Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua (I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past)

Israel Randell reflects on Jamie Berry's video installation Whakapapa / Algorithms, exhibited at the Audio Foundation in Tāmaki Makaurau.

Date 5 August 2021 Text Israel Randell  Photography Courtesy of the artist

Jamie Berry, Whakapapa / Algorithms, 2020, moving image, soundscape, 20:20 mins.

Jamie Berry’s Whakapapa / Algorithms was exhibited at the Audio Foundation in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland in March this year. A descendant of Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga a Mahaki, Ngāti Porou and Ngā Puhi, the artist’s whakapapa (genealogy) is woven throughout the artworks. Each is layered with histories that remind us of the rich whakapapa from which we descend. Berry weaves stories together, transmuting sound, light and colour into a moving image that transports the viewer back in time. Alchemy is a type of chemistry that is concerned with the transmutation of matter turning metals into gold. An alchemist is someone who has the ability to transform or create something through a seemingly magical process. These are the thoughts that enter my mind while experiencing Whakapapa / Algorithms for the first time. 

The exhibition features three works that represent the past, present and future; and moving through each the visitor embodies the whakatauki Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua (I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past). As one enters the space, the sound of puoro (musical instruments) vibrates, bringing about a sense of tau, a coming to rest and  grounding in this whenua (land). 

Ko Arikirangi tēnei te haere nei (2019) is the first moving image artwork encountered. From the darkness you are met by a pair of flickering eyes and an eerie soundscape that echoes in the pit of the stomach. Tears fall from the eyes of this tipuna (ancestor) and there is a strong sense of loss. This installation reveals the history of Rongopai Marae, built in 1889 for the return of Te Kooti. To meet an imminent deadline they painted the interior rather than using traditional carving methods, leading to disapproval by elders during the final reveal. Berry’s installation was housed in a single door locker, representing the tapu (sacred, prohibition) that was placed on the marae following its completion. These tensions between tradition and innovation are echoed throughout Berry’s practice. The work honours Berry’s tipuna, and during this pivotal time of Matariki it reminds us of Pōhutukawa, the star that carries our dead back to Hawaiki, our ancient homeland. 

Whakapapa / Algorithms (2021), the central artwork in the exhibition, was presented at the opening as a live VJ set and subsequently displayed as a recording. Berry utilised technology to produce a unique soundscape from the sequence of her DNA. A love letter to her whakapapa, the mauri (life force) of this experience permeated the space and spilled out of the screen. The 19 min sound journey echoed like crashing waves. Imagery of whānau (family) and whenua conjure feelings of home; and as one watches the alchemy happening in front of their eyes, it is easy to forget that Berry created these visuals simultaneously. The soundscape used almost like a map, navigating viewers through a visual terrain with the artist, a portal into the spiritual, natural and physical realms, anchoring one in the present moment.

In the final room of the show were a set of digital prints depicting A1 images of the next generation. Presented on the walls like pou (carved poles found in the marae or meeting house), each one dripping with tohu that reference our traditions, our tikanga and our whakapapa. Waharoa (entrance or gateway), pātiki (diamond shaped pattern found in tukutuku panels), and the faces of our tamariki (children) adorn the walls like mirrors into the future. Looking into their eyes, it is almost a hope for the future; a generation of tamariki who are steeped in their culture and know who they are. A generation whose reo flows free as the rivers from which they descend. I ponder whether these are the artist’s intentions or my own projections. Nonetheless Berry urges us to look into our inner Te Korekore (realm of potential being, the void), to awaken prelationships with our whakapapa. As I unpack Whakapapa / Algorithms these meanings arise. 

Whakapapa: to lie flat or to place in layers, an algorithm, a set of rules for solving a problem in an infinite number of steps. Through these three artworks we see many layers—layers of sound, layers of data, layers of DNA—and together with the artist we fumble our way back in an infinite number of steps to find home. It is there one finds themselves, it is there that one’s existence is reaffirmed. Whakapapa is the reminder of our collectivity. Within are the traces of our tipuna and their ancient wisdom and mātauranga. Poipoia te kakano, kia tipu, kia rea, ka kitea, ka rangona ngā hua. If we feed this seed, it will grow, bloom and we will see its beauty. Whakapapa / Algorithms draws inspiration from a collective knowledge bank and as the audience sits with these ideas, the seeds for growth are planted and in time, they too will grow and bloom.

Jamie Berry, Ko Arikirangi tēnei te haere nei, 2019, vertical single-door locker, moving image, soundscape, 4:44 mis.

Jamie Berry, Whakapapa / Algorithms, 2020, moving image, soundscape, 20:20 mins.

Jamie Berry, Whakapapa / Algorithms, 2020, moving image, soundscape, 20:20 mins.

Jamie Berry, Whakapapa / Algorithms, 2020, moving image, soundscape, 20:20 mins.

Jamie Berry, Whakapapa / Algorithms, 2020, moving image, soundscape, 20:20 mins.

Jamie Berry, Whakapapa / Algorithms, 2020, moving image, soundscape, 20:20 mins.

Jamie Berry, Whakapapa / Algorithms, 2020, moving image, soundscape, 20:20 mins.

Jamie Berry, Whakapapa / Algorithms, 2020, moving image, soundscape, 20:20 mins.

Jamie Berry, Whakapapa / Algorithms, 2020, moving image, soundscape, 20:20 mins.

Jamie Berry, Whakapapa / Algorithms, 2020, moving image, soundscape, 20:20 mins.

Jamie Berry, Whakapapa / Algorithms (detail), 2021, series of 5 digital prints, 594 x 841 mm.

Jamie Berry, Whakapapa / Algorithms (detail), 2021, series of 5 digital prints, 594 x 841 mm.

Jamie Berry, Whakapapa / Algorithms (detail), 2021, series of 5 digital prints, 594 x 841 mm.

Jamie Berry, Whakapapa / Algorithms (detail), 2021, series of 5 digital prints, 594 x 841 mm.

Jamie Berry, Whakapapa / Algorithms, 2021, series of 5 digital prints, 594 x 841 mm.

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