A provocative exhibition by Whanganui print maker Vanessa Wairata Edwards will be unveiled next week at Te Kōputu a te whanga a Toi. Social Amnesia discusses the uncomfortable silences that face society while attempting to confront the colonial history of New Zealand.

Wairata Edwards admits her own lack of knowledge about our national past informed the way in which this collection was shaped.

“This body of work sees me developing a strong interest in the whakapapa of Aotearoa. I started by looking at the introduction of the printing letterpress in the 1800s, and the effect of that on Māori, as a way to explore what is happening now in terms of text, print and printmaking. I soon fell into the gaping holes in my knowledge of Aotearoa’s basic history.”

Seeing New Zealand’s early history become a focus for the curriculum at both primary and secondary levels recently pushed Wairata Edwards to explore some of the gaps in her knowledge, which has influenced her recent work.

“Some people look at the first meeting of two peoples like it is something to celebrate, but for many others it certainly is not. Discourse around the country on the topic has already begun revealing the effects of collective forgetfulness. Some people proclaim that Cook’s arrival marked the beginning of the ‘shaping of our great nation’, forgetting that an established nation already existed.”

Using art to explore heritage is something Wairata Edwards is passionate about, both in her art practice and her mahi as a secondary school teacher in Whanganui. Since completing a Bachelor of Arts from Taupō Quay Art School in 2002 and a Masters in Art in printmaking, Wairata Edwards has prompted youth to explore their own identity through creativity as well. 

She often works with drypoint, a technique that is taught to school children as a fast way of exploring printmaking. By scratching through a dark surface, an artist can explore the light colour beneath.

“I enjoy the nature of drypoint. I can create an image reasonably quickly, and then spend time with the layering of the print. I just want to see how far I can push this way of printing. It fascinates me.”

Wairata Edwards is also a founding member of the Toi Whakaata Māori print collective, established in 2006 to support Māori print-makers. For over a decade the group has been running wananga that explore what makes Māori printmaking unique, while testing new technologies to expand the craft. Laser-cutting imagery into solid wood features in many of the works in Social Amnesia, along with handmade marks, graffiti spray-paint and stencils to underlay or overlay colour. This exhibition is a mixed media suite, with vivid neon Perspex constructions enhancing the messages conveyed by Wairata Edwards’ uneasily murky prints.

“What I am really looking at recently is the long-term relevance of my work and where it fits into the bigger scheme of things. This has resulted in me looking into tikanga and matauranga Māori and mythology. My question is ‘how is our past relevant to our future?’. I want to continue to reference past ideas so they are not forgotten, but rediscovered. To reclaim who we are is to speak our truths.”

Social Amenesia will be exhibited at Sheaff Gallery, Te Kōputu a te whanga a Toi from 15 May to 6 September 2020.