Nigel Borell

Traversing the seen and unseen

The practice of portraiture is one of the oldest forms of capture where the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the subject can be recorded in perpetuity. We are familiar with the legacy of this within fine arts, with the visual nature of portraiture used to communicate the power, importance, virtue, beauty, wealth, taste, or other qualities of the subject. Traditionally, these characteristics were used as the ultimate measure of what makes a memorable or successful portrait.

The exhibition, Ōtairongo, by Maree Sheehan (of Ngāti Maniapoto-Waikato, Ngāti Tuwharetoa tribal descent) ponders many of these qualities about portraiture but, perhaps more importantly, also suspends these very conventions to present a dynamic departure in how we might think and experience ideas of representation.

With Ōtairongo, Sheehan privileges sound to create composition. Described as sonic portraiture, three separate wāhine Māori stories are presented using sound and binaural technology in a darkened gallery space. The sonic portraits of Te Rita Papesch, Moana Maniapoto, and Ramon Te Wake are told in their own ‘voice’, in sometimes candid and revealing ways. Here immersive soundscapes are woven together to capture both the person and their environment as connected statements about cultural continuity. Yet it is the stories and images that the audio creates in one’s own mind that informs your sense of the portrait. We are afforded a sense of each wāhine, not just their story but an essence of themselves. This resides in the seen and the unseen; the tangible and the intangible that sits in our inner psyche where these portraits truly take shape. A place where an essence of one’s wairua and mauri is offered to the participant.

The history of portraiture in Aotearoa is closely linked with the colonial project of settlement and governance told through the male gaze. The artist flips this dynamic and speaks back to this imbalance offering an empowered wāhine Māori lens and understanding. Ōtairongo presents an exciting opportunity to rethink and reconsider the scope of contemporary Māori art. It pushes out these boundaries, posing questions about gender, representation and the place of sonic art investigations within that movement. In so doing, Maree Sheehan’s sonic portraits allow for new readings about representation that emphasise the seen and unseen worlds of Māori knowledge in exciting and new ways.

  • Nigel Borell

Maree Sheehan and Nigel Borell in conversation

NB: Tell me about your fascination and interest in music and sound. When did that begin for you?

MS: I remember being interested in music from a young age. My mother was a singer, my aunties were singers and we always had music in the home. For me, it has always been a place to express my emotions, to tell my stories. I relate to music. I dance to it. It’s always held a powerful place for me in my life and, as a composer, it’s a place where I can be immersed in my own thinking and being. In terms of my own spirituality and how I express that, it has always been through music.

NB: Binaural audio explorations are relatively new terrain to contemporary art practice and presentation. Tell me about your interest in this area of research.

MS: Some years ago, I went to a show called The Encounter by a company called Complicité from the UK. Each audience member was given a pair of headphones that used this particular binaural microphone called the Neumann KU100, which could take you into various environments purely through sound and dialogue. It demonstrated the power of sound in transporting you to different locations and different storylines, past and present. That completely fascinated me, the potential of exploring binaural sound but also how sound could traverse different notions of time.

NB: That’s intriguing because it reminds me of how Māori see and understand time in a very conceptually different way to how Western knowledge and philosophy understands time which is very much a lineal reading.

MS: For me it was about how these layers could be carried through audio. It was this whole understanding of dimensions; of thinking about time and experiencing it in a very different way. I think from a Māori point of view that’s what captivated me because it reminded me of how Māori simultaneously see past, present and future.

NB: This is a very open question but what do you think a project like this might offer to conversations about contemporary Māori art?

MS: One is how the narratives and stories of wāhine Māori are told or can be told through sound. For me, these audio portraits constitute a distinctive renegotiation of how wāhine Māori might be represented. I wanted to disrupt a largely visual concept of portraiture that was imported into Aotearoa during the process of colonisation.
The technology is another thing as well. How do we use binaural and immersive technologies? For me, it’s to move beyond simple storytelling to encapsulate the wairua of each wahine. I think that sound has the power to give you a sense of it in a way that the visual cannot.

NB: Leading on from that, your audio portraits engage three amazing wāhine and their stories. Reflecting on the process you went through of interviewing, how have you found that experience?

MS: Umm... beautiful. Beautiful and challenging. Beautiful because all three were so generous, trusting and open and, as time went on, that trust became deeper and that allowed me to become more involved in their lives. That process would’ve been the main challenge. You can’t represent an expression of somebody’s wairua or mauri unless you have that deep connection, which just takes time. Also, when I’m trying to create a portrait I’m trying to create layers and that’s not achieved with just one visit. It’s about multiple visits—with whānau, to the marae, at home—sometimes with situations that might have felt quite personal.

NB: That’s interesting because when I listen to the portraits and the dialogue, it’s like a shot in the arm because you get such a condensed and powerful glimpse—an edited glimpse I suppose—Into their lives. It can hit you because there are lots of revealing ideas and candid comments but of course what that edit doesn’t reveal is how you have arrived at that point—to have them open up to that space.

MS: As human beings we have lots of different ways of expressing and communicating ourselves. We communicate and respond to sadness, we have laughter, we have vulnerability, we have strength and we have courage. In conventional visual portraiture we see how this is depicted, but it’s been a long journey to bring all the audio material together to craft something that you hope gives a sense of the essence and depth of these wāhine.

NB: Tell us about the title of the show, Ōtairongo.

MS: Ōtairongo was given the name by Tui Matira Ransfield. I told her it was very much about the unseen. It’s very much a listening experience, a sensory experience. It’s about wairua, it’s about mauri and particularly of wāhine, and she came with the name Ōtairongo. Rongo means ‘to listen’, and tai is connected to ‘o taiao’ which means ‘of the world’. So conceptually it means to listen, think about and feel a sense of the unseen through listening; and that connection to wairua and mauri.

NB: For me, engaging in the process of listening to the portraits and being submerged in the dark, being led by the narratives that are offered, is such a unique yet unfamiliar art experience—for lack of a better word—but it is an exciting one. What do you make of this work and its relationship to the visual arts?

MS: There is an actual visual element to the exhibition, which are the cocoons that people sit within when they are listening. These came out of wanting people to have a space where they can experience the audio, and they represent Hine Raukatauri—goddess of music, personified by the case moth. Each listener becomes enclosed within her cocoon when they sit down. From a whakapapa point of view, all these wāhine including myself have a relationship to music, and we are connected through whakapapa to the world of Hine Raukatauri.

But if there’s any form of visual experience it’s the one your mind creates. For me it’s like reading a book. Your mind starts to create your own pictures of how you imagine things. There is also a psychoacoustic element where certain sounds will make you feel a certain emotion or thought. It can be found in the way that people speak, for example—it can make us perceive or feel a certain emotion. Ultimately the portraits become what you visualise or imagine about these wāhine in your own mind, and how you relate to that.


Related to the exhibition Ōtairongo
Published March 2020