Fiona Clark: Te Iwi o Te Wāhi Kore
For over 40 years, Fiona Clark’s style of documentary photography has continued to capture the essence of the communities she has been a part of, so they can be better understood. Her photographs from the 1980–81 series Te Iwi o Te Wāhi Kore and more recent images taken in the 2000s—reflect the activities, concerns and taonga of tangata whenua of Taranaki.
In 1975 Clark, a recent graduate in photography from the Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland, returned home to Taranaki, settling in Tikorangi in an old dairy factory. One evening picnicking at the mouth of the Waitara river, she overheard locals talking about the disposal of sewage there and decided to join them at a town meeting about the issue. At this meeting she met Aila Taylor (Te Atiawa) and Ngawhakaheke Tuti Love Wetere (Te Atiawa, Ngāti Maniapoto) and began friendships that would continue their entire lives. Through Taylor and Wetere, Clark learnt about the history and values of the iwi and was introduced to their kaumātua.
The phrase ‘Te Iwi o Te Wāhi Kore’ translates to ‘the people with nothing’ and acknowledges the historical confiscation of the vast majority of iwi land along the coastline of Mount Taranaki. The series positions kai moana as one of the community’s last remaining culturally significant environmental assets: not only a food source, but a taonga that brings pride and prestige, crucial for undertaking manaakitanga.
These photographs also became an important political tool. In the early 1980s the entire Te Iwi o Te Wāhi Kore series of 104 photographs was presented numerous times, most significantly for the Motunui – Waitara Treaty of Waitangi Claim (Wai-6) to assert iwi as kaitiaki of their ancestral land. Using contemporary photographs as evidence was an innovative approach, as claims could not relate to historical occurrences at that time. The photographs showed how the exploitation of the local foreshore and seabed was unlawful under the Treaty of Waitangi, because it stopped iwi carrying out their responsibility and right to care for and use their taonga.
In 1983, then Dowse director James Mack (Galvan Kepler Macnamara) recognised the significance of Te Iwi o Te Wāhi Kore and purchased 55 of the original handprinted photographs, used in the Wai-6 claim, for The Dowse collection. The funds from this purchase enabled Fiona Clark to print more pho-tographs to be used in further presentations, including to the New Plymouth District Council and The National Development Act Think Big Projects. Money also went towards legal costs to challenge, through the High Court, the building of a marine outfall for the synthetic fuel plant at Motunui. As well as this, Clark was able to print images for the people in these photographs and their whanau. Albums were created and used to rally more support from various hapū and marae around Taranaki and throughout Aotearoa.
This purchase was part of a long relationship Mack had with the iwi of Taranaki, which included the 1972 exhibition he curated at the Waikato Museum and Art Gallery called Taranaki Saw it All: The Story of Te Whiti o Rongomai of Parihaka. This was the first exhibition that explored conflicts in Taranaki between the Crown and tangata whenua. In bringing these photographs into the collection, Mack not only supported an environmental and cultural cause, he also acknowledged the profound relationship Clark formed with iwi in North Taranaki and their connections with Taranaki Whānui ki Te Upoko o Te Ika in the Hutt Valley and Wellington region.
While the photographs from the original Te Iwi o Te Wāhi Kore series assisted in gaining interim measures to alleviate the pollution of the local foreshore and seabed, little has been done to deal with the issues properly. In the twenty-first century, these photographs, along with Clark’s newer work, become a new kind of evidence—showing a way of life that has almost disappeared and could be entirely lost. Clark has continued to work for this cause through her photographs and lobbying, forming relationships with the children and grandchildren of the people she collaborated with in the 1980s. As a result of these bonds, she continues to work as a part of the local community, highlighting environmental issues to help save this unique coastline.
The Dowse Art Museum | 15 Jul – 05 Nov 2017