Martin Toft: Te Ahi Kā – The Fires of Occupation

An exploration of the physical and metaphysical relationship between a photographer, a river and a Maori community.

New Zealand’s Whanganui River is the lifeblood of the Māori. The tribes of Whanganui take their name, their spirit and their strength from this great river, which flows from the mountains of central North Island through to the Tasman Sea.

In Te Ahi Kā – The Fires of Occupation photographer Martin Toft explores the deep physical and metaphysical relationships between the river and the Māori. In 1996 Toft spent six months in the middle and upper reaches of the Whanganui River in an area known as the King Country. Here he met Māori who were in the process of reversing the colonisation of their people and returning to their ancestral land, Mangapapapa, which is on the steep banks of the river inside Whanganui National Park. At the end of his journey Toft was given the Māori name Pouma Pokai-Whenua.

Returning twenty years later to rekindle the spiritual kinship he had experienced, Toft began to work on this book. Its narrative is situated within the context of the current Whanganui River Deed of Settlement, Ruruku Whakatupua and the projects led by local Māori to settle historical grievances with the government dating back to the 1870s. At the heart of it is the Whanganui tribes’ claim to the river, which is seen by them as both as an ancestor and as a source of both material and spiritual sustenance.

Born in Denmark, Martin Toft is a photographer and educator who works on commissions and long-term independent and collaborative projects. He combines elements of documentary and fine art to explore social, anthropological and cultural themes, often immersing himself in communities for long periods of time. His work is underpinned by archival, historical and conceptual discourse and incorporates photography, video, sound and text.

View more of his work on his website.
Once an animal is killed the heart is cut out and given back to the forest with a blessing. (2018) © Martin Toft
The creation of the Whanganui River painted as mural on the school in Jerusalem (in Māori, Hiruhārama), a small settlement in the middle reaches of the Whanganui River. (2018) © Martin Toft
Kapi Topine hunting for deer at night in the steep hills and forests surrounding the Whanganui River. (2018) © Martin Toft
Spirit of a person or a thing that exists beyond death. (2018) © Martin Toft
A Chieftainess from Jerusalem (in Māori, Hiruhārama) who was prominently involved in advancing the livelihood, Māori cultural activities and politics of her people throughout the river’s reaches. Photograph by Frank J. Denton (1900). Ref: 1/1-021019-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand
Rangimarie Anastacia Katene Waetford daughter of Te Utamate Tauri, also known as Mrs Waetford in Jerusalem (in Māori, Hiruhārama) (2018) © Martin Toft
Descendants of female members of the family of Te Utamate Tauri, also known as Mrs Waetford.(2018) © Martin Toft
In Māori cosmology trees are ancestors. (2018) © Martin Toft
Portrait made on the river banks of Mangapapapa kāinga. Travelling the Whanganui River Māori women uses the fern as a way of purification, protection and prayer. (2018) © Martin Toft
Aunty Ma Welcoming visitors to Tieke Marae, Whanganui River1996. Fern is used by Māori women as a means of purification, protection and prayer. (1996) © Martin Toft
Koro Hokio greeting an ancestor. (1996) © Martin Toft
Alfred Henry Burton, The Maori at Home (1885). Ref: MA_I.306402. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington.
The Haitana family photographed outside their home in Raetihi arranged in a similar photographic pose as Alfred Burton’s image ‘Taumarunui – King Country’. (2018) © Martin Toft
Catholic missionaries in the mid-19th century converted many Māori settlements along the Whanganui River and Jerusalem (in Māori, Hiruhārama) is still home to the religious order, The Sisters of Compassion and their historical convent and church. (2018) © Martin Toft
The Whanganui River is surrounded by steep gorges covered in native bush and trees. (2018) © Martin Toft
A carved wooden post on the marae ground of Parakino settlement in the Whanganui River representing ancestor marking places of significance and acknowledge the association between the people and the land. (2018) © Martin Toft
Photograph by Alfred Henry Burton, The Maori at Home (1885). Ref: MA_I.043451. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington
Photograph by Alfred Henry Burton, The Maori at Home (1885). Ref: MA_I062710. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington
Celebrating Christmas at the home of Te Tawhero Haitana and whanau in Raetihi. (2018) © Martin Toft
Burial ground in Jerusalem (in Māori, Hiruhārama) overlooking the Whanganui River. (2018) © Martin Toft
The Whanganui River has 239 named rapids that are entwined with Māori myth, legend and incantation. (2018) © Martin Toft
Photographs by James Ingram McDonald, Dominion Whanganui River Expedition. MA_I.025081. (1921). Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington
A hāngi is a traditional Māori method of cooking food using heated rocks buried in a pit oven. It is still used for large groups on special occasions such as this tangihanga at Ngāpuwaiwaha Marare in Taumarunui.
Hunting for deer at night in the steep hills and forests surrounding the Whanganui River. (2018) © Martin Toft

Martin Toft’s new book Te Ahi Kā – The Fires of Occupation has now been released under the imprint of Dewi Lewis Publishing. It consists of 89 colour and b&w photographs spanning from 1885 to 2017, including rare images held in 19th and 20th century collections in New Zealand, photographs from both my trips in 1996 and in 2016 and vernacular images from Māori family albums.

Seven hidden chapters of text appear inside fold-out of double page spreads, that include important conversations with tribal elders in relation to Māori cosmology and provide context about the return to their ancestral homeland.

The book was launched in Europe at Paris Photo in November and on 5 Dec a special ceremony was performed by Māori elders from my tribal affiliation upon the arrival of books in Auckland (read more about that here).

Copies can be purchased through the Dewi Lewis website. For New Zealand, Australia and South Pacific visit Oratia Books.

Te Ahi Kā – The Fires of Occupation is edited by Rafal Milach and designed by leading book designer Ania Nałęcka-Milach and ublished with financial support from Creative New Zealand, Lottery Environment and Heritage Fund and Te Mana o Te Awa grant administered by Ngā Tāngata Tiaki o Whanganui.