Jeremy Leatinu‘u: Cinematic Ecologies

Gavin Hipkins celebrates a new storyteller.

Over the last five years, a significant transition has occurred in the moving-image practice of Jeremy Leatinu‘u (Nga ̄ ti Maniapoto, Sāmoa). In his earlier projects, he used video to document performances. Now, the moving image itself is his storytelling medium. Adapting short- film conventions, his recent works present immersive, non-linear narratives through both gallery installations and cinema screenings, expanding the audience for his mahi toi. His work has been seen in the Berlin International Film Festival and Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, and at Saskatoon’s Remai Modern, as well as in public galleries here, notably in Nigel Borell’s Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

Leatinu‘u’s early videos invited us to engage with his body. Tight Rope (2011) documents him walking down the painted median line of Church Street in Ōtāhuhu, with arms outstretched, balancing himself like a tightrope performer, as cars slow and weave around him. This risky performance recalled a fatal hit-and-run that occurred on this busy street. Leatinu‘u’s commitment to decolonising politics is clear in Queen Victoria (2013). Travelling to statues of Victoria in Aotearoa New Zealand’s four main centres, he perched on an aluminium ladder to stare back at each of them. As artist Rangituhia Hollis has noted, this act of elevating himself—while listening to (or staring back at) these historically weighty embodiments of British imperialism and colonial rule—is a wry intervention. It plays on the pedestal’s symbolic function of raising monumentalised figures to global power.

Earthpushers documents a project for 2017’s Sculpture on the Gulf that involved moving whenua from South Auckland to Waiheke Island. We witness the collective labour involved. Family members cut and sew small sacks by hand. The artist’s brothers and a close friend fill them with soil outside the artist’s home. On a sunny summer morning outside the Auckland Ferry Terminal, Leatinu‘u participates in a karakia, acknowledging the land, sand, and participants, the mighty Waitemata ̄ and distant Waiheke, the soil’s final destination. Ian Powell’s cinematography is characterised by intimate close-ups. Moving from one-take recording to carefully edited film enables Leatinu‘u to immerse us in his atmospheric aesthetic.

Mai i te Kei o te Waka ki te Ihu o te Waka (2018) opens with the artist speaking calmly and reverently over black video footage. In te reo Māori, he speaks of the historic migration from Hawaiki to Aotearoa on the Tainui waka. English subtitles are provided. At the film’s mid-point, the epistolary orientation and image sequence reverses. Now, the story is told in English with te reo subtitles, as we travel back through the same shot sequence, but in reverse order. Documenting both arrival and departure from Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland’s industrialised Manukau Harbour (also known as Te Mānukanuka o Hoturoa, Captain of the Tainui Waka), the film uses just four locked- off landscape frames. Leatinu‘u economically presents a sophisticated epistemological layering. Locked-off black-and-white shots made near Portage Road, Ōtāhuhu, depict Tāmaki Makaurau today. The artist speaks over subdued footage of sites between the city’s two harbours, where waka were once hauled through indigenous bush. He describes east and west coasts, the journey on the black sand of the west being significantly more difficult than on the white sand of the east.

Leatinu‘u’s work has become increasingly personal. Structured around stanzas of a waiata, When the Moon Sees the Sun (2018)—commissioned for the 2018 Honolulu Biennial—is autobiographical and poetic. Leatinu‘u plays the role of a guide, reflecting on the life and recent passing of his koroua (grandfather) countered by the birth of his daughter. Across the video’s six segments, his voice embodies a multiplicity, representing six different family members’ discrete and interwoven memories. His softly spoken voiceover speaks directly to the memory of the deceased—combined with atmospheric sounds, we need to listen carefully to follow the kōrero. With its circular life-and-death narrative, slow pace, and intimate portrayals of people, When the Moon Sees the Sun recalls Terrence Malick’s ‘contemplative’ film style, yet is interwoven with te ao Ma ̄ori and the geopolitical positioning of tangata moana. A consistent democratisation of subject matter connects animate and inanimate subjects. Piles of rocks, grass in sunlight, and sparkling details of pae moana are represented with as much reverence as the artist grooming himself in his ‘Sunday best’ for a family reunion.

