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Pupuri Pohewa: Collective Memory 

Ross Hemera


Pupuri Pohewa was used as the Māori name for the Contained Memory Conference held at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, in December 2010. Because this international conference was hosted in Aotearoa New Zealand, the title would provide a cultural perspective on memory based on the traditions of the indigenous people of this country. In the spirit of New Zealand’s aspiration to recognise its indigenous culture as an expression of its interface with the world, the use of Māori concepts was a key component of the conference. A translation of the term “pupuri pohewa” means to hold on to the ability to imagine, to create, and to dream through the medium of collective memory. This article introduces the notion that deep-rooted cultural concepts affect the way memory is understood and explained. Such concepts refer to past generations as a means of genealogical belonging and connectedness. The cultural imperative in such a view is echoed in the well-known Māori proverb, “taonga tuku iho” (gifts handed down). An expanded meaning of this proverb expresses the idea about holding onto the knowledge handed down to us by our ancestors and passing it on to the generations to come. Māori recognise the implication as being a matter of survival. Hence the essence of “taonga tuku iho” is a central part of the creative practice of many of today’s Māori artists. In this article I will talk about my own artistic practice as one that responds to taonga, the drawings left on rock surfaces by my ancestors, the Waitaha people. I will discuss how, as Ngāi Tahu, my artistic practice relates to these taonga and draws on an inherent cultural context, which provides a genealogical link to ancient drawings and (as such) a connection also to the knowledge surrounding them. Specifically, I will introduce the notion that through the recognition of this connectedness comes a certain responsibility. For the artist tied into this continuum, the obligations are to retain and treasure the ability to imagine, to create, and to dream.