The sunlight of a high afternoon was streaming through our windows, filling the whare with a soft golden glow. Maia and Kauri set up our kitchen bench for their wānanga, watched over by the paintings of tīpuna hanging on our wall. I sit down the hall, tucked into my bed, floor decorated with three or so positive Covid tests, door propped open, in the hopes I would still be able to listen in on the kōrero.
A chime echoes down the hall, and I can hear Kauri and Maia greeting Ariki as she pops into the voice call. Taupuruariki Brightwell (she/her), greets them back. This was the first time I had heard her voice, its tone and tenor send goosebumps through my body. Ariki sounded just like one of my tuakana. And I suppose, via Whānau Takatāpui, she is.
The back door lies open sending a cool breeze down the hall, accompanied by the quiet hum of the ngahere behind our whare..
I watch the shadow silhouette of a kawakawa tree dance over my wall as Maia and Kauri open their space with a karakia. Its chant seems to move with the rākau.
Shared whakapapa follows the karakia, the foundations of their kōrero.
“Well as you know my name is Taupuruariki,” She starts, voice mellow and deep as it trailed down the hallway, towards me.
“I come from Turanga, a.k.a Gisbourne. That’s where I grew up. My iwi is Rongowhakaata me Ngāti Maru. We’re the ones that met Cook when he showed up. That’s my upbringing, in Rongowhakaata. Our marae is in Te Papa, and has been for over 150 years.”
I hear Kauri and Maia sigh, a small amount of mamae and anger in each.
‘“Ngāti Toa, or more specifically, Ngāti Huia sums up my Dads side. His fathers father, my great grandad, spans to the Ngā Puhi and Te Arawa link. And my fathers other side is East Coast hard out. My grandmother was born in Tokomaru, grew up there, went abouts for a bit but all her whakapapa is up east. Then I got my Tahiti, Cook Island links from my mum, more specifically tahiti. I also grew up there, with my grandmother who is Old School Tahitian. My Grandfathers whakapapa is Rarotonga and thats where his whānau come from. That’s me in a nutshell. Like you said Maia there’s a lot of other links but I think for all Maori, if we know every single hapu and iwi we belong to we’ll find a relation all over the motu. Ngāti Toa also spans all the way down to Nelson with Te Atiawa, linking up all the tribes down there all the way to Waikato. And from Waikato, you link to the North! It’s funny to think about āe.”
I can hear a chuckle in their tone, imagining her leaning back, arms crossed, fully relaxed.
“With so many connections across the Pacific, how do they interweave to build your identity?” Kauri asks. I can see their shadow, haloed golden, tilted on the hallway wall.
“Yeah! well the story goes,” Ariki begins, “the story goes that out in Tahiti, people left on bad terms to come here. Got fed up with all the rules and drama. I dunno, someone phrased it pretty well, that.. ‘we Māori’s are the goths of the Pacific’.” I join Kauri and Maia, cheering with tautoko. I could feel the resonance of that phrase cementing itself into every crevice of our whare.
“Compare our culture to our brothers and sisters everywhere! Even though they are very similar to us, they adopted all the smiley, happy stuff. Half of that is the touristy stuff but you know, we kinda stayed like this.” The small silence indicated a gesture. From my room, that gesture felt like a pūkana.
“We’re the Black Kākahu, the mōteatea karanga, quite eerie you know. Compare that to, if you go to Samoa or others, they got other stuff but the tone of things like our music, very eerie, our taonga puoro. So when someone said that to me, that we’re goths, I thought, ‘yeah there’s actually a lot of truth to that’. It’s interesting, when I think about it and put it all together I think yeah, of course we’re the goths.” She finishes with a laugh, voice blending beautifully with the whisper of rākau travelling with the back door breeze.
“Do you reckon its cause of our relationship with death and Te Pō being so different?” I hear Kauri ask, the shuffle of a stool over the kitchen floor following closely after.
