In the whenua (land), the art collective Kauae Raro see the potentiality for its use as art material and as cultural and spiritual mediums. Through a broad expanse of experiments more can be uncovered about the state of Te Taiao (the natural world) and how Māori engage with the world around us. Founded in 2019 by Lanae Cable (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Pūkeko, Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Maru ki Hauraki), Jordan Davey-Emms (Ngāti Pākeha), and Sarah Hudson (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Pūkeko, Ngāi Tūhoe), Kauae Raro began simply as a group of friends with a shared interest in research within art, pottery, rongoā (Māori medicine) and whakapapa1 (genealogy).
So much of their work resists the Western idea that Māori knowledge systems are redundant, not useful, nor scientific. Mātauranga (Māori knowledge) and science do not have to be positioned as two different knowledge systems. Instead they can be recognised as two complementary bodies of knowledge which offer opportunities for new solutions to better understand and care for both the whenua and tangata (people). If Māori weren’t making empirical observations and conducting ‘science,’ they would not have been able to adapt to a climate so vastly different to other parts of the Pacific nor would they have been able to navigate across Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean). Not unlike most Māori researchers, Kauae Raro utilise Mātauranga Māori sources, such as mōteatea (chant, lament), waiata (song), kōrero (oral history) and pūrākau (stories) in their research to learn about the whenua. They also engage physically with their environment by doing empirical experiments with different clays, soils and binders to create paint, makeup and/or rongoā. Kauae Raro demonstrate their use of Mātauranga through both practical and artistic means.
The word ‘whenua’ has a multitude of meanings, for instance, it means land but also placenta. When Māori describe themselves as ‘tangata whenua,’ they are literally describing themselves as people of the land. This ontology makes clear that Māori people are physically connected to the land. By connecting to the whenua of their ancestors and re-learning practices that their ancestors were engaged in, Kauae Raro not only utilise their knowledge of their own whakapapa, which is a central tenet of Te Ao Māori culture, but like DNA research, pepeha2 can be split between hereditary locators (waka (canoe), iwi (tribe), hapū (sub-tribe)) and environment locators (marae (meeting house), maunga (mountain), awa (river)). This is a quantitative assessment where the phenotype is the sum of their genetics as well as the environment that they live in. By resisting the Cartesian binaries of Western science, Kauae Raro locate themselves within an ongoing struggle to not only think critically about what getting land back would look like but also how this is an ongoing historical struggle for tino rangatiratanga (self determination, sovereignty, Māori control of Māori things). Ka whawhai tonu mātou.
To uncover much of this knowledge is a constant negotiation of resources that are gatekept through bureaucracy and how much of these resources should be shared. To work through the mamae (hurt, grief) of colonialism, much of the whakaaro (ideas, skills) Kauae Raro learn is obtained through building relationships with elders. These relationships have raised questions regarding how much can and should be shared, especially when the information could be considered sacred. Is it right to sell work that is made of whenua? How do we as Indigenous artists utilise this material while living under latestage capitalism? It is through the practices of both kaitiakitanga3 and utu (reciprocation and balance) that Kauae Raro has been able to mitigate these tensions. It is the thinking behind utu that encourages Kauae Raro to share in a manner which upholds and respects the knowledge that has been learnt and practised. For instance, sometimes knowledge is shared publicly, while at other times it is shared only within their immediate community.
By being able to understand the stories written deep within the soil, we can collectively make the demand for not only the reinstating of Indigenous land but for it to be returned in the manner in which it was taken.4 Having the whenua returned to Māori care means that we can have the economic basis upon which to pursue all other rights, aspirations and futures, not just for ourselves but for our children.