Voids and Veils

A few years ago, Hutchinson began drafting an outline for her Master’s thesis, now indefinitely on hold. As a way of introducing her approach to art making, she wrote:

“Intrinsic to each series within my art practice, I honour tribal whakapapa or genealogy. In doing so, I move more freely between the genealogy of past, present and future to produce works that are linked to memories of recent and ancient past, that are intangible and tangible … I make works that talk about these spiritual spaces.”(1)

Looking over Hutchinson’s creative output over the last couple of decades reveals that seeking out ‘spiritual spaces’ where time and space collapse is indeed an on-going interest in her practice. Her early experiences with spirituality were the subject of a catalogue entry for the 2nd Auckland Triennial, PUBLIC/PRIVATE: Tumatanui/Tumataiti in 2004 (2), in which curator Fuli Pereira interviewed the artist. Hutchinson suggested that her investigation into ideas that reach beyond the physical realm has also been heavily influenced by her mixed ancestry, particularly around non-Western notions of the transitional overlap between this space that we currently inhabit and other less-easily definable spaces. In seeking to make works that connect the past and present, as well as the material and the spiritual, Hutchinson draws upon understandings of social and spatial relations that are specific to her Samoan/Māori background.

One of these concepts is the Samoan notion of vā, which refers to the relational space between two places, things or people. It is also used to articulate a belief in connections across time. Samoa’s Head of State, Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, has said Samoans “live not as individuated beings but as beings integrally linked to their cosmos, sharing divinity with ancestors, land, seas and skies”.(3) There is a sense then of reciprocal relationships that span a vast totality, not only between people in the material world, but even further beyond into a spiritual plane where ancestors and spirits reside.

There is an interesting correlation here with a term used by Māori called wā, which references similar understandings of space and time as a moving and interchangeable continuum. Wā can be directly linked to other terms such as wheiao that attempt to describe the way in which time is not considered a strictly sequential concept but is a series of overlapping layers that exist simultaneously yet are inherently interrelated.

A cognisance with these ideas of space and time led Hutchinson to visit the numerous stone platforms of Samoa in 2002 and again in 2012, both times travelling with fellow artists Lily Aitui Laita and Nicki Hastings-McFall, who as a trio formed the artist collective Vahine. Called tia seu lupe (pigeon-catching mounds) in Samoan, these platforms have been the subject of recent archaeological digs, and are now widely believed to have been used for the chiefly sport and ritual of pigeon snaring.(4) Spiritually, the tia seu lupe held great importance. It was thought that the higher the ground one stood on, the closer one was to the heavens. As sites of high elevation, the stone mounds were seen as an interface between the people and gods, and divination rituals used to predict the outcome of different wars would often take place on them.

Today, many tia seu lupe are shrouded by the weeds of unkempt plantations and protected behind legal and cultural boundary lines. For Hutchinson, however, tia seu lupe remain an ever-tangible link to spaces once used to connect the material and astral worlds. References to stone mounds recur in her practice as conduits to this pre-Christian belief system. Her work Cinco (2002), for instance, utilises 16 paper cut-outs to create a star-formation, the most recognisable stone platform shape. Hutchinson returned to this form again the following year with Carbon (2003). This newer work utilised the same structure as Cinco; one central piece surrounded by multiple cut-outs decreasing in size and colour saturation as they move outwards, which together made up the five arms or rays of a star. Carbon differs significantly from Cinco, however, in that it features not cut-out patterns, but various drawings, ranging from the central circle of saturated black through to outlines of winged-female figures, at times tethered to a branch. The imagery draws upon the special significance pigeons have in Samoan mythology as “intermediaries between the gods and humanity”. (5)

Over the course of Hutchinson’s practice, her work has shifted from 2-dimensional responses to more immersive manifestations that visitors can walk through or occupy bodily including architectural interventions and large scale public sculptures. At this moment, Hutchinson is working on a new approach to the tia seu lupe for headland Sculpture on the Gulf, taking her explorations of the star mounds into a 3-dimensional realm. In some ways, this move to create her own star mound redefines the purpose and function of these ancient and culturally-specific forms. Developed for a public site on Waiheke Island in the Hauraki Gulf, this work takes on a new set of parameters that are quite distinct from, yet still relevant to, the tia seu lupe in Samoa. The star mound becomes a portal, of sorts, for any who wish to access it. It is a place to shift focus, with the potential to lift the veil between parallel spaces, times and in this case cultures. Hutchinson is making connections here with the various strands of her own Samoan, Māori and European whakapapa, drawing on their interrelated traditions of ritual and spirituality. Notably, Hutchinson will be working with a Tongan stonemason on this project, deliberately recalling the history of star mounds built in Samoa during Tongan occupation while also positioning the work in a contemporary Aotearoa context.

