with a re-examination of the collection of photographs and film of the area made between 1919 and 1923 by James McDonald. This ethnological project was a purposeful cultural invigoration strategy instigated by Sir Āpirana Ngata, to ensure continuities between past, present and future for Ngāti Porou. Robertson heard of this archive while photographing in many of the same locations around Te Riu o Waiapu, and, 95 years later, they presented her with an overwhelming record of changes wrought on the area by deforestation.

Built on a deepening relationship with her hapū Te Whanau a Pokai, her documentary strategy aligns with wider Ngāti Porou restoration plans, in particular the Waiapu River Accord (2014). Within the post-settlement context, she is producing a new photographic and moving image record of the first five years of the 100-year river restoration plan to show the heavily altered landscape, and the huge impact erosion and sediment have had on fishing and kaimoana for the local community.

Local Time: Muri Lagoon

Robertson is a member of the Auckland collective Local Time, along with Alex Monteith, Jon Bywater, and Danny Butt. As a group of artists, writers and academics, their collaborative work involves setting up events and conversations at ecologically and culturally significant sites. They invite local knowledge holders to narrate the histories of the area, exploring issues of indigenous self-determination and intergenerational resource management rights.

For the 2015 Oceanic Performance Biennale in Rarotonga, they organised discussions at two significant sites. One of these, Muri Lagoon, is a popular holiday destination and one-time food basket for the local population. Effects of development and over-use are evidenced in algae and seaweed blooms in the once pristine waters. Local Time brought several vested interests together from commercial, environmental and community groups, with delegates getting out onto the lagoon in boats to see the environmental impacts first hand. Community elders, who had grown up at Muri, talked about the changes wrought on the lagoon over the course of their lifetime, allowing others to see the lagoon through the eyes of a local.