“Absolutely,” Ariki responds, “Well it’s colder and darker here as well. We’re the only motu that’s like that really. If you go further up North, you got all the big motus, such as Fiji, Malaysia. It’s all warm up there. Then you got Samoa, Cook Islands in one direction, Tahiti, Hawai’i in another, and it’s all warm! But here, it’s cold! We’re the coldest Pacifica peoples, we’re the last thing before nothing. The other thing is the comparison between my Mother and Father. My Father is always like ‘Oh you know, I’ll tell you the story of your ancestors daughter when they took that sniper out-’.” Her voice dropped, shifting into the classic accent one finds in Māori koro’s all over the motu.
“And you’re like ‘far out, okay, that’s intense.’” She continues, voices reverting back to it’s usual tenor, “Whereas my mum is like ‘Yeah it’s all good you know, love your grandfather and I could have anything I wanted from the snacks or drinks.’ My grandfather would watch us jumping into the ocean with a cig in his mouth, telling us to come inside for dinner. There were flowers everywhere over there in Tahiti. Then there’s my Māori Grandmother mowing the lawns, scrubbing the walls going ‘Yeah, bloods thicker than water girl’. It’s funny comparing those two sides. We just staunch and rugged over here in Aotearoa.”
Shared laughter travels down to my bedroom, warm and buttery, ironic given the kōrero.
“How did you find your Tūrangawaewae within Takatāpuitanga, and how did that vary between different cultures?” Kauri asks, voice still warm. Their shadow leans forward, eager to listen.
“Yeah,” Ariki starts. A brief pause follows, heavy with thought.
“There’s no straightforward answer to that, but I think… moving outta home was a start. My parents made that happen. They just said ‘You’re gonna study in Wellington like your brother did. Go to the student hostel’ and that sorta thing. But I think, the journey to step away from the tribe. Unbeknownst to me, typical Māori ae, your koro, or your parents will tell you some info, 20 years later, ‘Oh by the way, this mate said that marae up the road is yours.’ Like seriously? I’ve been walking past that every day since I got here and you’re only telling me this now?” A classic storyteller, their voice shifting and changing as they take on different characters from their whānau.
“I knew there was some whakapapa in Porirua because my grandmother would visit there. But I didn’t know how much whakapapa I had in Te Whanganui-ā-Tara, especially Te Upoko-o-te-Ika and Kāpiti… But yeah. So basically, leaving the home, leaving the nest was a good start. Cause back in Gisbourne there was nothing. There’s always takatāpui, but back in my town especially in the 90’s when I grew up, most towns I’d say (bar Auckland and Welly, who’ve been going hard since the 50’s) there wasn’t any obvious takatāpui community or presence. And hell!” She exclaims, “if you ever behave or mention something like that? Jesus. It’s less the whānau to worry about, it was what would happen at school you know?I didn’t understand at the time, but I would see students get pretty badly bullied.”
I hear both Maia and Kauri sigh along with the manu up in the trees around my bedroom window.
“So after growing up and going through all that, leaving Gisbourne, leaving my small coast town having no bloody clue about the rest of New Zealand. All I knew about was Tahiti and Gisbourne. But moving to Wellington, settling for a few years, that’s when I started to open up to thoughts in my mind. The way I see it, everyone who leaves the nest and takes the chance to go out into the world, they either find themselves or they don’t. I see my journey the same way. As I lived in Wellington, I’ve been here now for 14 years, studying Art and Design, then animation, finished studying, I never left. Throughout that journey of finding my own identity, not dictated by my tribe and my relatives, just going out there, I found my Takatāpuitanga. And when I found it, I claimed it. There was no ‘Oh I’m gonna slowly tell people, I’m gonna slowly come out.’ I just went to the uni doctors, laid it out there. Then I went to a counsellor, a friend of mine who happened to be takatāpui as well. After that very short burst, I just told everybody. It was after all that I told my whānau. That was the thing that actually upset my father the most was that I didn’t trust to tell them first.”