The physical portal is also present in a number of Hutchinson’s other public artworks. These include a commission for the re-opening of the Auckland Art Gallery in 2011, for which she designed twelve laser-cut panels that indicate the thresholds or connections between the gallery spaces and the whenua (land). In Hamilton, Hutchinson created Te Waharoa ki te Ao Maarama (2013), which functions as a gateway into a public recreational space. The work offers a physical and spiritual entry point to the diverse histories of the site for all those that visit it.


Before Sunrise 3

Lonnie Hutchinson, Before Sunrise

Inviting visitors to step across a veil, however, was perhaps most eloquently put forward in Hutchinson’s Before Sunrise (2010). The seven works in this installation represented the stars of Matariki (pleiades), commonly referred to as the Māori New Year, but more traditionally a time for wananga – a chance to broaden ones understanding of spiritual matters when the connections between these realms were strongest. Visitors to Before Sunrise were given the option to cross a line of red chalk on the floor dividing the gallery in order to move closer to the seven large paper cut-outs mounted on the far wall. Beyond the simple act of stepping over this demarcation, visitors were also being invited to make a transcendental shift.

Hutchinson pays close attention to the symbolism of different materials in referencing that threshold. In the essay that accompanied Before Sunrise, Megan Tamati-Quennell noted that the red chalk is suggestive of kōkōwai, the red ochre often used by Māori to render things sacred.(8) The black builders paper Hutchinson used in the seven cut-outs also reference a common weather-proofing material that is inserted in the walls or in roofs, providing a layer of separation between cladding. In Hutchinson’s hands, the function of the black builder’s paper as an in-between material is reiterated two-fold; the paper becomes the concertina folds that define space while the uncut black acts as the border between the cut-out patterns in the voids.

Hutchinson’s prevalent use of black could be misinterpreted as a negative statement and read only in terms of the dark unknown put forward by Christian ideologies. Again, this reading expands once non-Western ideas are attributed. In his essays, Rev. Māori Marsden suggests that “time is a continuous stream”, (6) and that it is simultaneously fragmentary, paradoxical and incomplete. He talks about the physical and spiritual realm as being interchangeable and not confined to the sometimes prescriptive laws of Western science. Marsden writes that “Māori had a three-world view, of potential being symbolised by Te Korekore, the world of becoming portrayed by Te Pō, and the world of being, Te Ao Mārama.” (7) As he points out, Te Korekore (the nothingness) and Te Pō (the night) are not voids of fear or forsakenness they are simply the spaces where notions arise and transition from one form into another. There’s a parallel here with Samoan ideas of ‘po’ (also translating as ‘the night’), which is often considered a time when aitu, or spirits, are best poised to penetrate the human realm and when things as we know them might shift their shapes.

Of course, ‘blackness’ also has strong contemporary political connotations, of which Hutchinson is well aware. Her on-going use of black as a motif, alongside the employment of a now outmoded building material, seems to inadvertently reference an earlier time when race politics in Aotearoa included issues such as immigrant labour, treaty claims and social injustice and where the Black Panthers and Black Power were symbols of activation and a reclaiming of identity. Now, they have been replaced with issues of extreme poverty and homelessness, particularly for Māori and Pacific Island communities and the notion of ‘blackness’ has morphed into a complicated morass of cultural stereotyping. Hutchinson’s exhibition Black As (2007) at Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch touched on many of these ideas. Featuring a motley collection of works from her oeuvre, this exhibition addressed some of the ways in which meaning can be interpreted beyond a superficial reading of colour and form:

“Black is the absence of colour, the colour of peace and reflection. Yet it carries the vocal tones of street resistance, hip-hop and youth culture. While also speaking of vitality, beauty and the stories encoded in the dual relationships of negative and positive space, of presence and absence.”(9)

In an interesting twist, the black bitumen saturated building paper — which has become such a recognisable element of Hutchinson’s art making — is quickly being replaced by new materials and technologies. Though Hutchinson has explored the territory of overlapping time and space in a number of works, she has done so most significantly in her virtual environments Untitled (Garden) (2006), Beat the Feet (2008) and Shangri La (2012). Beat the Feet articulates the concept of corresponding points and spaces in time most succinctly, particularly when considering that it was created as a site-specific work for the now severely damaged Christchurch Cathedral. The work was a virtual re-imagining of the land that the Cathedral occupies. It visualised a time before colonisation when the area was primarily a floodplain used by Hutchinson’s Ngāi Tahu ancestors. In the work harakeke (flax) and tī kōuka (cabbage trees) grew from the stone floors between the impressively solid and steadfast pillars of the Cathedral while birds flew about the vaulted nave. This simultaneous coming together of the past and the present suggests a blurring of time and space that is both complementary and somewhat provocative. Viewers of Beat the Feet were left to make up their own minds about the works intent. Did it reference the imposition of cultural traditions by the European colonists, the coming together of spiritual histories and understandings or was it about the loss of a landscape that may never be seen again?

