1Sue Soo was born in Pong Woo village, Poon Yue, China, in 1926. With her mother and brother, she arrived in New Zealand as a war refugee in 1940. Soo started painting after the death of her husband, Kevin Soo, in 1981. Her work, characterised by her use of bright colours, flat forms, dancing figures and canvases made from found objects, has been displayed at One Eye Gallery, Sarjeant Gallery, ROAR! Gallery, City Gallery Wellington and Mahara Gallery. Soo died in Wellington in 2016.
2Robyn Kahukiwa and Patricia Grace, Wahine Toa: Women of Maori Myth (Auckland: Williams Collins Publishers, 1984), 34.
3“Lonnie Hutchinson – Ngā Ringa Toi o Tahu.” Ngāi Tahu, published August 2, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTzArq
4Kate Zambreno, “Accumulations (Appendix F),” The White Review, January 2018, http://www.thewhitereview.org/feature/
5Tusiata Avia, “House,” in Spirit House (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2016), 11.
6Ngārara is the name for reptiles in te reo Māori. Ngārara Huarau was a giant reptile that was burned to death. In the process his scales escaped and turned into lizards.
7Avia, “House,” 11.
8Hone Tuwhare, “Rain,” in Come Rain Hail (Dunedin: Bibliography Room Press at the University of Otago, 1970), 8.
Here is the place
where I will keep you
Kept by A. Itchner
Paianae, Dist. Opoa
Birthdays of my children:
A. Edward 30 April 1897
Eugìne 26 June 1899
Henry 31 January 1901
Elisabeth Antoinette 9 July 1904
Clara Emilie 27th Aug. 1906
Theodore Robert 7th July 1908
Conrad Emile 13th July 1910
Valentin Edwin 7 Aug 1912
Charles Frederic 22 June 1917
I am looking at a painting by Sue Soo hanging above my desk.1 I’m not sure when it was painted though I might be able to find out if I could be bothered trying. I bought it at a silent auction last year where I was supposed to be working but instead spent the evening jealously guarding the bidding list. Nobody else made an offer.
On a flat green background children form a ring. At the top of the circle stands a woman. They all share the same fluorescent-pink skin, brown hair and precise features: three lines—two eyes, a mouth—and two dots—a nose. They have no hands, just arms, shared arms: this is a circle from which they cannot break. I’m looking for Antoinette, my grandmother.
She collected dolls. I used to sleep with her and them when I would go to stay, delighted by the ritual of dressing them in pyjamas before bed. Later I would lie awake waiting for their whispers. When she died I inherited two; they live together in a box now. The Ashton Drake Galleries: Bringing You Dolls of Irresistible Value. I’m looking at the website but the dolls listed—Winter Romance Bride Doll; Sweet Baby Boy Baby Doll; May God Bless You, Little Grace Doll; Little Kitten Lost Her Mitten Baby Doll—don’t look like mine. Mine are cherubic, stuck forever in the space between woman and child. Teenager doesn’t seem the right word. Young ladies, maybe, or little madams. Tiny heads surrounded by piles of shiny curls. Their eyes are as huge as their noses small and their lips pouty. Pillowy budding breasts, cold small hands. My favourite is missing one leather bootie. The other’s hair needs a brush. Somehow, I am always surprised that they have maintained their apparent innocence even outside of Grandma’s house. Petticoats and woollen socks remain.
I know now. My grandmother is the short-haired girl with her back turned to me. She looks to the woman, her mother Clara Emilie, who looks back at once at her and at me without expression.
Friday 26th March 1929
True March weather: changing continually from nice sunny, to cloudy, with an occasional short shower. Boys finished cutting and hanging nuts on paepaes by 3.30.
I am supposed to be writing about mentorship. I am supposed to be writing about mentorship and when I said that I also said I would form the text out of other people’s voices, drawn from interview. I have decided instead to write with and through voices I have never heard but which have nonetheless shaped my own. I am writing this because I have realised the best place to store these sacred silences is in my work. I am writing this to give thanks to the company I have found in quiet places.
A photograph I found when it fell out of my great-great-grandfather’s journal. I think my mother must have placed it there. Three women on a gangway walk towards the camera. Behind them, a number of men in suits.
The woman on the left is the only one who smiles. Black curls form a cloud around her head, two pearl earrings glinting out from it. More pearls, bigger ones, sit above the V-neck of her dress; short sleeved, cinched by a belt at the waist. One arm blurs in stride, the other carries a boxy snakeskin handbag and a coat.
Next to her, wearing a white dress of a similar style; the shortest of the three. Her arms remind me of my mother’s: smooth, long, distinctly veiny on the hand.
Finally, the third. She stands at a distance from the others, squinting towards something behind us. A trench coat buttons up to her chest, a white collar peeking through at the neck. Older than her company, her hair is grey; mouth twisted into what looks like a grimace. One hand, curled into a fist, moves, perhaps to wave or perhaps a sign of exasperation.
