The fundraising is over and the scaffolding has been packed away - after much anticipation and controversy, the new Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu is now open. Excited crowds (and maybe the odd sceptic) gathered in their thousands to celebrate the opening of the Gallery on May 10th. The release of red and white balloons to the music of Gareth Farr's 'Fanfare' brought to an end decades of contention relating to the inadequate exhibition and storage space of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery.

The Permanent Collection galleries are a marked improvement from those of the McDougall and it is with delight that one encounters old favourites and several unfamiliar works which have been tucked away in storage for many years. The current exhibition programme is vast and promising: The Allure of Light-Turner to Cezanne: European Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Victoria has been a huge success with queues of people waiting to view paintings by the Great Impressionists. A major survey of work by the late W.A. Sutton has been well received and suitably acknowledges a prolific painter who, like many New Zealand artists of his generation, was captivated by the Canterbury landscape. In light of the current world climate, Margaret Hudson-Ware's large Refugee paintings are thought-provoking and well executed. Sadly, Virginia King's Antarctic Heart installation, hidden away in the pokey Tait Electronics Gallery, could quite easily be missed. King's large mobile-like Macrocapa and Totara structures are crammed into the space and the fluidity that was achieved when the same works were installed at Lower Hutt's Dowse is lost. Christchurch Art Gallery has nine exhibition areas and while the longstanding campaign for a new gallery can now be laid to rest, new debates have surfaced, most of which challenge the Gallery design by Auckland Architects, The Buchan Group.

Black building paper, seven pieces, each 2500 x 1000 mm.

The majestic, big-budget glass sculpture wall has been the focus of awe and criticism. The wavy facade, constructed of 2184 glass panels, is the defining feature of the building, inspired by the Gallery's close proximity to the winding Avon River: a concept which has been central to the development of the Gallery's identity. The name Te Puna o Waiwhetu, loosely translated as 'water in which stars are reflected', refers to the artesian spring located on the Gallery site and the Waiwhetu stream which flows into the Avon River. The inaugural exhibition, Te Puawai o Ngai Tahu - Twelve Contemporary Ngai Tahu Artists celebrates the creative 'spring', or as the translation of Te Puawai suggests: a 'blossoming' of Ngai Tahu art.

Te Puawai o Ngai Tahu is not what many crowds will expect from an exhibition of contemporary Maori art - the odd work can easily be identified as 'Maori', however many works do not fit the indigenous stereotype that some viewers have come to expect.

LONNIE HUTCHINSON sista7 2003 (Detail)

Te Puawai o Ngai Tahu is hot on the heels of Hiko! New Energies in Maori Art, displayed at the Robert McDougall Art Annex in 1999, and Techno Maori, a multimedia exhibition' shown concurrently at Pataka Gallery, Porirua and the Wellington City Gallery in 2001. Both Hiko! and Techno Maori exposed a generation of artists driven by the global information frenzy. Likewise, Te Puawai o Ngai Tahu includes work by both established and emerging artists who embrace new directions, materials, technologies and the digital age. It is of no surprise that artists who are widely recognised as Ngai Tahu should be included in Te Puawai o Ngai Tahu: Cath Brown, Peter Robinson and Jacqueline Fraser. Several of the younger exhibiting artists, namely Nathan Pohio, Lonnie Hutchinson and Simon Kaan, have only recently found themselves in the curatorial spotlight.

NATHAN POHIO Untitled 2003
Pastel on card

On walking into the exhibition, one is not met with contemporary works as expected. Instead, visitors must first pass through a closed off area where the concept of whakapapa is introduced: The entrance to Te Puawai o Ngai Tahu is dark and airy, sparsely lit by a rippling projection of Te Wai Pounamu on a turquoise wall. The theme of water is immediately evident. This space is quiet, meditative and deliberately unnerving. The display of Ngai Tahu taonga at the entrance way evokes an ancestral presence as do the spiritual cleansing bowls used by visitors to remove tapu on entering and exiting the gallery. This 'spooky' effect alerts the senses but for some punters the mysticism has been somewhat disconcerting and even confusing.

Silent archival footage of Maori women netting whitebait on the Opihi River, c.1925 is projected onto a nearby wall. It is a fascinating glimpse into a time past, and recalls the process of assimilation, as noted by the women's European dress. The fact that one character is seen to be weaving a kete suggests that traditions are enduring. These taonga become metaphorical stepping stones, providing a cultural context through which Te Puawai o Ngai Tahu is best understood. It is with great curiosity that one navigates one's way through the dim into the main gallery where the contemporary works are housed.

