Originally commissioned for our 2017 edition, Shannon Te Ao's With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods, counterposes a dance scene of intense intimacy and colour, with a sequence filmed in black and white of barren open landscapes, to offer a poetic meditation on love, loss and grief.
The title of the work quotes from a tribal lament composed by Te Rohu (daughter of Tūwharetoa chief, Mananui Te Heu Heu), after contracting leprosy from a potential suitor and a fatal landslide which destroyed her village killing her father along with over fifty others.
In one screen, we witness two women embracing; a slow, close-held dance, takes place within a small clearing surrounded by the dense foliage of hemp (a crop newly introduced to New Zealand, and grown for its healing properties). Danced to Dinah Washington’s This Bitter Earth, Te Ao references a scene from Charles Burnett’s 1978 film, The Killer of Sheep, where Stan, a slaughterhouse worker, has a rare moment of intimacy with his wife.
A second sequence, filmed entirely in black and white, tracks along a barren stretch of highway, commonly known as the ‘Desert Road’, through volcanic landcapes now used as a training ground for the New Zealand defence force, to arrive in farmlands which encircle the urupa (familial burial grounds) of Te Ao’s family.
Like landscape itself, With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods, springs from complex and multi-layered roots. Viewed now, in the immediate present experience of Coronavirus, Te Ao’s slow crescendo, counterbalancing physical intimacy with environmental alienation, acquires a renewed sense of urgency.
The lyrics in With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods reference old narratives of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, an Iwi (tribal group) of the central North Island of Aotearoa. All of the imagery within the lyrics and the film trace real events; simultaneously environmental, communal, political and personal in scale. Within this realm sickness is lived in our body but also tethered to our colonial marginalisation. A reminder of our mortality and resilience. Afflictions are still cast upon us. This has become a permanent register within the conflated experience of our lives, like grief for a lost loved one which never completely dissipates.
Māori acknowledge that we exist upon a continuum; fluid, retrospective, genealogical, environmental and spiritual all at once. More and more, a need for this type of understanding is easily visible. With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods, is not devoid of all hope. There is a kind of pragmatic suggestion, steered through a lament. Pause - remember who and where you are and the reality that the scope of our lives extends beyond the immediately visible. Shannon Te Ao
Image: Shannon Te Ao, With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods (film still), 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Mossman Gallery, Wellington.
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