My ghosts in the sunlight. I’m trying to decipher who is who. They all have the same eyes: black, big, slightly downturned, set wide on the face. What can these years of looking at, then wringing language out of, images offer when I focus my gaze on these women with faces so like my own?
Saturday 30th August 1930
Still dark, rain on the mountains, nearly first quarter of the moon.
I thought of those dark eyes again when I visited Te Papa last week to see Lonnie Hutchinson’s Te ora me te mate (Life and death) (2017). The first in-person encounter I had with Hutchinson’s work was at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, where Honoa ki te Hono Tawhiti (To be Connected to an Ancient Past) (2011) weaves upwards through the structure from ground to canopy. The laser-cut kowhaiwhai patterns are a statement of presence I have often found comfort in, permanently recessed into the gallery’s American oak walls. Ka mua, ka muri: walking backwards into the future. Between the wall and the work there is cast the shadow of the present.
In Te ora me te mate three lace veils made of black builder’s paper drape from ceiling to floor. The presence is the absence: patterns made from incisions into the paper. Together the three curtains tell the story of Hine-tītama, daughter of Hine-ahu-one and Tāne, wife of Tāne and the Dawn who bound day to night. Hine-tītama left the world of light when she found out that Tāne, her husband and the father of her children, was her own father. “I will go on to the dark world,” she told him, “where I will welcome our children when their earthly life is ended. I will go in order to prepare an afterlife for them, where once again I can be a loving mother. I will be known from now on as Hine-nui-te-pō.”2
Monday 23rd November 1931
This morning still cloudy and showery—we are in for a rainy spell.
I call my mother and ask who the women in the photograph are. She knows it well; a copy sits on the bookshelf in her lounge. I love to talk to her on the phone; she, like me, is not easily hurried along. The smiling woman on the left is Elisabeth Antoinette, my mother’s maternal great-aunt, Albert Itchner’s fourth child. Next along, with the arms like my mother’s, is Elisabeth’s younger sister, my mother’s grandmother, Clara Emilie. The final woman, standing slightly apart, is my mother’s paternal grandmother, Pahemata Takutai. I was wrong. They do not all have the same eyes, though I suppose they might all have my eyes. Another mistake: they are not getting off a boat, as I imagined, but are at the horse races in Ōtaki.
There is a pencil portrait of Hine-nui-te-pō by Robyn Kahukiwa that reminds me of a photograph of my maternal great-great-grandmother, Tetuanui Tehotu; the only version of her likeness I have seen. In Kahukiwa’s drawing, The Great Lady of the Night (1980), Hine-nui-te-pō is shrouded in darkness. Her profile is only just visible, light hits the curve of her cheekbones and the two feathers that sit atop her head. Her gaze cannot be met. The absence here is the light. Shadows hold the presence.
In the photograph, which also finds a home on my mother’s bookshelf in Ōtaki, Tetuanui holds a similar pose. She sits at an angle to the camera, cradling a frowning baby Elisabeth Antoinette in her arms. Both are dressed in layers of white lace.
Thursday 11th August 1932
Still feverish—could eat nothing but a little oat porridge at night.
I’m watching a video of Hutchinson making her work.3 I watch her fold the paper and smooth it with her hand; long, painted nails, fingers marked by tatau. She traces the pattern with a pencil before carving it out with a craft knife. They are deliberate gestures, driven by process, that remind me of my grandmother again. “The folding over of the page, a going over [of] images in the past, a rewriting and rethinking.”4 Each morning we would rise. Make the bed. Sheets, duvet, tifaifai, crochet throw. Dress the dolls, their outfits always the same.
I want to think about images of memory that we borrow from; to approach an understanding of the present, which did not occur without a past. A weaving in and out of time in these emblems of inheritance. Because what are we if not that which we have been asked to remember? Hutchinson’s Te ora me te mate reminds me of the opening lines of Tusiata Avia’s House: “Ask the god to open the house of your chest/ wide enough that your enemy may enter.”5 I take notes. The night sky. Ngārara Huarau’s scales.6 A sunrise. A vagina. Cells. Seaweed. Lace. Two women. Hair. Children. Chains. Leaves. Breasts. Which parts of my body open in welcome to these narratives, and which remain closed.
Stanzas like lace curtains in the wind. A space in which your eye can’t hold the subject. In both Hutchinson’s sculptures and Avia’s text, a repository of histories. “here is the place where I will keep you / here is the place where I will keep you.”7 Black lace veils like the shadows of tifaifai. Like the frills that trim my dolls’ dresses. Like Tetuanui’s and Elisabeth’s Sunday best. All these memories, “small holes in the silence,” made of so much absence.8