Te Tuhi is proud to present With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods, a major new work by Wellington-based artist Shannon Te Ao (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) and a joint commission between Te Tuhi and the 2017 Edinburgh Art Festival. This two-channel video installation features footage filmed in three separate locations in Aotearoa New Zealand, documenting a dance, a highway and a farm. These visuals also contain a myriad of references that create a convergence between Te Ao’s personal socio-geography, his tīpuna and the imaginings of other artists, directors and musicians from distinct times and places.
The title and verse featured in the work quotes from the c.1846 moteatea, He waiata mo te mate ngerengere (Song for a leprous malady) by Te Rohu (1820–1850) of Ngāti Tūwharetoa. The waiata was composed by Te Rohu to lament layers of personal and collective trauma such as the demise of her health after contracting leprosy from an unrequited lover, a fatal landslide that killed her father Mananui Te Heuheu Tukino II (1780–1846) along with over fifty others, and also the turbulent early era of colonial settlement.
For Te Ao, the concept for With the sun aglow . . . grew out of an imagined dialogue between Te Rohu and characters from the film Killer of Sheep (1977) directed by Charles Burnett. Filmed in Los Angeles, in the African-American neighbourhood of Watts, Burnett’s film captures a rare moment of intimacy in the life of a slaughterhouse worker, where the protagonist slowly dances with his wife before abruptly resisting her embrace. Te Ao restages the scene to show two women dancing in a small clearing on a commercial hemp farm in Ashburton that propagates the plant for health products. In Te Ao’s film the dancing women are surrounded by female plants that have been pollinated and dying male hemp plants that have concluded their natural role.
This scene is paired with footage shot on a commercial dairy farm near Taupo that directly encircles the urupā for Te Ao’s whānau, who also share their tribal affiliations with Te Rohu. Alongside this, Te Ao presents a sequence captured along the Rangipo Desert (Desert Road), a stretch of highway located near the boundaries of Te Ao’s tribal lands. Known for its iconic barren landscape situated at the foot of the region’s most notable volcanic peaks, Rangipo Desert is predominantly used as a training facility for the New Zealand defence force.
By amalgamating these various references, Te Ao conflates their original contexts and blurs the line between fiction and reality. This results in an enigmatic work that addresses empathetic registers within the human condition such as the tenuous nature of relationships, communication, wellbeing and a sense of place or tūrangawaewae.