Review: Ariā I and II – voices of longing, absence and connection

Erin Harrington responds to Ariā, created and performed by Juanita Hepi (Kāi Tahu, Ngāti Wai, Moriori, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāpuhi), with artistic direction from Julia Harvie, from 2-245pm on Saturday 22 January 2022 at the installation Isolation Hotel at Canterbury Museum.

Multidisciplinary storyteller Juanita Hepi is one of the busiest and most interesting creatives in Ōtautahi. In the last year or so audiences may have seen mahi as diverse as the intimate and confrontational I am Not Your Dusky Maiden at November’s Tiny Fest, or the spectacular Tūmahana, for which Hepi served as artistic director, which used circus arts, Toi Māori, taonga pūoro and the varied talents of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra to dramatize the Ngāi Tahu story of creation. Her roving performance art work Ariā, which responds to exhibitions in situ, is on a smaller scale, but just as politically and artistically targeted. It overtly foregrounds of the voices and experiences of wāhine Māori, and throws down challenges to the values embedded within curatorial and artistic practice. 

Hepi performed the first iteration of Ariā at CoCA Centre of Contemporary Art Toi Moroki last October in the space occupied by the installation The Mist and the Horizon. This featured large-scale illuminated sculptures by Ngāi Tahu artist Nathan Pohio, which referenced Ngāi Tahu creation myths and celestial beings, and sound work by Luke Shaw, which riffed on musical partnerships, harmony and fracture. In that performance, Hepi responded specifically to Pohio’s works – long, thin bars of light marked by horizontal blocks and stripes of red, black and white, one forked like lightning – by asking us to think of the frequently forgotten or elided voices and subjectivities of wāhine Māori, and the connections between bodies and birth and land.

The audience sat around the edges of that performance on chairs and the ground, and we were asked to look after river stones marked with the names of Atua wāhine, the female or feminine gods and natural forces who – again – are the ones whose names are forgotten, overlooked, misremembered. The work shifted between movement and stillness, vocal work and silence, and direct address and more heightened, stylised performance modes. Throughout, Hepi slid between a variety of female characters and voices, including a sharp-witted kuia who appears again in the later work, such that the present is always-already woven back through to the past.

It was a visually striking work. Hepi, dressed in a black slip, later stripping down to undergarments, used her long hair to frame or obscure her face. She made significant use of a large piece of red and white parachuting, sculptural in its bulk. This became apparel (dresses, cloaks, hoodies), was bundled up to become pēpi, and marked the outpouring of blood to land and reciprocal reach of land to body in birth. It fell from ceiling / sky to earth as she climbed a ladder, head disappearing up into an atrium while her voice persisted, bouncing through the oddly-shaped exhibition space. My experience of this sort of work as a white bread Pākehā and child of immigrants is always going to be limited, never in full colour, but I was profoundly moved by the performance’s articulation of loss, grief, defiance and persistence, and the generous reciprocity between Hepi and Pohio’s works.

It’s fascinating seeing how Ariā adapts to a significantly different context: Auckland-based artist Heather Straka’s installation Isolation Hotel, at the Canterbury Museum, itself an institution that is frequently grappling with its colonial past, its current role, and its future ambitions. Isolation Hotel re-creates the foyer of an imagined 1930s German hotel, its past grandeur now shabby and a little seedy. The installation has been home to a terrific series of events, programmed by Audrey Baldwin. It invites you overtly to “create a fantasy and tell your story on this cinematic stage” – although the nature of that fantasy is up for debate. You can dress up and take pictures with provided props, riffing on a heightened theatrical and cinematic language that’s always mindful of the impending cataclysm of war; grab your fur coat and cigarette holder, mein liebchen, and let’s pretend we can make our escape. There’s an uneasiness between the echoes of faded glamour, the implicit violence and perpetual dislocation, and the space’s overt theatricality. This is further emphasised by painterly portraits, photographed within the space, that line the walls – stories within stories, rooms within rooms.

The exhibition’s interpretive text indicates that the “austere atmosphere makes the viewer feel the impact of isolation” – very apropos in this COVID moment. For this performance isolation is explored as memory, as distance, and as the loss of loved ones (and stories and language and practice). In this iteration of Ariā we again have Hepi’s shifting female characters, and a very large piece of parachuting, although now it is striped black and white, the white bloodied with red – traces, streaks, handprints. We start with the same kind, crack up kuia, asleep in a wingback chair and clutching red velvet around her as a shawl. Nanny is trying to tell us a story – or be told a story – but there’s something she’s forgotten, something that each of the characters are looking for, without quite knowing what it is they’ve lost. It’s on the tip of the tongue, ghostly. There is a repeat of the same imagery of birth and power, the cascading of material from woman’s body to land. There is a recognition of, a lament for, the profound wounds caused by things forgotten that can never be recovered. It asks: how do you piece together that which you have no memory of?

Ariā II is particularly successful in the way it responds to the installation’s pre-World War II setting. A key refrain is the 1949 song “Blue Smoke (Kohu Auwahi)”, the first New Zealand record entirely produced in Aotearoa, sung by Pixie Williams and written nearly a decade earlier by Ruru Karaitiana, a member of the Māori Battalion, while sailing off the coast of Africa. It’s a dreamy, nostalgic wartime song about distance, memory and longing for home, and its sweetness mingles with the more uncomfortable sense of haunting offered in the performance and setting proper. Hepi sings the song in various iterations, in both English and Te Reo. We are prompted to think about mass casualty, the blood shed and lives lost (mostly by men) in wars here and in far off countries for far off powers, and those (frequently women, children, families) left behind. Nanny half-remembers it; it’s also framing for other characters, including an ancestor carrying a baby, who walks to each of the portraits lining the room to acknowledge, or question, their subjects, brow furrowed in concentration, half-recognition, ad ultimately skepticism. Meanings are not just received; they are challenged, questioned, cast off. Memorialisation and the construction of historical narratives are fraught. In a venue like a museum we must always ask about what’s been framed and excluded – something similarly addressed by the Court Theatre Youth Company’s show in the same space last year.

Ariā II asks, once more, how do indigenous voices, the voices of women, feature in these histories? Again, we see the use of the same river stones, anchoring story to place. In the piece’s slow finale, which recalls the staging and mise-en-scene of the first version, audience members are invited by Hepi, now without voice, to anchor the striped parachuting to the ground with the names of Atua wāhine. The last few are deliberately left for a wahine Māori audience member; she completes the bind. Hepi rises again, stripes splayed magnificently, this time into the hotel’s reception area. She unhitches from the cascading skirt, wanders beyond the performance space, now singing, the disembodied voice everywhere at once if only people would listen. And Nanny’s back, still trying to remember, still reaching for the smoky apparition.

Ariā II – immediately post-show

I really love watching Ariā develop, not least because in this iteration members of the public who are exploring the museum proper keep wandering in, and it’s fascinating seeing how they engage with the action and think through the rules of engagement. You can think about Ariā visiting shows and venues, or those shows and venues instead circulating around this work. I also love the idea that Nanny, who frames these works as speaker and narrative conceit, is a kind of unflappable trickster figure, wandering from exhibition to exhibition going ‘what is this then?’, utterly unmoved by the trappings of high art and cultural privilege.

Throughout, Hepi has a magnetic presence; she takes and holds space. At the end she sits, invites us to stay and talk, and acknowledges her kids, hanging out down the back, who are ever-present in her work. The cultural and historical record is fragmented and damaged, but it’s hard to be isolated when you build and acknowledge your connections.

You can find more information about the events accompanying Isolation Hotel here.

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