Shannon Te Ao’s new visually arresting and evocative work With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods (2017) is a highlight of the recently opened Edinburgh Art Festival.
Te Ao is a prominent Māori artist of Ngāti Tūwharetoa descent from New Zealand. His poignant video installations, sound works and live performances often examine oral histories, including waiata (songs) and whakatauki (proverbs). The title of Te Ao’s Festival commission directly references words from a waiata written in his own homelands.
The artist adopts an expansive approach to meaning-making by skillfully bringing together disparate histories and stories from his own Māori heritage and other cultures. He draws affinities between his distant homeland and local histories through the use of both Scottish and New Zealand foliage shrouding the stairs and entrance to the two projections, as well as by the choice of site.
Just off the bustling Royal Mile, the work is tucked away within Gladstone Court, a building once used as a refuge for troubled women. The slow-dancing female protagonists represented in the darkened downstairs video projection also evoke a sense of suffering. One figure embodies the wife from Charles Burnett’s fictional film based in California titled The Killer of Sheep (1978). The emotional sway sequence in Te Ao’s work itself references a similar scene during the film between the African-American wife and husband. The original exchange occurs amidst the struggle for civil rights, as well as the turbulence of the couple’s relationship.
The other woman partaking in the restaged version is Te Rohu, the daughter of Chief Mananui Te Heuheu Tukino II. These nineteenth-century historical figures have personal resonance with the artist as they belong to the same Ngāti Tūwharetoa iwi (Māori tribe) as Te Ao and his family. During the violent colonisation of her lands in the 1840s, Te Rohu composed a haunting waiata entitled He waiata mō te mate ngerengere (Song for a Leprous Malady) to comfort herself after contracting leprosy from a foreign lover and losing her father to a landslide.
Te Ao’s imagined interaction between these suffering women traverses time, space and realities to provide mutual comfort and warmth. The gradual decrease in light as the pair gently sway in a large field of grass suggests the prolonged necessity of the comforting dance to help alleviate their woes, even if temporarily. The sadness of the characters is palpable through this simple and extended act of tenderness. Halfway through this exchange, the artist’s calm voice can be heard reciting Te Rohu’s waiata over the atmospheric wind and music that permeate through the haunting installation.
Upstairs, the second projection features images of several New Zealand locations including the Rangipo Desert, Te Ao’s historical tribal lands, which have become a training space for the New Zealand Defence Force. These vast baron landscapes imply the fading of cultural identity. This sense is intensified by the physical empty expanse between viewer and image created by the placement of the viewing bench at the opposite end of the room to the projection. Unlike the darkened downstairs room, the light filtering through the upper level exposes the peeling wooden walls and visible ventilation systems, evoking stark neglect and decay that further adds to the solemn atmosphere. In contrast, the thriving plant-life at the entrance to the projections act as a shrine of hope for the troubled characters, people and cultures Te Ao presents. By drawing creative parallels of displacement and suffering between disparate fictional and historical voices through simple yet powerful visuals, the artist provides a space of empathy and healing.
With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods is on display at Gladstone Court, 179 Cannongate until the 27th of August as part of The Edinburgh Art Festival. This work has been co-commissioned by the Edinburgh Art Festival and Te Tuhi Contemporary Art Trust in partnership with Creative New Zealand.