PHOTOGRAPHS SHAR DEVINE EXCEPT WHERE NOTED
IT IS A STORY ETCHED ON THE LAND – AN ENIGMATIC CHRONICLE featuring bird-men, taniwha, fish, sharks, moa, waka, sailing ships, missionary script and, most commonly, human figures. These figures are seen paddling waka, hunting or simply floating across the limestone and greywacke surfaces of shelters and walls throughout Te Waipounamu, especially South Canterbury and North Otago. About 300 significant rock drawing sites dating back to the 16th century lie within a 70km radius from Timaru.
The artists — the authors of this story — are believed to include some of the earliest peoples to travel the valleys and hills of these regions. The motivation for their work has been the subject of theory and conjecture for up to 150 years.
Now the story of South Island rock art is being retold through a new visitor centre aimed at celebrating this rich vein of artistic endeavour.
Officially opened on December 10, Te Ana Ngāi Tahu Rock Art Centre, housed in the historic Landing Services building in Timaru, provides a close encounter with this ancient anthology of images scored, drawn and painted onto rock surfaces. It features audiovisual displays and explanations of rock art, and examples of rock art taken from sites early last century.
“We decided on the rock art centre as a gateway to knowledge,” says Mandy Home (Hāwea, Te Rapuwai, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, Ngāi Tahu – Kāti Huirapa).
Home is secretary of Te Rūnanga o Arowhenua and a former chair of the Ngāi Tahu Māori Rock Art Trust. “It’s putting it out there for the rest of the world to see that this is our art and we all need to look after it.”
She describes a rock art site badly damaged through degradation, vandalism and pollution.
“People have to wake up and realise it’s not cool to go writing your name right through the centre of (a drawing). This is our oldest art form, as important as the Old Masters in Europe.”
The centre has its origins in the South Island Māori Rock Art Project, established in the early 1990s by local archaeologist Brian Allingham under the guidance of Ngāi Tahu’s Atholl Anderson to record, research and monitor rock art sites across Ngāi Tahu’s rohe (traditional area).
The Ngāi Tahu Māori Rock Art Trust was established in 2002 to support local rūnanga and landowners in the care and management of rock art sites. Since then, the Trust has been working with private owners (95 per cent of the 500 rock art sites in the South Island are on privately owned land) and Crown entities to preserve rock art sites, raise public awareness of the importance of these often neglected taonga, and to put New Zealand “on the map” in terms of international rock art.
“Rock art is an enigma,” says Ngāi Tahu Māori Rock Art Trust curator Amanda Symon. “The archaeological world is mostly focused on the excavation of archaeological sites, and rock art is not as accessible for that sort of research. It has been studied from an art historical point of view to some extent, but it falls between the cracks.”
Now, eight years and close to $3 million later, the new centre is giving this extraordinary legacy the attention it deserves. The funding includes vital support from the Ngāi Tahu Fund, Te Rūnanga o Moeraki, Te Rūnanga o Arowhenua, Te Rūnanga o Waihao and the Timaru District Council.
The new centre, designed by Story Inc in Wellington, works as a charitable company raising funds for the ongoing preservation of rock art sites and as a contemporary, highly engaging exploration of this valuable heritage.
“The kaupapa of the centre has always been the same,” says Symon. “To educate people about rock art, raise that awareness and generate funds for the protection and management of sites. All the way through we believed that, to honour the mana of the rock art, we had to aim for excellence. By following through, by walking the talk, it reinforces the message that rock art is a significant part of New Zealand heritage and it is massively important to Ngāi Tahu.”
That importance, says Te Rūnanga o Arowhenua upoko Joe Waaka (Te Rapuwai, Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe, Ngāi Tahu – Kāti Huirapa), does not depend on having all the answers.
“I don’t try and work out what they are. I just enjoy being there with them. When you’re resting in there you feel close to something special. It’s a different world. It’s one of the oldest forms of art – it’s not a renewable one but to know they are there is the main thing.”
The sites also indicate the traditional pathways used by the early peoples en route to major food-gathering sites.
“They were the trailblazing ways of people going up to the high country, making overnight stays in caves on their way up to where the rivers met.”
Walking through the doors of the centre is to go back to this experience of a young and new-found land. Welcomed by an audiovisual of a tāua calling people in with a karanga, visitors first encounter a pounamu touchstone and a revolving backdrop of rock art designs. Further in, a huge reproduction of the now extinct Haast eagle looms into view.
“The Haast eagle, the moa – they are in the rock art because they were there at the time,” says centre manager Ben Lee. “Also the mahinga kai – travelling up the rivers, getting the kai, putting it in the mōkihi and floating it back down the river to the coastal settlement – it is that link between the landscape and the rock art. You can’t separate the two.”
Six large audiovisual panels feature a series of short videos on various rock art themes, exploring the context in which the drawings or carvings were created and giving voice to some of the many interpretations applied to the images.
More recent allusions to rock art are also present, from the souvenir trade in tea towels and stamps to the more respectful references in the contemporary work of Ngāi Tahu artists such as Ross Hemera and Fiona Pardington.
“The journey of rock art is not the rock art on its own,” says Gerard O’Regan (Ngāi Tahu – Ngāti Rakiamoa/Ngāti Waewae), trustee of the Ngāi Tahu Māori Rock Art Trust and chair of Te Ana Whakairo, the company set up to build and operate the Rock Art Centre. “Right through that journey there is a shifting environment and a shifting social and political context. This is the broader story of the Ngāi Tahu whānui, explored through rock art.”
Taking responsibility for that story is, he says, indicative of the shift in museum culture that has taken place over the last three decades. A significant turning point in this evolution was the Te Māori exhibition, when artefacts previously regarded as “anthropological curios”were suddenly recognised as art works and taonga Māori; and the exhibition itself was hosted by iwi.
“Prior to Te Māori, museums talked about the Māori as ‘them’. Now Māori exhibitions talk about ‘us’,” says O’Regan. “It’s Māori presenting our voice, our history and our heritage and sharing that with the wider public. Similarly, Te Ana is about us sharing the story of rock art with the wider community.”
While one of the goals of the centre is to take the pressure off the sites themselves, low-impact tours with Ngāi Tahu guides will be offered to those wanting to experience rock art in the landscape.
“The centre is going to increase interest in Māori rock art, which is what we want,” says Symon. “But the flip side of that is more people are going to want to visit the sites. Already, there are various tourism activities where people are visiting the sites unmanaged and unguided, and there’s a potential for harm to the sites and to the positive relationships we’ve developed with the landowners. Getting in front of the eight-ball means providing managed, guided tours, which we control.”
As well as raising the profile of rock art in New Zealand, the centre is also expected to have a positive economic impact on the region. Already it has employed five staff members and the expected 30 to 35,000 visitors per year will have a flow-on effect for Timaru’s hospitality sector.
Timaru District Mayor Janie Annear says the centre will be a major attraction for international tourism to the South Island.
“It’s been a great partnership between the council and the local rūnanga, which has been really satisfying. The magic and the powerful aura of these sites have captivated me for a long time.”
There is more work to do — not only in enhancing the visitor experience but in raising funds for recording rock art (just this year a new site was found in the Ahuriri area); in preserving sites from the hazards of weather, stock and people; and in highlighting the international significance of the rock art of this country.