Waiwhetu marae, Lower Hutt
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
This essay originally appeared in New Zealand Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2018).
In Waiwhetu marae, Lower Hutt, Ans Westra records the rituals that were part of the opening of the whare whakairo, or carved meeting house, Arohanui ki te Tāngata. But, unlike the woman with the camera in the front row, who is a participant as well as a photographer, Westra is an outsider, an observer. Answering a question about how Māori viewed her activities in the 1960s, Westra said, ‘The Maori would often say they couldn’t visualise that any of their people would work in this kind of isolation because I had to very much stay on the outside and be uninvolved to get my pictures. They said, “We couldn’t visualise a Maori girl doing this because it is too lonely”.’1
The terms of documentary photography were established in the early part of the twentieth century. The photographer was, as Westra suggests, a discreet witness of humanity, the truth of his or her visual record guaranteed by distance and objectivity. Yet the presence of the camera, a stand-in for Westra’s activity, and the way in which the two women (one on the left, the other in the second row) return the camera’s gaze, breaks the illusion that is an integral part of documentary photography — that the protagonists are not aware of being photographed and are therefore not changed by the act. Waiwhetu marae, Lower Hutt is so rich because it suggests the various dynamics and interactions that attend any documentary image but which are often left out of the frame.
Westra arrived in New Zealand from the Netherlands in 1957 and quickly became interested in documenting Māori people and culture. As she says, Māori culture ‘seemed to be the most interesting thing here [in New Zealand], and also there was this strong feeling that things were going to change, that here was something historical that needed recording’.2 In part this explains the power of Westra’s photographs, in which the old and new worlds make contact. Customary Māori social practices survive, even as they are transplanted to new environments.
1 Ans Westra, quoted in Damian Skinner, ‘The eye of an outsider: A conversation with Ans Westra’, Art New Zealand, no. 100, Summer 2001, p. 100.
2 Ibid., p. 99.
Waiwhetu marae, Lower Hutt
Lower Hutt (New Zealand),
Te Āti Awa [attributed],
gelatin silver prints,
works of art,
Rites & ceremonies,
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