Originally published 10 May 2021 by Salient
Kane Bassett Ngāti Apa, Ngāti Kahungunu Ki Te Wairoa He/Him
Kauae Raro Research Collective was established in 2019 by Sarah Hudson (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Pūkeko, Ngāi Tūhoe), Lanae Cable (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Pūkeko, Ngāi Tuhoe) and Jordan Davey-Emms (Ngāti Pākehā).
The trio, self described as “backyard researchers,” together boast backgrounds in visual arts, pottery, research and rongoā Māori (traditional Māori healing), and are working to develop a bank of knowledge and spread awareness about traditional, sustainable art practices. Salient spoke to Sarah about the collective and their Wild Pigment Project, a kaupapa which aims to “relearn and recreate” the traditional art materials and techniques of our tūpuna Māori.
In December 2019, Sarah, Lanae and Jordan took a birthday week road trip to look at sites of Ngā Toi Ana (Māori rock art). The trip initially took them an hour inland to a petra glyphe (carved rock wall) located in Ngāti Manawa rohe. Here, they saw traditional artworks which had been residing there since before Ngāti Manawa occupied the land in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
Inspiration piqued, the trio travelled down the road to Maunga Kakaramea (Rainbow Mountain) just out of Rotorua. “[The maunga has] beautiful, different coloured ochres, clays, and silts and soils,” says Sarah, “you can take a cute little walk from the carpark and see twenty different colours of dirt just on the path.”
The group then ventured further to Lake Tarawera to visit a painted rock wall. The depictions had been painted prior to the maunga’s eruption in 1886, and were submerged in the lake until it receded in 1904. But they were still there, donning beautiful, bright hues of kōkōwai (red ochre).
The trio arrived home later that day inspired. Struck by seeing the art of their ancestors, they wondered how it was possible to make paint that could last for hundreds and hundreds of years. They asked themselves: “Why don’t we know about it? Why don’t we use it now?”
Kauae Raro and the Wild Pigment Project was born out of this collective curiosity. “For the last year and a half, we’ve been dedicated to finding answers to these questions and exploring our local landscapes through the lens of art making and reconnecting with places, but also with knowledge,” says Sarah. This has looked like walking on the whenua, collecting and documenting different colours of whenua, working with weavers and people with carving backgrounds who are familiar with kōkōwai, and researching into native trees and plants that are used for dyes. “It’s been an indicator that with very little effort we could experience a lot.”
The Wild Pigment Project follows strict reciprocal foraging guidelines. These include honoring the taiao (Earth world) through respect; understanding the history and traditional cultural practices of the whenua the collective engages with; prioritising the needs of Papatūānuku over the needs of the forager; giving thanks to the whenua; spending non-foraging, intimate time with the whenua; giving money, when the collective can, to land and cultural organisations, and the community; and freely sharing knowledge and experience with others. After foraging, paints are made by combining coloured earth with animal oils, with each combination resulting in paints with different properties.
Important to note is that the collective’s kaupapa isn’t just about producing research; it’s motivated by it. “There’s a bit written about kōkōwai,” Sarah says, “but it’s usually [presented] through a colonial lens [and focuses on] how things were used historically.” She says that when she tried to find out who uses kōkōwai in their cultural practices today, “it was easier to find how it was used 250 years ago.”
Determined to get answers, Sarah worked during lockdown last year to find information about contemporary uses of kōkōwai. She started a pen-pal project, writing to artists who use kōkōwai and asking questions about their practice. After tracking down a group of people who were using whenua in their work, both physically and conceptually, Sarah collated the information she gathered in a book titled Mana Whenua. “I wanted to give back to our community because there isn’t a lot of stuff about contemporary use of these beautiful resources,” says Sarah. She wanted to make sure there was “something else [that popped up] when kōkōwai was Googled.” The collective also publishes their weekly field trips online on Instagram, which are “free and accessible for anyone to see how we engage with the whenua.”
Kauae Raro and the Wild Pigment Project is also intimately tied to whakapapa—it’s about reconnecting with lineages. “We go to a place, and we do a bit of a deep dive as to the original name for that place, who occupied those sites, who has lived there, and our relationship to it.” Sarah says the mahi operates on a spectrum of connection: “It could be that I came and played here as a kid, or it could be that eight generations ago someone I was related to lived here.”
This, for Sarah, has been grounding, and has provided the collective with a special and intimate relationship with time: “It can make timelines feel really small, or it can spread the timeline right out.” Working in the collective has also given Sarah a deeper sense of her place as a reciprocal part of the taiao. “I think it’s easy to feel really separated from nature, especially if you live in a city, or you’re away from where you grew up, or where your family is from. A little bit of commitment to going outside has meant a whole lot.”
Kauae Raro Research Collective emerges at a time when it is common to have questions about Māori traditions, but few ways to answer them. Kauae Raro isn’t just changing the game with their sustainable art creation—they’re actively making history while doing so.