Harnessing her artistic practice to highlight our need for urgent environmental care, Natalie Robertson’s latest project, He Wai Mou! He Wai Mau!, pulls two of New Zealand’s more imperiled waterways into close focus
In recent times, the topic of water in Aotearoa has flowed from a tentpole in the country’s ‘clean green’ self-image to a hotly contested political issue. Questions around cleanliness, access, ownership, and protection have bubbled to the surface of the public consciousness, and no one seems to have easy answers to offer. But art is seldom concerned with easy answers, and one local photographer has decided to place this complex situation in the centre of her frame.
Natalie Robertson is a photographer and arts lecturer whose practice seeks to combine image-making and indigenous knowledge as a way of envisaging the past, present, and future of the land. Her latest project, He Wai Mou! He Wai Mau!, takes in the broad ecological scope of kaitiakitanga (guardianship) by pulling two of the country’s more imperiled waterways into close focus.
“In terms of the mauri of the whenua [life-force of the land], water is that lifeblood,” states the artist. “If we don’t take care of the water then we are definitely not taking care of anything else: it’s a really good barometer of how we are looking after our environment.”
To that end, she has trained her lens upon the East Coast’s Waiapu river, the ancestral waterway of her Ngāti Porou iwi, as well as Tararata Creek in the Auckland suburb of Māngere. Through a mix of still and video images, the catastrophic plights of both awa (rivers) are examined.
“The Waiapu river has the worst sediment problem of any river in New Zealand, and one of the worst in the world,” the photographer explains. “The destabilizing of the land that began in 1890 is a slow catastrophe that continues to this day.
“It’s a reminder that we might undertake an action now, and have no idea how far-reaching the consequences may be.”
The exhibition’s title comes from a composition written to commemorate a historic agreement between Ngāti Porou and the Gisborne District Council, which establishes a plan to jointly manage the health of land, water, and people. Natalie hopes her images will act as more than simple historical documentation around this agreement, but also as a tool that will be of direct value to following generations.
To serve the people of the future, the artist looks to the land’s past. An audio component to the exhibition replays a mōteatea, a traditional chant, which describes the downstream journey of an ancestor who came to drown and be washed up at the river mouth over 150 years ago.
“The mōteatea is the vehicle through which we access the ecological philosophy of the people of the Waiapu river,” she explains. “I think it’s telling us to take care of our environment, so that our food sources are taken care of.”
Natalie compelled herself to follow the narrative of the mōteatea in creating her works. Walking the beach at the rivermouth, she measured a 100m stretch and marked out 21 pegs at five metre intervals, from which she shot daily (sometimes more) over a 10-day period. The resulting work, Takutai Moana — Rangitukia Hikoi 0–20 (2016–’17), depicts the subtly shifting shades and moods of the riverscape, invoking a sense of spiralling time.
“I was struck by the way the driftwood often looks like bones on the beach — they are the scattered bones of the trees. That particular stretch of beach is also where the spirits of the recently deceased would be traveling after their departure from Hikurangi Mountain, coming out of the river mouth and turning to walk along the beach.”
These still works are complemented by a series of moving-image pieces that further enhance the holistic detailing of the waterway. One shows the river as navigated by kayak, another affords impossible aerial views shot by drone.
“One of the main reasons I work with video is the narrative potential,” she elaborates. “I really like working across the two of them. The video gives us a sense of movement, and there are some shots in particular, if you saw them as a still they would look great, but the movement takes it to another level.”
To ensure the images were accessible to the communities affected by these water issues, the project was originally exhibited at the Māngere Arts Centre, closing early September. The people of Ngāti Porou living in Auckland (which is more than remain living on the coast) would have the opportunity to see their waterway represented, while the Māngere community could view the show not far from the Tararata Creek itself.
“That’s the beauty of photography, we can see things differently to how other people see,” Natalie says of the effort. “If we are fortunate enough to have a platform to show our work, we should do so for the power of good.”
And to ensure the impact of the works was as practical as possible, a public planting of over 2000 native plants was also organized to help revitalize the area known as the Tararata Love Zone, where the inanga, or whitebait, spawn.
Ultimately the photographer hopes her example might encourage others to also harness the art and creative practice that have always been essential in Te Ao Māori (the Māori world), in order to bring attention to the urgent environmental care our land cries out for.