Tia Ranginui: Tua o Tāwauwau

Arihia Latham reviews the exhibition at Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua, 28 May–21 August 2022.

The Sarjeant Gallery’s walls are naturally spacious, light, and clear, yet the placement of Tia Ranginui’s photographs on them brings an edgy darkness, an ethereal zag through their metaphorical pearled mist. Moving into the gallery with her images, we walk with otherworldly yet disarmingly fit beings making their way into suburbia, morphing worlds, and pulling pūrakau of patupaiarehe from the past into the present with their vape smoke and nonchalance. These pale, red-headed cool kids lure us in as they might have lured beautiful women, back in the day. Patupaiarehe were readily acknowledged as beings of the mist, particularly around Whanganui, Taranaki, Taupō, and Waikaremoana. Ranginui was raised in Koroniti, up the Whanganui River, where her grandfather and uncle would fortify her creative mind with stories of them. It is through this playful lens that Ranginui draws us into her fairytale.

Ranginui has a way of composing pictures that makes you gasp for air. Their gothic beauty, while breathtaking, is always offering a wero with a wry smile. Their challenge often comes through the titles, which unearth another perspective on these twelve images. In Pūrerehu (2020), there is depth in the multiple meanings: misty, distant, and moth. The woman, in a red velvet dress and strawberry locks, is billowing mist atop a sand dune. She appears again colour blocking with a brick house in Tipua (2020), meaning supernatural. Taniwha (2020), where two heads emerge from a kaftanned body sitting in a boat, going nowhere, is a personal favourite. The idea of a false migration informs subsequent works titled in Norwegian. Through these titles, Ranginui speaks with humour and thinly veiled disdain for the Norwegian amateur ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl and his hypothesis that Aotearoa was first inhabited by a Caucasian race group defined by their height, long crania, pale eyes and skin, and red hair. The likes of white supremacist Kerry Bolton, in the 1980s, attempted to further this idea with little traction. Ranginui’s scoff at these appropriations of our patupaiarehe stories is almost audible as she places her subjects, sprawled and indifferent to what amateurs think. Royk (2022) means smoke in Norwegian, and is the title of our main patupaiarehe man reclining, giving zero. The title Sleipnir (2021) refers to a Nordic eight-legged horse, nodding to the horses patupaiarehe may have ridden in the mist.

Without a Paddle and Stolen (both 2021) modernise the story of how a young Māori kōhine might get lured by the gaze of a patupaiarehe. In this modern take, he’s ditched his horse for a Ford Mustang, and the teen couple’s apathy is captured perfectly. I can almost hear Ranginui chuckling at this twist on the traditional story as the mist swirls beyond her astute lens.

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