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At One With the Natural World

In December, Hastings District Council announced its Landmarks Awards at a grand celebration in the Opera House.

Landmarks is the vision of the late Hastings mayor, Jeremy Dwyer. He wanted to encourage art and beautification in the city, to instil a deeper sense of pride and place, as he had seen in some overseas cities. Two years ago, the awards were a small event in the Shakespeare Room, so they have already come a long way, and Jeremy would be proud.

This is not a review of the event, but rather some personal reactions to it.

As an observer and also a participant, it was a revealing experience for me to see the two aspects of our culture, Māori and Pākehā, in action alongside each other. For the most part we did it the Pākehā way, with lots of hype, musical jingles and commercialism.

Eighteen Pou now grace Hastings’ civic centre

Part of the vision of Landmarks, and one of its vital aspects, is getting business to become involved by supporting the initiative. But this is the awards night, the time for the creative people to be honoured. I believe that it is not the time or place for companies to promote themselves, because it only becomes a crass intrusion. As long as the names of the sponsors are given good exposure, that is enough.

I have been to other similar awards such as the Designers Institute of New Zealand Best Awards, and none of the considerable number of sponsors get up and speak. This would shift the balance away from creativity and culture, which are nourishing. We get enough of the superficial world of consumerism everywhere else.

I was asked to be the guest speaker in a break in the awards. It was, in essence, similar to the article I wrote recently for BayBuzz about the importance of art and how it has been a part of human culture throughout our evolution as humans. It was there while we were struggling desperately to survive an ice age thousands of years ago, and we have done it ever since; it must be important. I also showed how I believe art is closely tied up with our connection to nature and why that is so relevant now, when nature is increasingly under stress from human activities.

Ngā Pou o Heretaunga

The final Jeremy Dwyer Supreme Award went to Ngā Pou o Heretaunga which is the collection of 18 pou carvings that stand outside the Hastings City Art Gallery. No award was more appropriate or more richly deserved.

This was a visionary initiative, driven by Tama Huata of Waipatu, who formed the coordinating group Ngā Marae o Heretaunga. Funding came from the Hastings District Council, mostly from a bequest fund, with additional cash raised by Tama. Each of the local participating marae was asked to carve a pou to represent one of their ancestors. They chose their own carver and were given totara logs supplied by Tuhoi from the Ureweras. Now the carvings stand together under the trees in central Hastings, tall silent presences of authority and grace. Once forgotten pathways that criss-crossed Heretaunga plains are remembered by the figures as they face back down these foot-worn links to their marae.

All the carvers gathered on the stage to receive the award. Now the evening came alive. Tama gave a speech in te reo honouring the artists. Kahurangi Māori Dance Theatre were also part of the occasion. First a group of women came on stage to sing the waiata ‘E Pari Ra’. The audience was full of many of the artists’ whānau who knew the words and joined in. This was deeply moving and committed singing with an enduring resonance and relevance. Finally a group of men, also from Kahurangi, performed the powerful haka ‘Tika Tonu’ which projected out into every corner of the Opera House.

Contrast of cultures

The contrast of the two cultures could not have been greater. It exposed the superficiality of commercial culture and its lack of enrichment to our lives, while demonstrating the poignant and relevant sense of ritual embedded in Māori culture. But it goes further than that, because there is a reason for the ritual. As I pointed out in my speech, all over the globe indigenous cultures have respect and a sense of oneness with the natural world, which they see literally as ‘mother nature’. She cares for us as much as we must care for her – like all mothers.

There is no word in English that translates rāhui. Instead we have to use a made-up combination – like ‘to put in place a temporary ritual prohibition, closed season, to ban …’ – to preserve vital resources. This is no coincidence. Western commercialism sees the land as a resource to be exploited. Colonialists and missionaries, working hand in hand, eradicated the inconveniently egalitarian customs and stories of indigenous peoples in order to make resource extraction easier.

So today, as our populations continue to grow, a healthy future for us and the planet is threatened by unrestricted commercial exploitation. More and more we need the sensitivities and caring that are often found in indigenous cultures, and which are expressed through their art. If art helped us survive the crisis of an ice age, it can help us survive the crises of today such as global warming and polluted nature.

Western art is too often incestuous, only about itself and driven by commercialism, like so much of western culture. We have been through a period of idolising consumerism, but the zeitgeist is shifting towards an awareness that holding the life-giving force of nature close to our hearts is vital for our existence.

A further demonstration of caring for the future was given when the Landmarks Landscaping Award was announced. The winners were another Māori group: Kohupatiki Marae for their Operation Pātiki. They are replanting the banks of Clive River (which they call the Ngaruroro, as it was before being diverted). The aim is not just to have more trees and flax, but ultimately to improve the river’s water quality and to bring back fish such as pātiki, the black flounder that used to be plentiful here … and even the kahawai that used to swim up as far as Whakatu.

The proceedings were opened and closed by prayers. I would argue that Christianity has no more place here than commercialism, but the gentle, softly spoken Māori words spared me from hearing religious platitudes, and added a ritual bracketing to an important occasion.

Western culture seems hell-bent on shopping itself to extinction, and maybe our only hope for a better future lies in cultures such as Māori, whose rituals are intrinsically tied up with caring for the land.

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