It’s been a busy year for Turumeke Harrington (b. 1992 Otāutahi Christchurch, Kāi Tahu). The young artist is rapidly becoming a creative force and a distinct voice in contemporary art in Aotearoa. For most, just looking through her recent exhibition history is enough to induce fatigue, but Harrington is eager to show her gratitude for this current wave of opportunities. Still, she is remarkably forthcoming about those persistent doubts and insecurities that hover over both her person and her practice. Rather than contending against them, Harrington allows these undercurrents of self-doubt to permeate her work, leaning into this vulnerability with a flagrant authenticity to create work that is bold and disarming.
Loose Units refers not only to the way in which this exhibition has come together—made up of both new and existing works and fragments of larger works—but is also a playful dig at Harrington’s own expense and a nod to her way of working through multiple ideas and materials at once. Here, the artist brings together the many loose and varied units that make up her practice. The assembly of works in this exhibition reveals the breadth and intensity of her production and offers some insight into the often-overwhelming act of making. For Harrington, allowing herself to make mistakes is equally as important as getting it ‘right.’ In a series of handwritten notes bordering on the confessional—peppered with addendums and crossed out words—and full of her characteristic self-deprecation, Harrington writes,
I am the loose unit.
I take short-cuts I shouldn’t (ha ha).
I am impatient.
I don’t measure.
I am imprecise!
Despite an apparent ability to turn her hand to any medium, she goes on to reveal that, like many artists (particularly women) she is susceptible to imposter syndrome. It seems Harrington’s greatest fear (and she’s only half-joking) is that some member of a textile guild will confront her about her unorthodox technique or the quality of her stitching. Alongside her formal qualifications,the artist’s practice is equally grounded in intergenerational learning, with her mother, grandmother, and wider whānau passing on sewing, knitting, beading, and applique skills to the young and inquisitive Harrington.
For this exhibition, the artist was eager to introduce some of those more visibly handmade aspects of her practice—where accidents and imperfections are often laid bare—alongside those more streamlined and meticulously executed industrial works. Three existing sculptures act as anchors or pivotal units, each bringing with them the mana tūpuna of other exhibitions, and delineating both conception and physical movement through the space of the gallery.
For Hineateao, no U-turns (2022) consists of a yellow powder-coated T/I-shaped steel frame draped with a U form of woven polypropylene whetū or stars, each stitched with the artist’s name and held together with customised aluminium spiral links referencing the rauru form, derived from the traditional Māori carving pattern encompassing ideas of unity and entwinement. This large sculpture is at once intimately biographical and more broadly historical,weaving together Harrington’s personal whakapapa with that of those artists who have paved the way for her own practice. This work was first shown in wānangawith Ralph Hotere’s Black Paintings (1968-69) and Michael Parekowhai’s “Everyone will live quietly”, Micah 4.4 (1990) for Several Degrees of Attention: Thinking with the Collection at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, situating Harrington alongside these heavyweights as part of a new generation of important Māori artists. The giant ‘T’’U’’I’ (a nickname of the artist) not only responds to Parekowhai’s own text-based work, but in doing so irrefutably carries with it the complex and weighty legacy of Colin McCahon—and those three emblematic letters ‘I AM’—in a humorous but acute provocation regarding the prioritisation of male Pākeha artists within the canon of our national art history.
For her recent solo exhibition, He pito mata, I'm energetic! at The Dowse Art Museum, Harrington created an installation akin to a kind of make-shift industrial forest, informed as always, amongst a myriad of other things, by her ongoing engagement with concepts of Te Ao Māori. A series of steel waharoa or gateways swathed in bright green silk recalled the Māori creation myth, where life burgeoned from the dark void of Te Kore, and later, the separation of Rakinui and Papatūānuku that ultimately created light and space for human life to unfold. Here, we see a single waharoa, a gateway perhaps to the transformative journey and nature of the creative process, where ideas emerge out of darkness to become illuminated, in Harrington’s case, most often in vivid colour. On the floor, a series of soft rugs cushion the feet of visitors, echoing the rust-coloured leaves of the forest floor.
Pahū! saw a series of large-scale works and installations made by several artists for Te Ara Ātea, the new public library in Rolleston, Canterbury. Harrington’s work Hei Aho responded specifically to the site and was informed by Ngāi te Ruahikihiki cultural narratives and taonga species such as pātiki (flounder) and tī kōuka. Much like the cabbage tree was used by her own tīpuna for wayfinding across the Canterbury Plains, Harrington’s work offered a glowing beacon in the first-floor window of the library. Here, reconfigured in a pragmatic gesture to the economics of art making—where newness is often valued above all else—the work continues to act as a form of wayfinding in the context of an entirely new geography.
The steadfast nature of these existing pieces allows for a slightly more raucous gathering of supporting subjects, objects, and materials. Animals, plants, and insects scurry around the edges in a series of brightly coloured paintings on canvas, reflecting Harrington’s preoccupation with indigenous and introduced species. The artist has created something of her own set of symbology that is at once playful and acerbic, encompassing narratives of colonisation and cultural appropriation, sexuality, social and economic privilege, and gatekeeping. It is through a wilful and genuine loosening that the different arms of Harrington’s practice—and those new emerging appendages—are allowed to coalesce.