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Hidden history framed in pictures and words

“An indigenous invisibility pervades the national approach to monuments, to tombstones, flags and to plaques associated with the New Zealand Wars,” writes Dr. Rangihīroa Panoho in the book’s essay.

The book, is Vocabulary, a collection of images of these memorials and tombstones by photographer Bruce Connew with accompanying text; mōteatea and essay by Dr. Panoho.  

Vocabulary is also a powerful exhibition that opened on Friday 9 December at MTG Hawkes Bay – come and see it.

Connew says – “[I’m photographing] not just the memorials as an object, but the texts and not just the text, but key words. If you take a single words and think about them in the context the fact that they are British memorials. If you unpack that word, written at that time, what they were thinking what they meant.”

Soldier names; battle sites; pertinent dates; military ranks; political positions; descriptions of military defences; or fragments of one-sided narrative are documented in isolation. It’s their isolation that forces this unpacking.

Silently infusing the photographs is the fact that the headstones and the tributes recorded on them are mostly British, either settler or Crown funded and initiated. These memorials and headstones tell a story where Māori are largely invisible.

Giving visibility to histories that remain largely unseen, Connew says “The history is there in books and letters and in all sorts of places. But mostly that history is not acknowledged.”

In Vocabulary are the headstones of Hawke’s Bay figures. Photographed at Saint John’s Anglican Church, Ōmāhu; Napier Old Cemetery, Ahuriri or further afield in Wairoa, are Rēnata Kawepō, Sir Douglas MacLean, Sir George Whitmore or Īhaka Waanga who rests under the ‘Firm friend of the Europeans and supporter of the Queens laws’.

In visiting the sites, battlefields and Cemeteries Connew recognises how charged it felt. “At Motauroa, inland of Waverly in Taranaki stepping on to the land I felt a strange sensation in my belly which made me stop and was a bit baffling. This happened at more than one battle site leaving him to wonder. This is more than history…and so we come to memory, does the whenua hold memory and release that memory when the time is right.”

There are many stories in this exhibition and in it Connew has shone a light on a powerful mark of colonialism. Intertwined with the political implications of the exhibition and book is the contributors palpable absorption in the visual nature of the memorial plaques and headstones.

There is commitment to memorials as objects, and the words but not just the words, the lettering. Lettering sometimes embellished with gold, other times more simply engraved.

So, it’s no coincidence then that the book is designed by internationally recognised typographer, New Zealander Catherine Griffiths. Griffiths is a major collaborator also a collaborator in the exhibition, being responsible for the elegant layout of the photographs in the gallery. 

MTG Hawke’s Bay also hosted a floor talk with the artist Bruce Connew on Saturday 10 December.

Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today newspaper 10 December 2022 and written by Toni MacKinnon, Curator Fine Arts at MTG Hawke’s Bay.

Image Credit: Memorial (1891), British and ‘kāwanatanga’ forces, 58th and 96th Regts, Royal Marines and seamen from HMS North Star and HMS Hazard, British Forces, under Lt Col William Hulme, with ‘kawanatanga’ forces, under Tāmati Wāka Nene, te rangatira o Ngāti Hao, Ngāpuhi, killed in battle against Hōne Heke Pōkai, te rangatira o Ngāti Rāhiri, Ngāi Tāwake, Ngāpuhi, with Te Ruki Kawiti, te ranagatira o Ngāti Hine a HIneāmaru, Ngāpuhi, Te Kahika pā, Puketutu, 8 May 1845. Saint Catherine’s Church, Ōkaihau

12 December 2022

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