Kirsten Lyttle (Waikato, Ngāti Tāhinga, Tainui a Whiro) is a New Zealand-born, Australia-based artist who has built a practice on the intersection of photography and weaving: two art-making traditions that initially seem to have little in common. However, Lyttle’s signature combination asserts that the distinction between customary Māori weaving practices and digital photography is not, in fact, as clear as it might seem. This is an assertion underlined by the title of her current exhibition at the Centre of Contemporary Photography, Digital Mana, which seems to propose a reformulation of the mana (authority, prestige, status) associated with the woven feather cloak (kahu huruhuru) in the digital age.
Digital Mana is a small exhibition of works drawn from Lyttle’s ongoing PhD research, and it has the feel of a work in progress. The show centres on a cloak Lyttle made by combining photographic prints and woven fibre, a work supplemented by a series of more conventionally presented photographs of feathers. Kahu huruhuru are prestige garments in Māori culture. Laboriously made by skilled weavers, they are worn by chiefs and dignitaries. Lyttle’s is woven using a customary technique; however, instead of stitching feathers into this base as is usual, she has attached photographs of emu feathers. While in this instance the juxtaposition feels overly literal to me, Lyttle’s insistent combination of digital and analogue technologies opens an interesting area of investigation. As in earlier projects, such as her woven photographic portraits of female South Pacific weavers, Te Whare Pora (2014–15), the works on show in Digital Mana foreground the materiality of the photograph.
Lyttle’s framed photographs, presented in a series of ten 60 x 80 cm prints, are simply exquisite. Shot in extreme close up, they capture the full sensual tactility of their subject: the supple spring and snap of the flight feathers, their minute striations and lustrous sheen, the downy tendrils at their base. Each image is titled with the name of the native Australian bird whose plumage is depicted. The photographs capture a colour range that is notably different to that of New Zealand birds. Shading from tawny greys through to shimmering teal, it culminates with the astonishing Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo (2018) whose bands of fluorescent orange, canary-yellow and white are worthy of a Brazilian carnival queen.
From one perspective, Lyttle’s combination of digital technology and customary weaving could be seen as yet another iteration of the traditional-versus-contemporary question that still often frames discussion of work by Indigenous artists. This was the case for the generation of savvy, international-minded Māori artists, such as Lisa Reihana, Michael Parekowhai, Jaqueline Fraser, Shane Cotton and Peter Robinson, who came to prominence in the 1990s. It was also the case for Māori modernists of the 1950s like Paratene Matchitt and Arnold Manāki Wilson, and even perhaps going back to the Ringatu church painters of the 1870s. All these artists have been required to insist on the blindingly obvious: that it is possible to be both Māori and contemporary.
Lyttle’s exhibition title recalls Lisa Reihana’s well-known Digital Marae (2001–). However, the extent to which her work moves beyond the defensively new media-focused ‘Techno Māori’ trajectory of the late 1990s and early 2000s is its most interesting aspect. In short, it is Lyttle’s interest in weaving, rather than digital photography, that to me feels more current as well as more political. As US art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson observes in her 2017 book Fray, textiles ‘occupy a central place in traditionalist histories, while they also erupt as potential sites of resistance to that very traditionalism.’ The contemporary deployment of fibre art traditions—and I would locate Lyttle’s work in this expanded field—is loaded with both feminist and postcolonial politics. It demonstrates both the continuous life of Indigenous practices and the diasporic development of those customs, as is evidenced by Lyttle’s emphatic use of feathers from Australian rather than New Zealand birds.
It seems to me that Lyttle’s photographic project seeks to conjure the mana of the kahu huruhuru, and to make it affectively present in the here-and-now. It does so by approaching the photograph as a material and tactile presence, rather than as a record of absence. In the Western tradition, there is always an implicit distance between the photographic image and its referent. The photograph is regarded as a document of a past moment or an absent subject. However, from a Māori perspective, image-making is a practice of integrating the past into the present, and making the distant proximate. Carved wooden figures in the customary style, for example, embody ancestral connections in that they express the skills and knowledge of past generations in their manufacture, but they also stand quite literally as embodiments of ancestors. As Lyttle notes, photographic as well as carved images of ancestors have been hugely significant in Māori communities since the nineteenth century. Far from being considered an index of loss and distance, ‘Photographs of the deceased, and of other ancestors are displayed, addressed, lamented over and touched. The rendered image of an ancestor, whether carved or photographed is considered to be a living presence through which the wairua (spirituality or everlasting spirit) of the person can be transferred.’
Lyttle’s effort to reconceive digital photography as haptic—something to be touched or even worn—aspires to endow the medium with the mana reserved for people and objects integrated into the relational and geneological framework known as whakapapa. Often translated as ‘genealogy,’ but also containing the meanings ‘layered,’ ‘contact,’ and ‘communication,’ whakapapa is the central unifying concept of Māori cosmology and it connects all things: people, inanimate objects, landscapes, spirits and deities. Mana comes from connection to ancestors through the tracing of whakapapa, or lineage. As anthropologist Haidy Geismar observed in her 2015 article ‘Post-photographic presences, or How to wear a digital cloak’: ‘The Māori terms for weaving map onto terms that describe genealogical connection and ancestral power. The phrase to kanoi means both to weave and to trace ancestry.’ While Lyttle’s cloak doesn’t yet feel to me like a fully resolved form, it moves away from a conception of photography rooted in signification and towards a reconception of the medium in terms of tactile presence: a reformulation that could perhaps enable an affective encounter akin to that embodied in the woven fibres and feathers of the kahu huruhuru.
Anna Parlane is a writer and occasional curator based in Melbourne. She is currently finishing a PhD at Melbourne University, and was previously assistant curator at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
Title image: Kirsten Lyttle, Gundulu/Emu Kākahu huruhuru, (Detail) (2018), Macramé cord (Cotton), Cotton twine, Digital prints on Fuji lustre paper. Dimensions variable 143cm (width) x 118cm (height) approx. Image Credit: Jack Loel.)