Shangri La, which takes Chews Lane in Wellington as its departure point, functions in a similar way. Now a busy side street bustling with cafes and bars, the lane was once on the lip of the seabed and shoreline, surrounded by native bush and specifically tōtara trees. Through a binocular station, visitors are able to view an animation that overlays references to the area’s history on top of its current physical architecture. The stories she has incorporated from local iwi suggest that something has been subsumed by the urbanisation of Wellington central. The two taniwha that playfully skip through the existing lane complex in her virtual world give the impression that in fact the essence of these ancestors still reside in the place now occupied by towering buildings and concrete walkways.

It is interesting to note that the Shangri La animation begins with ribbons of cut out birds, specifically stylised pigeons, twirling towards the viewer, heralding the ancestral figures to come. Pigeons reappear in a number of Hutchinson’s works, often simply to signify a spiritual or other wordly presence. Pigeon Tarot (2003), for instance, is a series of drawings that directly imagines the magical rituals that might take place on the mounds, where pigeons, as spirits, might come into direct contact, and indeed merge with the human world. Hutchinson morphs each of the Major Arcana Tarot card figures into a bird that is then re-contextualised into a Samoan landscape: the magician becomes a human-bird hybrid sporting a pe’a while the high-priestess transforms into a beaked-woman sitting cross-legged in front of a tapa between two palm trees. The work, Pigeon Tarot, also forges a connection between an ancestral form of divination with a contemporary counterpart, while also connecting Hutchinson’s visit to Samoa with her on-going personal interest in Tarot readings.

Hutchinson made another bird-related work after her 2012 visit to Samoa called Waiting for le Ma’oma’o (2012), working in a panoramic orientation, a distinct shift from her more customary vertical cut outs. The horizontal positioning of this work is a curious spatial rethink for the artist that again invites the viewer to change his or her own approach and experience of her work. Influenced by the night photography Hutchinson became engrossed in while in Samoa, Waiting for le Ma’oma’o suggests yet another iteration of her interest in the spaces where the realms converge and overlap. There is a rhythmic quality to the work reflecting both the physical and spiritual worlds – the sound of a waterfall, the song of the manumea or the black honey-eater, le ma’oma’o, or whispered voices from the other side of the veil.

Hutchinson’s continued reference to birds as spiritual, in-between beings very much links back to the tia seu lupe. During a recent studio visit, Hutchinson recalled a preoccupation during her trips to Samoa with the following incantation, which was reportedly invoked by traditional healers from the top of the stone platforms:

I’uogafa Tuagalu

Mo’omo’o mo’omo’o

Oso I totonu i le vā

(Mo’omo’o, mo’omo’o

Jump into the gap;

I’m going to transfix you) (10)

Mo’omo’o is an umbrella term for illness, often associated with ill-intentioned spirits. In this incantation, the healer invokes the ‘vā’ or ‘gap’ as a space between material and magical realms that holds transformative powers. Within this space-between, a spirit can be transfixed and a person released. Significantly, the gap referred to in this incantation is a specific architectural feature, as it is thought to relate to the negative spaces between each of a star mound’s projections.(11) Across a number of works, it seems as if Hutchinson is continually looking at similar physical or spatial features that might recall or indeed even function as a type of ‘gap’; a space where realms and time overlap, and which could trigger some inner change once traversed.

Though the possibility of moving between the past and the present feels like a much desired magical, and in Hutchinson’s practice, an often-technological feat, her motives are just as political as they are mystical. The transitional spaces between the ‘voids and veils’ engage with traditional knowledge related to the artist’s diverse genealogy, and specifically her Samoan and Māori cultural heritage. Her works not only allow her to move more freely between the genealogy of past, present and future, but also importantly make present ancestral belief systems about the nature of time that were once prevalent but, like the star mounds, often become overgrown with outside influences. It is from this strong cultural grounding that Hutchinson offers an opportunity to jump into gap, into the unknown black, rich with all its connotations. In this space, perhaps we too might be transfixed.

Karl Chitham and Ioana Gordon-Smith

First published in the publication Lonnie Hutchinson: Black Bird, 2014


(1) Lonnie Hutchinson, Black birds and deaf ears, artist talk, Elam School of Fine Arts, 2012

(2) Public/Private: Tumataui/Tumataiti was curated by Ngahiraka Mason and Ewen McDonald and was shown at various Auckland venues including Auckland Art Gallery.

(3) Tina Engels-Swartzpaul, Restless Containers: Thinking interior space – across cultures, Interstices 12, 2010, p 17

(4) Stephanie Oberg, This Show Is What I Do, IMA, 2006

(5) Ibid

(6) ed. Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, The Woven Universe: Selected Writings of Rev. Māori Marsden, The Estate of Rev. Māori Marsden, 2003, p 22

(7) Ibid, p 20

(8) Megan Tamati-Quennell, Black Star, Artstation, 2010

(9) http://jonathansmartgallery.com/content/view/89/38/

(10) Lonnie Hutchinson, interview with the artist, Auckland, 1 December 2014

(11) David J. Herdrick, Towards an understanding of Samoan star mounds, The Journal of Polynesian Society 100(4), 1991, p 398

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