CAL ROBERTS
cal.roberts@age.co.nz

She’s not much of a painter. She’s no good at sketching either. She might not even tell you she’s an artist.

“I used to hear people say that and cringe.”

But what Kiri Riwai-Couch can do is take a powerful photo capturing the life of a person.

“I love people’s faces, the expressions they wear – they may not be aware they are wearing any kind of expression at all,” she said.

Riwai-Couch taught herself how to wield a camera when she was 16 years old.

Now she is comfortable with being an artist with her own style of photography.

Her stark black and white collection of portraits of Kuia – female elders – or as she liked to call them, nannies, went on display in 2014.

The exhibition, called Kuia, was her first.

She kept it local – the women photographed by Riwai-Couch all reside in Wairarapa and helped raise her.

“These are the women who have always been around us,” she said.

While she played with the idea of creating the collection, the women Riwai-Couch wanted to capture were getting older.

“I got to the stage where these women started passing away.”

She was moved to realise her vision when one nanny died, no longer able to take part.

“When she passed away it gave me a real big kick – like come on, you’ve missed her now – and I was upset with myself that I didn’t get to do her portrait.”

Riwai-Couch said people can look at these images and see the life the women had led – her connection to her subjects made sure of it.

An example she shared was her time photographing nanny Lou Cook.

When she reviewed her photos, she thought “that’s not her”.

The person staring back at Riwai-Couch was not the woman she knew.

“Obviously, it was her. But knowing her as well as I did, I could see straight away that I hadn’t captured the essence of her.”

Days later, Riwai-Couch eventually got the shot she needed.

“It was exactly what I thought she should look like – and what she thought too.

“That’s the importance of knowing them personally.”

Nanny Angie, a portrait by Kiri Riwai-Couch PHOTO/KIRI RIWAI-COUCH

Riwai-Couch’s mother, Paremo Matthews, also features as one of the women photographed.

She said her daughter was not afraid to tell her she was the most difficult kuia to work with.

“I wanted to pose this way, and she told me to sit that way.”

The family were not from Masterton – they moved from Auckland when Mrs Matthews’ husband found work.

“We’re here as guests of Ngati Kahungunu and Rangitane,” she said.

After her husband died in 1998, she asked her children if it was time to return home.

“They said this is home – it’s the only place they know.”

Mrs Matthews became deeply involved in the Maori community in Wairarapa.

With that territory, came friends and connections.

“Those people she photographed are part of the village that brought Kiri up,” she said.

Mrs Matthews was thrilled with her daughter’s art, calling it a tribute to the kuia of Wairarapa.

In the years since work on Kuia began, more than fourteen women in the collection had died.

“We have this treasure, these lovely pictures of them when they were happy, smiling and well,” Mrs Matthews said.

Kuia+ opened at Aratoi museum of Art and History on Saturday, containing twice as many portraits as Riwai-couch’s first exhibition.

Accompanying the exhibition is a published collection of her art, containing all 60 portraits on display.

Kuia+ is on display at Aratoi until Sunday May 6.