Aniwaniwa is a collaborative multimedia artwork between artists Brett Graham and Rachael Rakena. Currently on display at the National Gallery of Canada for the exhibition of indigenous art, Sakahàn, the piece evokes a diverse range of powerful emotions within its viewers. In order to view the piece, which consists of five domed video projections that hang from the ceiling, the viewer has to lie down on one of the many beds provided. In this sense, Aniwaniwa has already challenged the typical relationship between artwork and viewer by altering the position and perspective of the body, but the issues and ideas that the work deals with are also palpable and fascinating.
As soon as you lie down to watch the screens, you feel as though you enter a dream-like state, which is helped along by the fact that you are on a bed. But the imagery that is displayed on the five screens is dream-like in the surreal quality of the scenarios that unfold. Brett Graham and Rachael Rakena have created a narrative of the lives of villagers that live in an underwater town. The use of water in Aniwaniwa represents both the importance of water in the culture and identity of the Maori people, but it also represents a historical event: the flooding of Horahora village to create a hydroelectric dam in 1947. Horahora was also the place where Graham’s father was born, which speaks to his tie to both the submersion of his culture, history and identity literally beneath the water. Having the villagers enact their daily lives underwater becomes a metaphor for cultural loss, as well as a reassertion of the importance that nature holds for Maori culture. Even the title of the piece, Aniwaniwa, refers to the rapids on the Waikato River that was closest to Horahora when the village still existed.
Not only does the content of the work deal with cultural loss and the retelling of history, but also the objects that suspend the work itself. The domed screens are each encased in a sculptural vessel that mimics wakahuia, a wooden box or object that are keepers of memories. It brings to mind that the actions of the villagers are being preserved despite having been submerged, for they have been remembered and retold over the course of history. The carved marks on the sides of the vessels also relate back to the origins of carving within the Maori culture; according to Tangaroan legend, ‘whakairo’ (to carve, to be like a maggot) is an art that has been retrieved from under the water.
To view the work or for more information about the exhibition, visit the National Gallery of Canada’s website for their hours and admission fees here.