Two Inadequate Voices


2IV is a platform for image-makers to recount and reflect textually on their stories of being out in the world whilst photographing.

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Dr. Kirsten Lyttle
Sheltered Under the Arms of my Ancestor

I knew that my bare feet needed to touch the ground of my ancestors. Communing with them would give me the strength to finish my examination exhibition and submit my PhD thesis. It was late June 2019. A late stage research trip/holiday/homecoming where I showed off Aotearoa/New Zealand to my partner James. We traversed the country in an intense week, traveling from Auckland to Hamilton, Hamilton to Rotorua, Rotorua to Wellington, Wellington to Auckland and Auckland back to Melbourne, all in seven days. On the third day, James and I took the hire car up to my marae; that communal, ceremonial and spiritual space(s); where eating, sleeping, kōrero (discussion) and rites of passage in Māori community life occur.

This trip home was the first time that I had seen my mountain, or my river, or stood on my marae. As an adoptee and as a member of the Māori diaspora in Australia, connecting to my whakapapa (ancestral line), continues to be a disrupted, complicated and emotional voyage where information is necessarily gleaned from a range of sources. I had found the address of my marae only recently. My Marae had undergone a name change in 2011 with the construction of a new whare (house). I found images, addresses and contacts through an online source and connected with whānau (family) through social media. In the digital world I was welcomed by whānau virtually into actual ancestral spaces. They regretted that they could not be there in person to welcome us. I was told that the wharenui (meetinghouse that represents the body of an ancestor), had been left open for us, and we had been given permission to take photos. My partner James and I went on our own. Words are inadequate to describe the experience I had. The marae, the wharenui, felt like mine, and where I belonged. Looking at the carvings, the tukutuku[1] panels, paintings, photographs and cloaks that decorated wharenui, I understood why I make the artwork I do. I spent time with my ancestors and spoke with them. I saw my own features in the carvings and photographs, my own arts practice in the weaving.

After insisting that we carried my digital SLR, lenses and tripod across Aotearoa, it was not until we arrived at the marae that I realised I had not packed a memory card. Maybe my ancestors did not want to be captured by my fancy camera gear? Māori filmmaker Barry Barclay (Ngāti Apa) described the camera as a “maverick friend” and asked how we can take that friend, the camera, “into the Maori (sic) community and be confident it will act with dignity?”[2]. Perhaps my ancestors decided my iPhone would do. In this photograph, you can see the maihi; the two long beams of this structure that represent the arms of the ancestor. This is not an outsider looking in. This is an indigenous view of the world looking out. Surrounded and sheltered, under the arms of my ancestor.

[1] A decorative panel seen inside the wharenui, with a latticework structure.
[2] Barclay, B 2015 [1990], Our own image: A story of a Māori filmmaker, University of Minnesota Press, p. 9

Dr Kirsten Lyttle a Melbourne-based artist and researcher who is of Māori descent. Her Iwi (tribe) is Waikato, (Ngāti Tahinga, Tainui A Whiro). Her work explores the intersection of indigenous customary art practice and digital technologies. She currently teaches Critical Art and Theory, Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, Victorian College of the Arts and the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, The University of Melbourne.