Kuia: Kiri Riwai-Couch

Aratoi Museum of Art and History was packed with young and old as two uplifting exhibitions celebrating tangata whenua opened last weekend: Kiri Riwai-Couch’s series of photographs called ‘Kuia’, and Bronwyn Waipuka-Callander’s ‘Mana Whenua’.

Kiri Riwai-Couch’s series of photographs titled ‘Kuia’. Kiri’s parents moved from Auckland to settle in Wairarapa when she and her twin sister were three months old. Having spent her life here she sees her show as an important way of “giving back” to the local community.

Emotions ran high for the artist, her whānau and the many kuia who gathered at the gallery for the pōwhiri.  Her brother Tawake Matthews guided the kuia into the exhibition with a ‘wairea’. This was followed by a roof-raising kapa haka performance by Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Wairarapa.  Other perfomances included Marama Fox, Marama Mete-Smith, Te Huaki Puanaki, Soul 2 Soul and ‘Tuahine’ (the Matthews sisters). 

Mike Kawana, who welcomed the kuia and their whānau onto Aratoi, used the word ‘mīharo’ (amazed, awestruck) to describe the atmosphere of the event. He said the exhibition had a significance not just because of the art on display but also because the event itself had brought so many generations together. “This is one of those occasions that we have to cherish as it doesn’t happen very often,” he said.

Kiri describes her portrait exhibition of 30 Wairarapa kuia as a three-year long labour of love. “The kuia each have a mana that is majestic and simply magnificent. They have all influenced me in different ways throughout my life and I am indebted to each of them for this.”

“I really wanted to do something special to acknowledge these kuia. I had been talking about doing the exhibition for quite some time now but had never had the resources or time. However, thanks to the kind assistance from Creative Communities Masterton and Aratoi Museum, this dream has finally come true.” The kuia were a pleasure to work with and it was an honour to be able to visit each of their homes to take their photographs and hear about their life experiences. “During the photo shoots I tried not to tell them what to do too much, you know what happens when you tell our nannies what to do!” she chuckles.

“A particular highlight for me was being able to photograph my mother. She is my inspiration and I am so blessed to have her as my mother” Kiri says. Kiri’s mother, Paremo Matthews, was instrumental in the revitalisation of te reo Māori in Wairarapa through establishing Mahitāone Kōhanga Reo in 1982 (now Hine Te Arorangi Kōhanga Reo), together with Nanny Myrtle Ratapu and Nanny Vera Naera.  

I talked to one woman who was obviously moved by the images: “To see the kuia all in one place is very special. You can see their beauty and really feel their wairua. It’s emotional because we probably won’t get to see them together like this again.”

I asked softly spoken ‘Nanny Rangipa’ about her reaction to sitting for Kiri: “I was unsure at first about it at first, I certainly wasn’t expecting it,” she said, describing herself as someone who avoids the spotlight. But in the end, she was pleased to be involved. “It is fantastic to see the elderly ones seeing their portraits, especially as many of them are so busy with tikanga and marae work.”

Angela Leia Casha said her photo of Nanny Marcia and Nanny Mihi was going straight onto Facebook when she got home. She said the women’s natural, make-up free beauty stood out for her.

Kiri will give a free talk about her exhibition on Saturday 7 June at 2pm. Next week: an interview with Bronwyn Waipuka-Callander.

Exhibitions at Aratoi: Kuia - Kiri Riawai-Couch, until 5 July; Mana Whenua, Taku Kai, Taku Oranga - Bronwyn Waipuka-Callander. 'Sweet Home Sick' – Anita de Soto, until 15 June; 'No Town' - Caroline McQuarrie, until 15 June; 'Magic Carpet & Appliances Gone Monster' – Aratoi foyer.