Whangārei Art Gallery likes making exhibitions with local hooks. Whare Tapu Taonga (30 July–30 October 2022) gathers Laurence Aberhart’s photographs of Northland’s historical Māori churches. Most were taken in 1982, enabled by a QEII Arts Council grant. Back then, Aberhart was concerned that the churches were neglected and on the verge of disappearance.
Based in Kororāreka Russell, Aberhart is famed for his anachronistic approach, evoking the work of early photographers. He uses an antique large-format camera and black- and-white film, and makes contact prints. His scenes are deserted, partly due to the long exposure times his process demands. On the one hand, his MO locates him in the past with his subjects; on the other hand, he seems to survey his scenes like some future archaeologist.
Aberhart’s images of the churches are reminders of the complex relation Māori have to Christianity, as it both colonised and sustained their communities. As Geremy Hema observes: “Tai Tokerau were the first Māori to hear the gospel proclaimed, and the first to take up Christianity in its various forms. This is why one encounters so many houses of faith throughout the North, where almost every hapū built their own church or temple.”
The denominations came in waves—first Church of England, then Methodists, then Roman Catholics—each bringing their own iconography and liturgy. Some churches were built in gothic style—one in Spanish mission style. Some incorporated whakairo and tukutuku. The early twentieth century also saw the emergence of the Rātana Church, whose temples display its whetū mārama (star and moon) symbol. Aberhart revels in the similarities and differences.