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Un Magazine 12.1

Watch the stars – we navigate points of light in the dark

Tāwhanga Nopera

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10/22

Article

Whakapapa is generally translated as genealogy. Whakapapa can mean to lie flat, to place in layers, to recite in order; or considered in parts as ‘whaka’ – cause to be, to become; and ‘papa’ which can mean – the Earth, or anything broad flat and hard. In te reo Māori ‘papa’ has many meanings associated with ideas of ground, site and layer. Papatūānuku, often shortened to Papa, is the female personification of Earth. The word ‘kaupapa’ can mean the woven foundation for a cloak and has the figurative meaning of a platform or purpose. ‘Whakapapa’ has a literal meaning of placing things in layers. That extends figuratively to reciting genealogical links in their proper order, and from there, to the word for ‘genealogy’.

Tāwhanga Nopera, <em>no lies</em> 2015. Digital image on Phototex, 2.5m x 1.5m. Image courtesy the artist

Whakapapa is a critical cultural foundation for understanding who you are, where you come from, where and who you belong to.

Whakapapa helps Māori people keep memories alive over aeons, through practices of re-storying our lives. Through whakapapa, I am always able to locate myself at the core of my accumulated experiences, even though at times I can feel fragmented and disoriented. Whakapapa resists marginalisation and centres identity, because I can see the ‘today’ of my life through the lens of many generations – I can see the bigger picture. Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Māhanga and Ngāti Māhanga ā Tairi activist and social theorist Leonie Pihama asserts whakapapa as an analytic tool, employed by Māori to understand how we relate in the world.1 Whakapapa connects Māori to every aspect of existence – when I make art I use whakapapa to re-image lived experiences of marginality in many different (but also the same) globalised contexts.

First Nations Coast Salish author, writer and critic Lee Maracle talks about colonialism and its impact on Indigenous bodies when she writes, ‘Native women and some Native men know full well that what is abnormal is very often natural. Internalized racism is the natural response to the unnatural condition of racism’.2 Similarly, the Brazilian critical theorist Paulo Freire writes about internalisation as a core function of colonisation. He points out that with so much energy invested in storing, remembering and performing colonial ways to be, criticality is denied, as well as the ability to transform worlds of oppression.3 In Black Skin, White Masks, the Martinican philosopher Frantz Fanon writes:

[e]very colonized people – in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality – finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation … The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion
to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle.4

From the inside out, colonialism infects bodies with negativity, self-doubt, self-incrimination, depression and fear. Art-making helps elevate me beyond the inhumanness of colonial patterning.

For Fanon, there is only one way out that does not lead to becoming as the coloniser – it involves a turning of backs on inhumane histories and voices. For me, whakapapa helps me turn my back on colonialism, it gives me tools to reimagine life before and beyond colonialism, and this is essential to resisting oppression. Practices gifted by our ancestors can powerfully transform embodied responses to our experience of the world. When I make art, I whakapapa an ability to resist consumptive and confusing impulses. It’s like a horde of colonial hostilities have unwittingly been patterned into my body – art is my way to sort through all these patterns, and reshape them to empower my life. It is my intent to be free, especially of the sicknesses encouraged by colonialism. I want to find sustainable ways to manage myself within a network of healthy relationships.

Colonial behaviours reflective of internalised racism can be understood through the writings of Powhatan-Renapé and Delaware-Lenápe scholar, poet and activist Jack D. Forbes, where ‘wétiko’, a Cree term, which is similar in meaning to a Dakota and Lakota term ‘washichu’, as well as an Ojibwe term ‘windigo’, explains colonising behaviours that are cannibalistic in intent.5 Wétiko, washichu and windigo refer to ‘fat eaters’, or those who in times of scarcity, eat the fat of an animal normally reserved for children and elders – the most vulnerable in our society. Forbes describes wétiko behaviours as being driven by individualism, to the extent that wétiko becomes a type of sickness, where one person consumes another’s life energy for their own benefit, or even economic profit.

Tāwhanga Nopera, <em>Trouble</em> 2016. 1280px x 720px. Digital video still. Image courtesy of the artist. Source image credit: Riley Claxton

When I think of the ways that oppression manifests in my life, when I see western doctors I am often described as illnesses – I’m either depression, schizophrenia, gender dysmorphia, AIDS, anxiety or any other number of stigmatising pathological diseases. Making artwork and thinking about what I have made helps me gather my experiences past these descriptions. Making something is an emotional experience and when I make, I can’t help but respond to things I’ve made, I think them through and wonder where in the Universe they manifested from. It’s the working out why I feel like I do, that helps me understand how I think about myself as part of the world. Through whakapapa, I create new pathways. I am constantly considering experiences through the windows of many generations – giving my experiences the flesh, bones and skin of my ancestors’ hopeful vision for me.