Waiata also feature in Taonga Tuku Iho (2021), commissioned by Winnipeg Art Gallery. Filmed at the artist’s home, a courier package is unwrapped. The artist—back in front of the camera—stares at a vessel containing water. This atmospheric video asks apparently simple questions: What is water? And what is our relationship to water in our daily routines? While grounded in the quotidian, this study of water in motion, of domestic uses of water, and of water surfaces is abstract and surreal in tone. A tumbling washing machine and ceiling details are recorded in a documentary manner. Through close-up studies of everyday uses of water at home, the video evokes an interwoven spiritual relationship to water as amorphous and precious ecology. With its clearly planned structure and slick production values, Taonga Tuku Iho evidences Leatinu‘u’s talents as scriptwriter, actor, and producer, as well as director.

Leatinu‘u’s latest project, Te Whakawhitinga (2022), is filmed in black and white on 16mm celluloid in anamorphic widescreen format. It makes a journey from past to present via ko ̄rero, still photographs, and letters sent home. Travelling from Te Ika-a-Māui to Te Waipounamu and back again, it features a range of voices. The challenge of revisiting historical trauma is alluded to in beautifully performed narrations of war and memory by Poata Alvie McKree and Hunaara Kaa. Time- lapse close-ups of unfurling native fronds also feature. As in Earthpushers, images of soil and planting connote transformation, growth, and healing.

Leatinu‘u makes films for those who enjoy storytelling, who want to listen, and who connect with his themes, whether they are Indigenous, Pakehā, or tauiwi. This inclusivity is exemplified by his use of English voiceovers and subtitles alongside te reo Māori. His stories—made through careful listening and considered retelling—ask us to listen with care. Leatinu‘u charts the transformative cycle of life and death, using kōrero and waiata as vessels, while calling on the sentimental, and balancing the sacred and the mundane. His slow, intimate studies of people, places, and things invite us to reflect on interconnections across ecologies, interweaving images, words, and voices to explore the relationship between memory and storytelling, and construct an atmospheric sense of place. While whenua is a constant presence, so is the moana, positioning the artist as tangata moana. Leatinu‘u’s works are subjective and fleeting, collective and intimate.

More from this issue

Ioana Gordon-Smith reports on the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Andrew Paul Wood reviews the exhibition at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, 2 April–7 August 2022.
Nigel Borrell reviews the exhibition at Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery, 18 June–18 September 2022.
Caroline McQuarrie reviews the exhibition at Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery, 9 April–26 June 2022.
Arihia Latham reviews the exhibition at Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua, 28 May–21 August 2022.
Robyn Maree Pickens on a master of conceptual meandering.

Read more

Nigel Borrell reviews the exhibition at Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery, 18 June–18 September 2022.
French artist Bernar Venet creates a dramatic statement in steel on Alan Gibbs’ Kaipara farm. He talks to Dan Chappell about the project and his future plans.
In a series of works riffing on car culture and conspicuous consumption in the auto industry, Christchurch artist Robert Hood puts his foot down.
Taking on the role of 'artist as anthropologist', Kushana Bush makes paintings that are erotic, amusing, disturbing and beautiful, but ultimately their content remains absolutely mysterious. Virginia Were reports.
We’re living in a time where everything we want to know is seemingly available at the click of a mouse. The artists of our time have embraced this encyclopaedic world view, although, as Judy Millar writes, it’s not a new idea.
Fiona Jack's latest exhibition is tender, illuminating and radical. It looks at a particular moment in history – this time the birth of the idea to build living memorials.
Auckland artist and recent Wallace Art Award winner, Sam Mitchell, speaks to Virginia Were about her love of building stories in her irreverent paintings.
Leon van den Eijkel merges the Mondrian colours of his childhood, the modernist grid and the lushness of the Pacific to make work filled with joie de vivre.


Enjoy 15% Off

Your First Order