Searching for glimpses of original rock art through the limestone caves of South Canterbury is an enigmatic experience. You might think you’ve spotted the faded form of a manu wing, only to realise it’s a seam of reddish rock; you might think you’ve spotted a particularly well-preserved drawing, only to realise it’s one of Theo Schoon’s ‘retouchings’ from the 1950s. Either way, the sites are alive with a sense of Aotearoa’s early history.
Toro Atua, Dr Areta Wilkinson’s forthcoming permanent public sculpture, takes inspiration from these ancestral sites and markings. Set to be installed in Rolleston’s newly developed Town Centre, the work will include twenty stainless-steel sculptural elements, tall and svelte figures that sway in the wind and play in the light like atua, or guardians, offering celestial guidance to passers-by. The Ngāi Tahu artist has imagined the pūrākau of Ngāi Te Ruahikihiki ki Taumutu, kaitiaki of Te Waihora catchment and the wider Selwyn District of which Rolleston is a part, nodding to the landscape as well as to the ancestors who travelled the length of the island, guided by atua, stopping in the caves for shelter and recording the sights of the day on their walls, serving as a pou whenua, or land marker, that connects travellers of today with those who have walked the same path through the region’s history.