Tāwhanga Nopera, Tāwhanga 2017. Performance image. Image courtesy of the artist. Photo: Ngāwai Smith

Starting from scratch – making things match

In my making, I think a lot about the impact of colonialism on gender and sexual identity, and the harm enacted upon Indigenous people with fluid expressions for both. Opelousa/Atakapa-Ishak, West African, French Creole & Spanish scholar Andrew Jolivétte explains how Native American ‘Two-Spirit bodies – those bodies that are deemed to lie outside the normal gender and sexual identity classifications by colonial powers … have been beaten, silenced, and traumatised in often insurmountable ways’.6 For Indigenous people, popular gay culture has a marked association with racism.

Indigenous people whose gendered and sexual identities lie outside mainstream norms are more likely to experience harm. This is emphasised in a 2006 report that describes the intersection of Indigeneity and youth as increasing experiences of sexual assault within social contexts for men who have sex with men. The report states, ‘…that Māori youth may exist as an exoticised and eroticised ‘other’ for some older Pākehā men’, and that the effects can negatively impact upon their sense of being Māori. It also points out that for the Māori research respondents, Māori culture offers a positive pathway to healing from these kinds of experiences. Being able to connect to the knowledge of ancestors heals our disassociated aspects – causing ‘…a remembering…among Native and Indigenous peoples that calls for a reconciliation of all of our parts’.7 This is also evidently true in healing from my own experiences of sexual coercion and assault – where art-making and creative writing are the means I am using to recover from painful experiences that have inhibited my ability to emote. Differentiating between painful life experiences and those that are traumatic, Leslie Young explains a Japanese understanding of trauma, where trauma stops time, ‘[b]ad events maintain and extend a person’s sense of personal coherence and continuity; whereas traumatic events, by contrast, create personal incoherence and discontinuity’.8 Writing about First Nations women who reclaim aspects of identity that have been lost through histories of colonial trauma, Canadian theatre and performance scholar Shelley Scott similarly writes,

... the scars of history are worn on the body and made visible by a kind of storytelling that is a mixture of public testimonial and personal healing. While it is primarily the performer herself who is healed, by witnessing their performances, that embodied healing can be shared by the audience and wider community.9

In the art I create, I recount my experiences through performance art, which are ceremonies that allow me to reclaim my own body. Art as ceremony enables me to remember another me, a version of myself empowered by the damage and my cultural memory of how to overcome it. For me, a public ceremony is necessary to expel and release the damage done – otherwise I remain trapped in my memories and private anguish, and those around me are unable to acknowledge their own. I don’t just tell my own story, even though I do, because what I do has a whakapapa. When I make art I rebirth life and energy through my network of relations. As I move and transform from the darkness of painful experiences through art-making practices, I help my relations remember pathways through their own experiences of loss and erasure.

Dark matter – visualising rebirth

Whakapapa helps to establish patterns for making – as a weaver I weave a whakapapa that transforms a living plant into something that I can use. My ability to see the plants I use for weaving and their importance to my way of life, gives both myself and the plant power. When I begin to focus my intent toward making something, I transcend the immediacy of my body which begins to ‘feel’ more expansive and aware of its environment. When I make, creative actions becomes rhythmical and as I weave I fall asleep and awaken at the same time. Making encourages a liminal sensory threshold, it slows me down to just relax and be happy in being and making. This is a birth-like state where I can connect with my inner womb, or whare tangata memories. In Māori, ‘te whare tangata’ translates to the house of humanity and pertains to the uterus, and also the communal meeting house. Kirimatao Paipa of Ngāti Whakaue explains:

Te Whare Tangata for Māori represents a place of safety and protection – a haven for new growth. Te Whare Tangata represents the continuous link that exists between land, mother and child as each is bound in a cycle of nourishment and care.10

Whare tangata is thought of in broad terms ‘beyond the physical role of producing life’ – it is the human link to cosmologies where the potential for growth and emergence form in the darkness of Te Kore, the void of pre-existence.11 In this there is a duality of experience because ‘Te Kore may articulate experiences and feelings of absence, void, nothingness, loss and annihilation, and also notions of potentiality, a source or origin’.12 Te Kore is generative, it is the start of creation that birthed Te Pō, the nighwt, and then Te Ao Mārama, the world of light. Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Porou lawyer and scholar Ani Mikaere writes:

The progression from Te Kore, through Te Pō and on to Te Ao Mārama is an ongoing cycle of conception, development within the womb, and birth … The female presence at the beginning of the world is all encompassing. The female reproductive organs provide the framework within which the world comes into being.13

