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Nga Tohu Kiwaha exhibition at Artis Gallery

Nga Tohu Kiwaha: The Marks

Marks of identity and marks of association have been with us for almost as long as we have known how to function as civilized communities. The earliest found local marks chronicle our brief occupation of Aotearoa, the oldest on the planet indicate the practice has been with us for over 25000 years. Some have evolved into elaborate tools of manipulation and influence, as in logo and flags. Others have been grouped together to form sophisticated and influential communications systems like the alphabet.

This exhibition is built around a sample of the more expressive tohu or marks made by the chiefly signatories to the Treaty of Waitangi. They offer unusual insight into a finely developed capacity for spontaneous expression and reveal impressive understanding of visual comprehension and composition.

Marks like these, made more or less at the same time in the same place without a standard unifying system are seldom found in a single collection, especially when it is considered that they were made by a group of individuals drawn together for an unrelated event. This sample, resolved as a writing system for a language without its own visual identity - and others they are drawn from - are a taonga that deserve recognition as an active component of our national visual language.

A core theme of this exhibition, as of all dimensions of Maori life, is the way the language in its most expressive essence affirms a seamless relationship between creator and creation, expressed as

‘io’ (the creator) e (and) ‘au’ (I, me).

It was my Aunty Miria who made the first moves to liberate the tohu from the restraining bonds of the Treaty document. Her intent was very deliberate:
“most of the writing was done by the english witnesses. They wrote the sounds as they perceived them and some fall strangely to my maori ear. '
Innocently, she has given us our first clue. In her motivation to correct some faulty recording, her polite annotation may have glossed over a vital distinction: the writing system could never have captured the sounds accurately anyway. The real problem is in the representation system.

Nevertheless, her observations are relevant in more ways than she might have anticipated. Setting about correctly identifying the owners of the tohu has done much more than draw attention to the recording procedure. In one of many inspired moments in her life, Aunty Miria has quietly managed to spring the marks from domination by an otherwise characterless piece of bureaucratic moment capture, opening the door to a fascinating world where we grasp for superlatives to describe the richness of the endowment. Here is a collection of marks formed by a group who clearly didn’t swap notes, yet show an unusually consistent command of visual imagery, with fluid lines, excellent form and enviable graphic sensitivity.

To reflect on the quality of these remarkable flourishes is to imagine the circumstances in which they had been generated. The first signings were on a fine day amid confusion as to whether there was to be a meeting at all. The impressive gathering of chiefs had grown impatient, having decided to terminate the tedious formalities and go home. With large crowd milling in the background, improvised marquee set on mown lawn, they will have filed to a parchment unravelled before clerks busying themselves with the tools of their importance, announced who they were and taken up unfamiliar writing instruments to give effortless life to these gems. The ritual was later re-enacted at over 40 venues throughout Aotearoa.

Aunty Miria’s masterstroke in drawing the tohu to our attention is to invite us to explore them in detail. Each is deliberately drawn and intensely personal, yet the spontaneous capture of form and spirit is highly original. There is rich scope for interpretation here, suggestive of meaning that we may never fully discover. We can only speculate as to what these forms might have been intended to signify but the visual language is too rich for them to have manifested out of nothing. If we view them as metaphors of a lived experience, they become a powerful semiotic force much greater than mere presence on a page. Above all, they show an assured understanding of how to engage in the universal language of mark-making.

If we have read these marks as mere signatures we have clearly been inattentive or mesmerized by the gravity of form and ceremony. This is not an incidental sideshow to the real performance. What we have are complete images, providing us with a complex narrative insight into a well-developed visual acuity. There is none of the reductionism of the abstract alphabet form with its linear, sequential, departmentalising: these are the natural unmodified expressions of an oral culture with a functional intelligence comfortable in the use of symbol and metaphor to fashion its own semantic meaning.

To a world dominated by the technology of transmission, marks and language are virtually inseparable. Yet for a language like te reo, so resplendent in metaphor, paradox and symbolism, running on a borrowed representation system seems strangely incongruous. What these marks reveal is the essence of a writing system that wouldn't have looked anything like the linear alphabet that contextualizes them. The written languages of our western civilisation may have generated the structural technology that now drives innumerable processes, but an alien writing system cannot possibly pick up the spirit, or the subtle nuances and inflections of the spirit, the ihi, wehi and wana of another.

Indeed, the alphabet system, with its predisposition to linearity, sequence and abstract analysis, and its imbalance between the visual and aural world, may have exactly the wrong systemic configuration to represent te reo sympathetically. A natural tongue may strain to find its full potential until expressed in its own visual terms. Simple assumptions driven by a eurocentric subset - even about the hierarchical order of sounds - may be inadequate. As a medium for learning it may predetermine conditions that quickly disadvantage a cultural disposition toward more holistic semantic meaning. The catch 22 of every dominant culture is that it assumes that it offers an opportunity while it may be stealing the cream.

I started thinking about the potential of what aunty Miria had begun. What if I was to take her work a step further and lift these tohu right out of those limiting constraints of ink on paper? This might give them the real scale and dimension they deserved. Our understanding & appreciate of these beautiful marks might be enhanced if we were able to experience them as objects in their own right.

And then….why stop there? What if the deeply symbolic maori language was represented by its own unique set of symbols? What would the oral language look like when illustrated on its own terms? How curious that a culture that proved so adept at developing a complex inventory of imagery for adornment and decoration should have been satisfied to function without a specific language representation system. (And yet, why not? It clearly functioned adequately without it.) If the resurrection of language is to be assured by growing its use platform, what would be the impact of a unique representation system?

Inevitably, selecting and grouping a sample of the marks as a set of 20 symbols aligned to the sounds of te reo seemed an obvious extrapolation of the work Aunty Miria had begun, With such a rich character matrix to draw on, the design for the system would avoid all of the pitfalls of a mathematical, sequential system.

I want these marks to enjoy the recognition they deserve. I”ll be satisfied when
the natural skills of their authors and the unbroken line of tupuna before them are better understood. As the first marks to witness the founding of a nation they have a proud significance, but their relevance as the first conscious marks of identity has been less apparent, and in that context they have an even more potent contribution to a developing national culture.


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