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Nakisha Kingi and Azaria Thompson perform a “tika tonu” haka to show aroha and support at a vigil outside the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch last March. Reproduced by licence from Associated Press. Photograph by Vincent Thian.

Pūkana, a significant exhibition, celebrates the power of performance

The Alexander Turnbull Library is marking its centenary with an exhibition dedicated to the power of performance at the heart of Māori culture.

Before the merchant (and, let’s be honest, the hoarder) Alexander Turnbull died in 1918, he gifted to “King and Country” his 55,000 volumes of books, pamphlets, periodicals and newspapers, plus thousands of maps, paintings, drawings, clothes, coins, photographs, artworks and other artefacts. He died aged just 49 – likely from complications following a sinus operation.

Opened in June 1920, the Alexander Turnbull Library quickly became a large reference, research and heritage archive. Since 1965, it’s technically been a division of the National Library, but even when it moved into the new National Library building in 1987, the Turnbull retained its own separate area and distinct identity. 

Through donations, bequests, and some purchasing, the Turnbull library now contains millions of items including books, magazines, newspapers, manuscripts, oral history recordings, photographs, paintings and cartoons. It has 85 staff and 16 collections including the Archive of New Zealand Music, the Cartographic Collection (Maps), and Rare Books & Fine Printing.

This year, the library is marking its centenary with the exhibition Pūkana: te ihi te wehi te wana: Moments in Māori Performance (on until 23 May). The word “pūkana” has various meanings, including the moments when Māori performers look down and sideways, without moving their heads. Pūkana is also a flash of energy that overtakes the performer, expressed through the eyes, facial expressions and sometimes accompanying movements.

Lead curator Paul Diamond describes the exhibition as a series of moments. “Pūkana shows performance is at the heart of Māori culture, whether to celebrate, seduce, entertain, express anger or grieve.” He hopes Pūkana will attract Māori youth, and that visitors will try to see everything from a Māori perspective.

Related articles: How millionaire book collector Alexander Turnbull fell from grace | The art and soul of Te Papa

“Koroniti, Whanganui River, 1961”. Courtesy of photographer Ans Westra and {Suite} Gallery.

On display behind glass are exquisite Māori karetao (puppets) from the 1800s: tiny figures carved in human form, with arms controlled by strings. There’s a poster advertising performances by Māori warrior chiefs in 1863 Edinburgh, plus photos of groups of Māori performers. “In some cases they were exhibited as cultural curiosities,” says Ariana Tikao, the Turnbull’s research librarian (Māori) and one of Pūkana’s three co-curators. “But, later, Māori became actively engaged in showcasing their culture to the world.” The exhibition jumps forward a century, displaying a slideshow of Ans Westra’s 100 photographs of Māori performances in the 1960s.

Tikao, who’s also an award-winning composer and performer of waiata (songs) in te reo Māori, explains the exhibition’s subtitle: “te ihi te wehi te wana”.

“Ihi is the spark or a feeling in your gut that makes you want to perform, for example, a haka – or a waiata tautoko [a performance by women after someone speaks]. Wehi is a performance that connects to our atua [spirit]. Wana is the effect the performance has on someone watching, such as awe, wonder, or pride while watching a haka.”

One exhibit is a photo of two girls performing “tika tonu” (a kind of haka that shows aroha and support) with other school students after the Christchurch mosque attacks.

In 2017, Tikao teamed up with musicians playing taonga pūoro (traditional Māori instruments) to perform a song by internationally successful band Alien Weaponry. Now, Pūkana includes footage of the heavy metallers from Waipū performing “te reo Māori thrash metal” – proving the energy of Māori music is evolving in surprising ways.      

This article was first published in the February 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to our fortnightly email for more arts and culture stories.