Although the transformative potential of art is understood within Western cultures, the often used scientific modes to practice and consider art overlook simple ways to engage life, making and thinking. There’s nothing wrong with science, but thinking details without feeling their impact blurs realities. With science and empiricism comes a barrier to emotion, and stasis cannot support the life of a womb-like space. For art to have potential then we need to do away with restrictive measures. Indigenous communities have knowledge that can free art and its power from institutional confines … art needs to release its ability to heal! To break down the empirical thresholds of contemporary art, Steven Leuthold has developed a theory of Indigenous aesthetics. Indigenous aesthetics reformulates Western aesthetics, extending creative possibilities – ‘[e]ngaging indigenous systems of aesthetics expands appreciation and refines understanding of how arts can produce meaning for multiple audiences’.14 For some Indigenous peoples, artistic expression is perceived in a ‘parallel time’ where past and future are present and individual identities are communal identities:

[p]arallel times bridge the living, the dead, and spiritual elements into a continuous flow that creates and maintains power. It is from ancestors and ultimately from the god(s) that the viewer responds to emotionally, spiritually, and physically.15

Whakapapa empowers beyond the abuses enacted upon my body, because it fills nothingness with potential and in this way extends possibilities for transformation. This internal and personal process can be applied externally, as a way to manage colonising visual landscapes that constantly forecast the exclusion of Indigenous lives.

Susan Sontag, an American photographer and art theorist explains the overload of images in today’s world as akin to Plato’s cave – where chained within, a trapped individual’s concept of the ‘truth’ is based on the projections of shadowy figures that dance and move in front of a fire – rather than see people move past the fire, the person in chains experiences life second-hand, never grasping the true world and the people who move with it.16 Sontag’s rewriting of Plato for contemporary contexts, brings to mind my understandings of Te Kore and nothingness. I can forever continue internalising colonial perceptions that distance me from empowerment, believing that finite circumstance as empty, nothing and devoid of hope. Alternatively, I can grasp the potential of Te Kore offered through ancestral knowledge and resist the second-hand reality I am offered through visual enculturation. Neither Sontag nor Plato’s theories of capture describe this kind of agency people can affirm. Te Kore and its connection to te whare tangata allows a deep enduring relationship with the world that sustains me and the hope it always offers.

Dr Tāwhanga Nopera is an artist and researcher of Ngāti Whakaue whakapapa. Tāwhanga’s practice investigates the impact of colonialism on Māori people and also pathways to healing from trauma.


  1. L. Pihama. ‘Kaupapa Māori theory: Transforming theory in Aotearoa. He pukenga korero, 9,2, Te Pūtahi-a-Toi, Palmerston North. 2010. pp.5-14. 

  2. L. Maracle. ‘Oratory Coming to Theory’. 1994. Essays on Canadian Writing, 54, 54, pp. 7–11. Accessed 26 July, 2013. Available at http://ezproxy.waikato.ac.nz/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/197245877?accountid=17287 

  3. P. Freire, Ramos Bergman, D Macedo, Pedagogy of the oppressed. 2005. Continuum, New York 2005. 

  4. F. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (C.L. Markmann, Trans.). London, Granada Publishing, 1972. 

  5. J.D. Forbes. Columbus and other cannibals: The Wetiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism, and Terrorism, 2008. New York: Seven Stories Press. 

  6. A. Jolivétte. Indian blood: HIV and colonial trauma in San Francisco’s Two-Spirit community. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2016. 

  7. J. Fenaughty, V. Braun, N. Gavey, C. Aspin, P. Reynolds and J. Schmidt, Sexual coercion among gay men, bisexual men and takatāpui tāne in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Auckland: The University of Auckland – The Department of Psychology, Auckland, 2006. 

  8. L. Young, Sexual abuse and the problem of embodiment. In, Child abuse and neglect, 16, 1992. pp.89-100. Accessed 29 February, 2016 <doi:10.1016/0145-2134(92)90010-O>. 

  9. S. Scott. Embodiment as a Healing Process: Native American Women and Performance. S Wilmer (Ed.), Native American Performance and Representation, (pp.123-135). University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2011, pp. 123–135. 

  10. C. Mikaere. Te whareporahōu: Te whare tangata as a site for contesting colonial discourse (Unpublished masters thesis).Massey University. 2011. 

  11. K. Gabel. Poipoia te tamaiti ki te ūkaipō (Unpublished doctoral thesis). The University of Waikato, 2013. 

  12. M. Nepia. Te Kore – Exploring the Māori concept of void (Unpublished doctoral thesis),
    AUT University, 2012. 

  13. A. Mikaere. The balance destroyed: The consequences for Māori women of the colonisation of tikanga Māori. Unpublished masters thesis. University of Waikato. 1995. [Accessed 25 July, 2015] <teipuwhakahauaa.co.nz/uploads/mikaere/1995/788_Mikaere1995.pdf> 

  14. C. Ballangee-Morris, ‘Indigenous aesthetics: Universal circles related and connected to everything called life.’ Art education,61, 2, 2008 pp. 30–33. Alexandria: National Art Education Association. Accessed 6 April, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27696273 

  15. Ibid. 

  16. S. Sontag, On Photography, Penguin, New York 1979.