Changes are afoot in Heretaunga. On Wednesday evening, bathed in the light of the rising full moon, Ākina gallery threw open its doors to a critical mass of arts aficionados, eagerly anticipating a shift in the physical and cultural landscape of Hastings’ CBD.
The seemingly interminable mess of construction has finally been cleared from the block, revealing the sleekly restored Municipal Building in all its colonial glory. Housed within history, inside an act of radical decolonisation is taking place. Ākina represents the marriage of past, present and future, carving out a space for genuine partnership, participation and protection long overdue in the local arts scene.
This, the only indigenous-owned commercial gallery in Heretaunga, is the baby of kaiwhakahaere, Sacha van den Berg (Ngāti Kahungunu, Cook Island, Dutch). A visionary powerhouse, this is the realisation of a long-held dream. Yet the gestation from concept to execution was just nine months. Curators of this municipal space wanted a place for Māori arts within its walls. Sacha was shoulder tapped and began weaving dreams into reality.
Ākina means encouragement, the act of spurring on to greatness, and this is the vision van den Berg holds for the artists she represents. It also has a local connection, the name of the adjacent suburb in which she grew up. Rather than exclusively showing indigenous art and artists, this is a gallery underpinned by kaupapa Māori. Its principles run as deep as the Makirikiri stream that flows beneath our feet.
This was evident in the opening pōwhiri, a joyous celebration of speech and song, feasting and meeting. The abundant multitude assembled on the street were greeted bilingually by council Pou Ahurea, Charles Ropitini. With customary passion, he spoke of cultural freedom and survival, of pride in visible existence, of reinstating whenua. “This is a wonderful time to be Māori,” he asserted.
The assembly were led with ceremony through the gallery space by wāhine toa, Kezia Whakamoe, armed with twin bird wing rākau, and the haunting waita of Waitangi Teepa, to the newly established community hall. Named after the late leader of the resurgence of Māori performing arts, Tama Tūranga Huata, its vaulted walls and outdoor courtyard were enlivened by the hopes and dreams of all that passed through.
More korero ensued, from Kahungunu kaumātua, Jerry Hapuku, and from van den Berg herself. The quality of the korero informed the kaupapa. There was much talk of familial bonds, of whanau. The amassed crowd were encouraged to sit, to make themselves comfortable. Mats with tamariki activities were set up. Songs were sung, full throated and joyful with a range of spontaneous vocal harmonies. Kai was abundant and locally donated libations flowed to the funked-up sounds of Akina Vinyl Appreciation Society. This was manakitanga in motion. This was kaupapa Māori in action.
The opening show was a community effort, showcasing a diverse range of media and modalities. Window installations by Kezia Whakamoe and Nephi Tupaea marry clothing and artefact, representations of wāhine Māori standing tall in their power, twin kaitiaki over the gallery doors. Inside, on plinths stand ceremonial gourds carved expertly by Phil Belcher, wrapped in impossibly fine weaving by Purewa McGregor. Her delicate muka kākahu are also on display. Grand scale cubist style portraits by Darryl Thomson, colloquially known as DLT, adorn the walls. Strange organic forms fashioned from stiffened goat leather, clay and glass hang, casting wonderfully odd shadows, the work of Asaki Kajima.
Aside from the show, a cunningly curated selection of objects of desire are shown — ceramics and carvings and jewelry and more. The small space is expertly aligned, full without being cluttered, expansive in its scope while remaining true to its kaupapa, the product of van den Berg’s exquisite eye.
This debut show was just the start of the good things coming for all of us. Ākina is a taonga that allows us to reimagine how art is shown and bought and sold, a cultural reckoning heralding a dynamic and exciting future we get to build together.