Neil Pardington's photographs have puzzled many gallery-goers who desperately search for an expression of the artist's Maori identity in his scant images of ordinary objects and locations. Free of human subjects, Pardington's photographs of the mundane and prosaic take on a new meaning when exhibited in the context of Te Puawai o Ngai Tahu. Detachment, dispossession and emptiness could all be related to the experience of younger Maori who negotiate identity in a post-colonial world.

Recovery of lineage is central to Fiona Pardington's recent work. Black-and-white ethnographic style photographs of Maori taonga from the Okains Bay Maori and Colonial Museum collection are haunting reminders of Ngai Tahu existence on the Banks Peninisula. Each image evokes a sense of loss and perhaps the most eloquent of all is Te huia kaimanawa / The huia consumes my heart (the beloved is spoken of as thus - for Wayne Wilson). Pardington skilfully captures the spirit of lost treasures, representing these objects as living taonga.

FIONA PARDINGTON Te huia kai-manawa/The huia that consumes my heart (The beloved is spoken of as thus-for Wayne Wilson) 2002
Silver gelatin photograph, 870 x 730 x 300 mm.

A hit with the Star Wars generation, Nathan Pohio's installation is a pleasant trip down memory lane. An exhibition of contemporary Maori art may be the last place where you would expect to encounter Hans Solo and Chewbacca. The Wookie character has been used by Pohio to investigate the notion of difference - the Wookie is an odd character whose furry disposition and incomprehensible grunts and groans contribute to Pohio's concept of the 'outsider'. The construction or for a better word, deconstruction of identity is evident in Pohio's projection of the artist's furry Wookie paws disassembling a jigsaw puzzle of Hans and Chewbacca. One can assume that the digital medium will be a defining feature of what Jonathan Mane-Wheoki has referred to as 'post contemporary Maori art' .

Undoubtedly, the digital installations featured in Te Puawai o Ngai Tahu are the highlight of the exhibition. Untitled (Bleu), a huge projection of rippling water accompanied by a sixteenth-century soundtrack, is Chris Heaphy's first encounter with moving imagery. The manipulated waves convey stories of migration and spirituality. Heaphy's water installation alludes to 'star reflecting waters', and as the exhibition catalogue affirms: 'the Spring of Waiwhetu has once again bubbled into existence, as a life giving force to us all.'

Nathan Pohio's installation at Te Puawai o Ngai Tahi 2003
(from left to right) Untitled (Screen 1) 2003 Data projector, DVD player & screen, dimensions variable; Untitled (Wookie Shuffle) 2003 VHS deck & monitor, dimensions variable; and Untitled 2003 Pastel on card

The theme of water is central to Rachel Rakena's sound and video installation Rerehiko. Two large screens, placed at opposite ends of a darkened gallery are overlaid with email text (mostly in Maori) and images of a magical underwater world where figures dance and swim. This is an alluring work which clearly demonstrates the potential of artists who engage with new media.

Lonnie Hutchinson's installation Sista7 was created for Te Puawai o Ngai Tahu and has recently been acquired by the Gallery. Seven large cone-like structures made of folded building paper, all painstakingly cut into finely crafted designs, are inspired by the seven volcanic peaks of the Lyttelton harbour, a view seen from Hutchinson's studio. Born in Auckland, Hutchinson's return to Christchurch has reconnected her with the landscape of her tipuna - an experience which informs her practice. The 'woven' detail of Sista7 pays homage to generations of weavers both traditional and contemporary, notably Cath Brown.

On leaving the exhibition I caught a glimpse of Onuku, Areta Wilkinson's Paua shell 'eyes' mounted on two columns. They certainly create a sense of being watched and at once I felt as though I had been standing not in a gallery but rather in a wharenui. Wilkinson's twinkling eyes are quite hard to spot and the effect could have been greater had they been displayed away from Hutchinson's installation.

The reception of Te Puawai o Ngai Tahu has been mixed and given the many threads that hold the curatorial concept together, a brief skim through the catalogue prior to visiting the exhibition may prove beneficial for some viewers. Nevertheless, Te Puawai o Ngai Tahu is a benchmark exhibition and a dynamic expression of Ngai Tahu creativity. The artists represented in Te Puawai o Ngai Tahu are evidence of the continuum of contemporary Maori art and in a broader sense, the success and optimism of their iwi. Importantly, the exhibition marks the beginning of a fruitful partnership between Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu and Te Puna o Waiwhetu.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 108 Spring 2003