It is a Friday night at the new Parlour Projects art gallery in Hastings. The filled room is reverent and attentive. Someone has brought armfuls of fresh kawakawa sprigs. The clean space smells of lilies. Kristyl Nehu and Pereri King, in white shirts, sing delicate, clear harmonies. They call us gently in from the periphery.
This performance piece by the River Seeds Collective is the most profoundly beautiful call to action I have ever experienced. It is the story of our vanished river. It is a prayer: “the gift of life is a precious thing” and water is life and love. It is a sublime and tender artwork.
Kneeling at a projector, Marama Beamish carefully spatters a transparency with drops of water; a sphere of water and light projected onto high white walls, over an exhibition of ancestors, photographic etchings.
Pereri moves with slow, graceful gestures, speaking, chanting Māori, calling, shaping (perhaps) a garden into being: the river-braided Heretaunga. He stands in water-splashed light with his guitar.
The two actors shift between English and te reo, they move, weave, through spoken word and song – “Life goes on, love goes on.” Their voices and the melodies they sing are beautiful. The projected raindrop dances, follows Pereri across to the corner, enlarges, widens.
He’s swinging the stirring purerehua and breathing, blowing into a traditional wood flute. The sounds are like wind and life, like memories and the calling past. A rudimentary map appears in the light, Pereri, his hair in a top-knot, is silhouetted against it. Speaking the river with breath and gesture, he is the river and the people, proud, along its banks. The raindrop scribes an arc across the front-facing wall.
Pereri enacts the coming of Pākehā, “Hallo” ;“Pleased to meet you”, and colonisation: from bright, bubbly, laughing animation, shaking hands, to gradual restriction, loss of breath, of life force, mauri. He rolls down his sleeves, buttons cuffs, slides slowly down the wall, his voice more reluctant, dim, then silent, his breathing rasps. The raindrop empties out, fades.
Kristyl places her forearm along a part of a darkened map that is then illuminated on her skin; she embodies a river in the shimmering, sunshine light, catching the letters “Ma” with her wrist, then the whole name “Makirikiri”: the gift of cleansing and purification. We learn its archived history.
The “Makirikiri Stream” is situated near the “Swamp Lands” on a pioneer-inked map of the Heretaunga Plains, “a good place to settle”. This could have been a beautiful water feature in Hastings, like the Avon in Christchurch, we hear – it was certainly bigger.
With a pipette, water is dripped onto the projector transparency, tracing the path of the tributary onto the 1884 map of the settlement with its recognisable town grid, its quaint features, accompanied by song, “Hold onto love and protect me” – so simple, exquisite.
In this moment my heart is touched by a river, a river moves within me. This is where I grew up, I know these places, but I did not know, beyond rumours, the Makirikiri.
The Makirikiri flowed from the Kawekas, down Roy’s Hill, through the suburbs now of Flaxmere, Camberly, Raureka, Ebbett Park, through the race course (then called Jubilee Lake), through Akina (where you could go fishing, boating), through Heretaunga Intermediate School, turned the corner of Eastborne (at one point there was a bridge across Queen Street), flowed right under the Parlour Projects gallery (which was a water pumping station) and the site of the Municipal Theatre, through Karamu and out to Windsor Park before wending its way round to rejoin the Ngaruroro River. It is not lost on me that these are the present areas of our lowest socio-economic communities, the areas where many of our indigenous live, and where many struggle.
Ma means ‘to cleanse’; kirikiri, ‘through the shingle’. This water, which fed our aquifer, was seen as life-giving and sacred.
In 1897 the Makirikiri was drained. It was pumped through sewerage pipes. A series of dams were created, until the old water way was still and dry as bones. It was covered in, built over. Pereri’s barefeet scud the floor, they stick.
We shift forward, stories change, evolve. 2016: degradation of river beds, removal of shingle, pollution of our waters, plans for a mega dam. Pereri segues into a political rap, contemporary concerns, concerns for the future, before arriving once more at aroha. Water, life. Life is precious. “We should not let anyone take this taonga away”.
In the standing ovation, ‘Te Aroha’, is spontaneously initiated and sung by all – a diverse and ranging audience, from teenagers to kaumatua. I stand and weep. I cry me a river.
Then director Puti Lancaster steps forward. And now our work here begins, she says. The sharing that follows is thoughtful, poignant. No one wants to leave. People speak of an energy shift, of a profound gratefulness and appreciation for the gift and grace of the Makirikiri story; they speak of their waters in Waiheki, Wairoa, of the story’s resonance and connection across New Zealand.
The seeds are sown. What will you do next to protect our precious water? And what will you do? And what will you?
I leave stirred above all by the humility and power of this piece: its insistence on the actions of love in the present for the future, its lack of bitterness and rancour, its strength through sensitivity and beauty. This evening held, for me, the very essence of healing, of authentic communication, and for this, and more, I feel humbled.