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RECLAIM: Whatungarongaro te tangata toitū te whenua – The land disappears from sight, man remains


Hana Pera Aoake

Te Ao Māori[1] asks us to reflect upon the stories of our ancestors as a way of understanding how we navigate the present and understand our responsibilities in the future. For instance, the stories of the demigod and trickster Māui, whoses name means to question and challenge, changed the world with the trusted knowledge passed down to him. The atua (goddess) Murirangawhenua, Māui’s grandmother, sensed her time in the physical realm was coming to an end and that her knowledge needed to be passed down. Murirangawhenua held all of her powers in her jawbones. The top jawbone was called Te Kauae Runga and contained celestial knowledge which was not to be entrusted to humans. Her bottom jawbone was called Te Kauae Raro and contained terrestrial knowledge. Te Kauae Raro sings, talks, moves, shifts and embodies tikanga (Māori law). Murirangawhenua gifted Te Kauae Raro to Māui, not as a gift for him but for all of humanity. From Te Kauae Raro, Māui carved a patu (club) and matau (fish hook), and with the knowledge of Murirangawhenua, Māui was able to slow down the sun and fish the north island, Te-Ika-ā-Māui.

It is in these teachings from the stories of Māui that I think of the work of Kauae Raro, an art and research collective from Aotearoa. Not unlike their namesake, Kauae Raro explore the colours of the whenua (land) through an artistic and cultural practice led by a tikanga which holds that we, as Māori, are intimately connected to all living/non-living and/or human/non-human entities, particularly those beneath our feet. In this way the land sings, it talks back, it remembers and it tells many stories.

On the rohe (territories) of where Kauae Raro is based, Whakatane in the eastern Bay of Plenty, there is a rich and ongoing history of land moving and shifting, not just through colonial dispossession but also by volcanic activity and shifting tectonic plates. One day they all decided to visit nearby ngā ana whakairo (Māori rock art sites)[2][1]  in their rohe and fell in love with whenua. The word ‘whenua’ has a dual meaning, both referring to placenta and the earth or dirt beneath our feet. These two words together signify the relationship Māori have with the land. Standing before marks made by their tūpuna (ancestors) in our original art galleries, humble caves in the middle of a ngahere (Kaingaroa forest), Kauae Raro began their practice that is focused upon the retention and promotion of Mātauranga Māori (traditional knowledge).

Over the last few years Kauae Raro have built a community by sharing their research, offering a continuum of cultural practice, building relationships with different elders across the country, and by spending time with the whenua. Not being attached to any formal institution and working as an art collective means that they often post their research on their Instagram page. Not unlike many other researchers engaging in mātauranga (scientific) methodologies, Kauae Raro understands that sharing is a responsibility of research.[3] Online they share their processes for collecting and harvesting whenua, how to make paint from whenua, how to use it as dye, and how our people for millennia have used kokowai (red ochre) for ceremonial purposes such as tangihanga (Māori funeral) and birth, during battles, and as makeup for special occasions such as marriage.

For Kauae Raro, Land Back is not a metaphor. As well as engaging with their whakapapa (genealogy) ties, they also listen to the stories that the land tells. As the late Māori rangatira, Dr Moana Jackson has noted,

... the will to explore and know was never entirely diminished because they were too deeply embedded into the stories of the land. Even when the stories seemed lost or were furrowed too deep to be easily found, they were still there if people cared to listen…[4]

As the land and water territories are our economic and spiritual base, Kauae Raro determines that if they are returned into our care, they would once again thrive. Gaining access to lands that have been taken through raupatu (the confiscation of Māori land and water territories in the nineteenth century by the British crown) or through private ownership is marred in frustration, pain and justifiable anger. But being able to trace how our tūpuna engaged with the whenua through the research of Kauae Raro has the potential for repair. Repair can be realised through the return of lands that have been taken. Although this might seem like a radical idea, when you consider the climate catastrophe that has ricocheted across the east coast of the North Island recently, hitting many Māori communities, it makes sense that we need a radical shift in how we engage with and respect the land. Western or colonial science is proving to be inadequate as the primary tool to assess landscape or resource its health and protection, particularly given the urgency necessary to address climate crises. For Kauae Raro, they are but a small part of helping their community, sharing what they have learnt about Te Taiao (the natural world) in order to reclaim our cultural and spiritual practices, but also to realise what else is at stake — the land itself. Whatungarongaro te tangata toitū te whenua — The land disappears from sight, man remains.

[This article is the second of a two part series on Kauae Raro, the first part of which was presented in un Magazine 17.1 RESIST]

Hana Pera Aoake (Ngaati Mahuta, Ngaati Hinearangi, Tainui/Waikato, Ngaati Waewae) is an artist, writer and independent researcher based in Kawerau, Aotearoa. They are a mum and the curator of the Sir James Fletcher Kawerau museum.

[1] Put simply, Te Ao Māori means the ‘Māori world’. This phrase encompasses our knowledge systems, ways of being, and the protocols we have in place. The defining feature of this is a concept called whānaungatanga, (kinship) where all the elements of creation within the living and spiritual realms. interrelated.

[2] There are over 600 rock art sites across Aotearoa, with 550 rock art sites in the South Island and 107 in the North Island.

[3] Linda Tuhiwai-Smith, Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. University of Otago Press: Dunedin, 1999, 162

[4] Dr Moana Jackson, “The Art of Having Faith in Ourselves”, Nigel Borell (ed) Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art. Penguin Random House, Auckland, New Zealand, 2022, pg 4