In recent years, it has been exciting to see the resurgence of Emily Karaka’s painting practice. Major projects—such as Toi Tū Toi Ora at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, and Nirin: 22nd Biennale of Sydney (both 2020)—have provided opportunities to reconnect with her work and reassess its place in Aotearoa New Zealand art. Her latest exhibition is a welcome addition to this current momentum. Created during her 2021 McCahon House residency, it spans two galleries and packs a punch.
In the fourteen unstretched paintings that comprise Ngā Tūpuna Maunga o Tāmaki Makaurau, the volcanic cones of that city are emblazoned with the names of maunga and tūpuna, ancestral settlement stories, and references to the hīkoi (journeys) of her Tainui people, contrasting with white plaques bearing the introduced English names by which these maunga became known through the process of colonisation and land confiscation. Karaka shares the narratives of her iwi and reasserts their relationship to the region. The Matariki star cluster hovers above the land in each work. Presented to coincide with Matariki and to mark its official status as a national holiday, the project carries the overarching title Matariki Ring of Fire.
Karaka’s paintings have a subdued colour palette of deep greens and blues, with magenta skies. Karaka has long explored themes relating to land lost, land taken, and sometimes land returned. Her tūpuna maunga represent the original fourteen maunga in the Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau Collective Redress Deed of 2012, to which Karaka was a signatory, representing Ngāi Taiki Tāmaki. The 2014 Act of Parliament transferred their legal ownership to the thirteen iwi and hapū of Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau Collective. Today, they are co-managed by mana whenua with Auckland Council, through the Tūpuna Maunga Authority. These paintings carry that narrative also.
Above them, a dome-shaped audio-visual installation reflects the inner manawa, the pulsating heart of the volcanic cones, from a viewpoint within the maunga. A collaboration with Emily Parr (Ngāi Te Rangi, Moana, Pākehā) and Te Matera Smith, it offers another way to consider our own relationship to land and to place, shifting how we might consider the paintings, locating us within the narrative and the conversation. In the adjacent gallery, three of Karaka’s paintings connect the foundations of mana whenua, the Kingitanga movement, and the Tainui waka.
Karaka’s art is driven by her desire to use her ‘art voice’ as a form of activism and redress, to make visible issues relating to Māori and mana whenua. Ngā Tūpuna Maunga o Tāmaki Makaurau is, in part, a claims-making statement, but it also offers insight into what cultural authority and co-governance might look like moving forward, as it asserts the importance of land and people for mokopuna (the next generation). It feels like a legacy statement from one of our senior Māori woman painters, firmly located in the knowledge and experience that informs such declarations. And while this is an art exhibition, these statements are larger than that, and perhaps always have been.