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Championing our waterways

Artist Sam Ludden is presenting WAI: Manga Maha, Awa Kotahi – One River, Many Streams at Aratoi this month. PHOTOS/ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL

Erin Kavanagh-Hall

A renowned Wairarapa potter has teamed up with Wairarapa artists, some historians, a musician, a digital technology specialist, and an environmentalist turned poet to advocate for the rivers of Wairarapa – in the form of an immersive multimedia exhibition.

WAI: Manga Maha, Awa Kotahi – One River, Many Streams, to open at Aratoi this month, is the brainchild of Masterton ceramics artist Sam Ludden: a creative showcase to raise awareness of issues facing the region’s waterways and the creatures within.

WAI, a project five years in the making, will include several large-scale works with water as the central theme – among them a sound installation featuring “interviews” with the waterways, a map of a forgotten network of urban streams, a sculpture composed of materials found at a typical Masterton creek, and close to 100 of Ludden’s famous eels.

What started as a solo undertaking for Ludden has evolved into a collaborative effort, with a group of creatives and conservationists, from Wairarapa and beyond, coming on board to lend their various skills.

To bring the final product to fruition, Ludden has turned to crowdfunding – hoping to raise $6000 using the New Zealand Art foundation platform Boosted.

The money raised via the Boosted campaign, which closes on March 12, will be used as payment for Ludden’s co-creators “aboard the exhibition waka”.

“Collaborating with these [creative people] has allowed us to create something that has pushed my artistic boundaries and taken my work to another level,” Ludden said.

“So far, they have been working out of goodwill and passion.

“But the art they are creating for us, the community, is important – so it’s important they get paid for their mahi.”

Ludden said he hoped WAI would “continue the conversation” about the imminent dangers facing waterways, such as industrialised farming, dairy run-off, and urban refuse – and, eventually, inspire community action.

“We want to reconnect people with the waterways – stir up the memories of the rivers they used to swim and fish in during their childhoods.

“It is important the community gets involved with the conversation – the political dialogue about water quality has been intense, but we can’t expect the council or the government to have all the answers.

Ludden, known up and down the country for his expressive eel sculptures, said WAI has been in the works since 2014 – but he began work on the first installations in 2016, after having raised funds for the materials via Boosted.

The centrepiece of the exhibition will be a sculpture featuring more than 80 pottery eels – bursting from an underground stream and making their way through a section of water, before being blocked by a large wall.

The sculpture, 6m long and weighing 400kg, represents the challenging life cycle of an eel and the dangers it has to navigate – especially those posed by water quality issues, Ludden said.

Sam Ludden’s popular life-like eel sculptures.

“I’ve made the eels’ faces look more anguished and desperate.

“Eels were once so plentiful in Wairarapa, and now they’re battling to survive.

“It’s quite a confronting piece.”

Another major piece is a detailed vinyl map of the Makoura Stream – the largest of three urban creeks running through Masterton and feeding the Waipoua River.

The map, the handiwork of Masterton Fab Lab co-founder and digital specialist Kirsten Browne, includes a network of creeks which feed the Makoura catchment: most of which have been obscured by urban growth, and their names lost to history.

Ludden partnered with former lawyer and keen environmentalist Tony Garstang to research the history and trajectory of the “missing” creeks – now all listed by name on the map installation.

Garstang has also written historical profiles of each of the creeks making up the Makoura catchment.

“Our map paints a picture of the catchment before the urban development,” Ludden said.

Back then, people would have lived alongside the creeks – they would have been an important source of food and water.”

The Makoura Stream, Ludden said, also has the dubious honour of being one of the most polluted water bodies in the Wellington region, with refuse dating back to the 1980s being fished from its bed.

This will be captured in a natural installation by Featherston artist Siv B Fjærestad, made up of specimens she has collected from the Makoura catchment, which will be arranged and named in the style of a botanical taxonomic chart.

Making a strong statement about the effects of human civilisation on the natural specimens will also include “found objects” from the area, including litter.

Arguably the most powerful installation will be a “sculpture soundscape”: combining melodies from Masterton musician and former UCOL tutor Cody Field with spoken word poetry by Ra Smith, community leader and iwi representative for Masterton District Council.

In his writing, Smith conducts interviews with the river, receiving both anguished and hopeful responses.

“We’re going for a multi-sensory experience,” Ludden said.

“There will be parts of the soundscape that will be quite uncomfortable, representing the times where the river is intense and violent – but this will be countered by the quieter moments.”

The soundscape installations will play on a loop throughout the day, accompanied by footage from Wellington video artist Denise Batchelor.

Finally, Masterton archivist Gareth Winter has gathered a series of historical photos of Wairarapa waterways, accompanied by quotes, displaying how the character of water has changed over the years.

Winter has teamed up with Carterton painter Anna-Marie Kingsley to design a stormwater manhole cover, which will potentially be put to use in Masterton and will double as a logo for WAI.

Ludden has also enlisted the services of Masterton videographer AJ Hunter to set up the soundscape, staff at Te Patukituki o Wairarapa to install the eel sculpture, and fellow potter Lisa Donaldson to assist with an installation resembling the spiritual value of water.

He said the exhibition will stretch beyond the physical gallery – to include tours of the Masterton rivers led by Masterton District councillor and environmental advocate Chris Peterson.

“We’ll be moving beyond the basic art-on-the-shelf premise,” said Ludden, who will serve as an artist in residence during the exhibition.

WAI: Manga Maha, Awa Kotahi will open at Aratoi on March 29, and will run until May 26.

To donate to Sam Ludden’s campaign, go to www.boosted.org.nz/projects/wai. More information can also be found at https://www.facebook.com/samluddenceramics/


  1. Wahoo! So much hard work has gone into this exhibition its going to be amazing to see it open and the community engaging with all these elements. Can’t wait.

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