Pokai Whenua/Travel the Land
Natalie Robertson
Room 35 @ Gitte Weise Gallery
9 March - 3 April, 1999

Natalie Robertson, David A
Hughes, Wairoa
, type
c print, 1994

In the catalogue accompanying her exhibition, Natalie Robertson comments that at times coming from a Pakeha-Maori family can leave one without a sense of cultural grounding: "Suddenly there is this slippage as a chasm opens up beneath you because neither tradition sustains you". Robertson's chasm is the ubiquitous space between, articulated within much postcolonial discourse as a productive, mutually reflective space. But as much as one might celebrate the processes of negotiation that take place here and the resulting hybrid cultural formations, it is also a space of difference, of split, of conflict, of abrasion and of separation. For better and worse it is a space emptied of originary presence.

In Robertson’s work photography is the conduit for the flow of knowledge between cultures and her means through which to speak back and forth. Its iconographic density enables the gradual construction of a symbolic language appropriate to her specific cultural reality. It is accessible from and speaks to multiple cultural perspectives and their necessarily complex interweavings. Even in Robertson's most personal work - the image of the artist's grandfather for example, or that of the horse referencing the Maori prophet leader Te Kooti's horse, Pokai Whenua (Pokai also being the name of Robertson's home marae)- the photographic image provides a field of general, shared legibility or understanding across cultures.

But if photography provides, at times, a form of self-knowledge for Robertson and her audience, it also acts as a warning of the disjuncture and misapprehension that occur across cultures. This is most clearly played out in Robertson's accidental multiple exposure image of a Te Kooti road sign where photo-technology is appropriated into a frenzied visual questioning of the belief structures underpinning western processes of representation and naming. Similarly, the displacement of flag images from Eva Rickard's tangi at the Independent State of Whaingaroa into a fashionable gallery in urban Sydney enacts a passage across cultures but also marks their separation. They are both gestures of connection and challenges.

Notions of passage as both concept and action (through land and history) is fundamental to Robertson's work. She follows it across social documentary, installation and a more overtly conceptual picture-making practice. This exhibition, with its exploration of image production via often disjunctive interventions in photographic systems, is characterised by the latter. For Robertson, passage clearly necessitates acknowledgment and commemoration, as seen here in the re-memorialisation of Maori prophets in the transformation of road signs bearing their names into iconographic presences. It also conjures a certain sense of un-belonging played out in constant transit. In this way, Robertson’s landmarks are both signs of location and identity, and reminders of impermanence, uncertainty and temporality. A road sign flashes in a blur of passing not marking place so much as indicating direction. A brooding, volcanic, mountain form looms deceitfully when it is in fact a roadside pile of gravel and the actual mountain, Putauaki, is glimpsed as an insignificant detail in the distance. A roadside barn glows as if subject to supernatural forces. All these invoke a sense of visual erasure or resistance to final identification. They act as markers of geographic or topographic location but leave us questioning the identity and meaning of that location. In contrast to Robertson's earlier ahi ka exhibition (Artspace, Auckland, 1996) these images symbolise rather than undertake the self-affirmative action of self-location within a specific geographic and cultural location.

Robertson's work is a means of negotiating her own passage between cultures. That this new work is related so much in the realm of the symbolic, even with its specific cultural grounding, highlights the dilemma articulated by Robertson herself. In this play between what are in effect processes of material and symbolic intercultural passage or journeying, Robertson articulates her own position as not only interlocutor between cultures but both subject and object of her own discourse. This poses a substantial challenge for the artist, but perhaps a necessary one for any individual self-identifying between cultures in this manner.

Blair French

The artists and
Courtesy of Gitte Weise Gallery.

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Natalie Robertson, David A
Hughes, Wairoa
, type
c print, 1994 & Faithful and
, Port Awanui, c type
print, 1996

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Natalie Robertson, Artery,
Ta Rawhhiti,
c print, 1996