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Ka mua, ka muri: Shannon Te Ao & Matariki Williams

Taapapa ana taku ara o te ora, waewae ana te mauri tini tangata. The pathway of my life is laid out, and traversed by the essential energy of many, many people.

Shannon Te Ao

I am tied to the centre of the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. Our great lake Taupō-nui-a-Tia and the mountain ranges of Tongariro plot my tribal location. These days, driving north from Wellington for several hours eventually leads me to the Rangpio Desert. Set between the Kaimanawa Ranges on the east and the mountain ranges of Ruapehu, Ngāuruhoe and Tongariro on the west, this region marks the southern border of Ngāti Tūwharetoa lands. An approximately sixty kilometre stretch of highway cuts through an inland volcanic plateau, peppered with hundreds of electrical pylons that follow the road and inform a stark and barren vastness. Most notably, this area is managed by the New Zealand Army, and is used as a training facility. At times, I’ve seen plumes of smoke in the distance—presumably fallout from a detonated charge. Something is compounded here. The reality of this landscape and how it signals a returning.

Just above the northern arc of the lake I exit the highway. On the way to a different kind of returning. Usually at the beginning or the end of a long weekend visit, I’ll stop by to pay respects to my Father who is laid to rest near the small village of Mōkai. The setting is completely rural, apart from the masses of infrastructure that support a geothermal power station that the region is also noted for. The urupā is now encircled by privately farmed lands, some owned and operated by local hapū—some not.

All of this gives rise to a heightened sense of how I feel both connected and disconnected. Somehow the ambivalence I carry within me is mirrored in what I see outside.


Taapapa ana taku ara o te ora, waewae ana te mauri tini tangata. The pathway of my life is laid out, and traversed by the essential energy of many, many people.


Matariki Williams

Shannon, your surname is made up of the ‘A’ and ‘O’ categories, the junior and senior relational classifications of Māori linguistics. When combined, they encompass the whole Māori world. Night, day, death, life.

Your name reminds me of Te Whiti o Rongomai’s whakatauākī, “Ko te pō te kaihari i te rā. Ko te mate te kaihari i te oranga.”

Night is the bringer of the day. Death is the bringer of life.

Te Whiti was a leader of the Parihaka settlement where the people practiced passive resistance in the face of insatiable colonial hunger for land. These forces eventually razed Parihaka to the ground, imprisoned the men and sent them southward, and assaulted the remaining women and children.

This is but one of the many roads our people have been forced to travel.


My siblings and I are children of an army man, and when we were living in the small military town of Waiouru, our returns home to iwi lands in Rūātoki would traverse the windy paths of the Desert Road through the North Island’s Central Plateau.

When I was very young, my older siblings told me of a spider that lived in the gully of a bend on the Desert Road. A giant spider.

“Can you see it?”

“Where?! Where?!”

“Oh. You missed it.”

For years I strained to see the gully-dwelling giant, leaning so hard against the window I thought our van would tip. I never did see it. I still look for the spider, though I know I’ll never find it.


Shannon, your work always has me thinking of death. Perhaps it reveals a default to the darkness I never knew I had. Maybe it is the lamentation of women, bodily excising their pain, which calls me to the dark.

These women, you know the ones, are veiled in black and pare kawakawa. They are the whānau pani draped around the tūpāpaku of their loved one. Beckoning people onto the marae, not with a karanga, but with their wails of mourning.


Karere ana mai te reo powhiri ki ngā manu e korihi mai nei i te ao awatea. The voice of welcome bellows to the birds singing as dawn breaks.


Shannon, for me too, these roads have gathered many stories.

“Remember that time we saw a pig freshly-killed in the middle of the road and Koro such-and-such told us to pull over so we could take the pig?”

This, too, is the road we take, when they call us home, before body and wairua separate.

The rest of us beleaguered by three days of tangihanga on our feet: cooking, cleaning and harirū with the pressing of noses. They are the three days heading toward a final send off and a feast fit for royalty.

Night falls and the wails turn to waiata, seeing us into a new dawn.

Shannon, these waiata echo with us in the days after whānau, from far-flung cities and worlds, leave again after their fleeting returns. The hard part is the differences that widen between them and the home fires with every passing year. It is the car ride home, when you’re alone with company, their presence a comfort but not comfort enough to let your pain flee your mouth like your wailing Nannies do.

The hardest of all is the knowing and the unknowing. The realisation that the time has come for you to be the Aunty wailing, and the Koro directing the van. We take these roads and arrive as the passers of knowledge, future generations waiting to learn from us.

We are the echo of the past, the father and the mother.


Tai timu! Tai pari! Rere noa e iii! The tide ebbs! The tide flows! It flows on endlessly!




Hapū – sub-tribal kinship group

Harirū – to shake hands in greeting, transliteration of “how do you do?”

Iwi – tribal kinship group

Karanga – a ceremonial call performed by women

Koro – elder of your grandparent’s generation

Pare kawakawa – a wreath made of the kawakawa plant this is worn by people in mourning

Marae – complex of buildings surrounding ancestral buildings

Tangihanga – the three-day funeral ceremony that Māori observe

Tūpāpaku – deceased person’s body

Urupā – cemetery

Waiata – song

Wairua – spirit of a person that exists beyond death

Whakatauākī – a significant proverb where the speaker is known

Whānau pani – close family of the deceased


Lines in italics are drawn from the songs featured in Shannon Te Ao’s moving image work Ka mua, ka muri (2020): Karere ana nā Kurt Komene, translated by Maiki Sherman, and Taapapa ana nā Kurt Komene, translated by Krissi Jerram.



Matariki Williams (Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Hauiti, Taranaki, Ngāti Whakaue) is Acting Senior Curator Mātauranga Māori at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and the co-editor of ATE Journal of Māori Art. She is also co-author of the award-winning publication Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance. Her writing has been featured in multiple publications including frieze, e-Tangata, Pantograph Punch, The Spinoff, PhotoForum, and ArtZone. She is a Trustee of the online critical arts writing site Contemporary HUM.

Shannon Te Ao (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) was born in Sydney in 1978. He holds a BFA from University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts and an MFA from the College of Creative Arts at Massey University Wellington. Te Ao’s moving image work, Ka mua, ka muri (2020) was co-commissioned by Remai Modern and Oakville Galleries, with support from Creative New Zealand. Other recent solo exhibitions include: my life as a tunnel, The Dowse Art Museum, Wellington (2018); With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods, The Edinburgh Art Festival, Scotland, and Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Auckland (2017); Tenei ao kawa nei, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu (2017). In 2016, Te Ao was awarded the Walters Prize.