Seeing Oneself See: The Act of Perception

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the National Gallery of Canada to see their exhibit of contemporary indigenous art entitled, Sakahan.  My favorite was Aniwaniwa a collaborative multi-media artwork by Dr. Brett Graham & Rachael Rakena.

Aniwaniwa has multiple meanings and connotations in Maori culture; it can evoke the blackness of deep water, storm clouds, a state of bewilderment, a sense of disorientation, and confusion as one is tossed beneath the waters, it can also refer to a rainbow, a symbol of hope.

Central to the work is the theme of submersion as a metaphor for cultural loss. In order to view the piece, which consists of five domed video projections that hang from the ceiling, the viewer has to lie down on one of the many beds provided. In this sense, Aniwaniwa has already challenged the typical relationship between artwork and viewer by altering the position and perspective of the body, but the issues and ideas that the work deals with are also fascinating.

Viewing Aniwaniwa in a darkened room lying on the floor.
Viewing Aniwaniwa in a darkened room lying on the floor.

As soon as you lie down to watch the screens, you feel as though you enter a dream-like state, which is helped along by the fact that you are on a bed listening to a soundtrack by Whirimako Black. But the imagery that is displayed on the five screens is dream-like in the surreal quality of the scenarios that unfold. Dr. Brett Graham and Rachael Rakena have created a narrative of the lives of villagers that live in an underwater town. The use of water in Aniwaniwa represents both the importance of water in the culture and identity of the Maori people, but it also represents a historical event: the flooding of Horahora village in New Zealand to create a hydroelectric dam in 1947.

Horahora villagers watch as the water levels rise -images from "The Horahora Power Station, compiled by Stan Rowe & Barry McKey"
Horahora villagers watch as the water levels rise -images from “The Horahora Power Station, compiled by Stan Rowe & Barry McKey”

Having the villagers enact their daily lives underwater becomes a metaphor for cultural loss, as well as a reassertion of the importance that nature holds for Maori culture. Even the title of the piece, Aniwaniwa, refers to the rapids on the Waikato River in New Zealand that was closest to Horahora when the village still existed.

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Stills from ANIWANIWA, image courtesy of the artists
Stills from ANIWANIWA, image courtesy of the artists

To see a video of the creators talking about being selected to exhibit Aniwaniwa in Venice Italy at the 2009 Biennale of Venice go to

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