They pause, a small chuckle sounding from their puku. A cloud passes over the sun, leeching all the golden light out of my room. Somehow it made me feel closer to the kōrero, space becoming focused.
“Anyway,” They continue, “These stories are quite complicated. But really, once I found who I was, there was other stuff that started to happen. It wasn’t just being Takatāpui. It was everything from where I came from. Cause I grew up with a lot of things, a lot of art, and a lot of deep stuff. But I wasn’t very interested in my culture until I found myself. Then it became so much more important to me.”
Song of kihikihi seem to gently vibrate the walls, in tautoko with Ariki’s statement.
“Once I found myself and I staunchly planted my foot and told everyone, I really started to look behind me. Back home, back to my whānau to find who I really am in terms of whakapapa. That’s when I really got interested and it began to influence my art. I used to draw a lot of anime and I love that stuff, Her voice lilts upwards with a laugh, “I still have a bit of a sweet spot for it today, but from my early 20’s onwards, I started to really think to myself ‘Okay, I’ve been fascinated with stories from Asia and the West. But actually, I’ve got a whole truckload of stories and art much more precious right on my doorstep that I didn’t realise’.
That’s one thing when you become your true self, and this is with anyone who decides to claim their place in the world, you feel unstoppable, because you have nothing to hide anymore. You got nothing holding you back, no doubts. And so I leaped at that, grabbed my art, grabbed my whakapapa, embraced who I am, truely, as Maori, Tahitian, Takatāpui and all. All these amazing things started happening. My art completely exploded and I felt like my life really began. Everything prior to that was just fragments.”
Tuī whistles fill a brief pause, Tāwhirimātea tickling the hair round my face as they gift the song to me.
“I do love my whānau, and I’m very lucky to have a whānau that loves me. Most of my memories growing up with my grandparents were beautiful and I’m happy to have those memories. I miss them, they’re long gone now. But memories about myself prior to that feel quite shallow, like I was still a child. Even though I was in my teens and early 20’s I still felt like a child until I hit that mark where I pinpointed ‘Me’. Then I grew up,” another pause
“Well, it took a few years to grow up again,” Ariki laughs, “but yeah.”
Sunlight bounced through glass imperfections, sending light rays dancing down the hallway.
The air grew pregnant with impending stories. I can see Kauri’s silhouette, shadow face resting in shadow hands, leaning forward, listening.
“I would say my identity and my art, and with our Māori art specifically, it is synonymous. They come up together, and that’s where I really drew strength in my work as an artist. It came naturally to me through my blood and that accepting of oneself, which our ancestors have always done.” a strong statement, soft in its delivery. A kihikihi, resting in the cool of our whare, called out in tautoko. Ariki’s voice began again, drifting down towards my bedroom.
“We almost lost that because of all the churches, missionaries and the colonial rule that was put on us. Prior to that our people had every claim and right, knew who they were from the get go. That’s a huge issue we face today as Māori āe. Most of our people struggle with that. Especially in gay neighbourhoods and poverty neighbourhoods. There are a lot of them in my hometown. I see people walk past and I can see the wairua of them completely torn apart. That’s when I see someone who never found themselves, and that’s usually because they were never given the opportunity to, through all the trauma or abuse,” she pauses for a moment, in what feels like a respectful silence.
“I was lucky,” Ariki begins again, “I can credit my family for shielding me from that. And because they did, it was a lot easier for me to take that step of finding who I am, which I feel very lucky for. But as part of that privilege, to inspire others, because you don’t even need to do anything. Just by being in the area and existing as you are, you help people start to question their own world view. You know the biggest realisation people had when I started to change? It’s quite funny. They realised I didn’t change at all. I was just more myself.” Her voice sounds as if it travels through a soft smile. Ariki says something else, but it’s lost for me as Maia and Kauri shuffle their chairs, laughing at whatever joke was shared.
“People will just think of the stereotypes, like Priscilla Queen of the Desert or something when they think about Trans people,” Ariki continues her kōrero, unprompted by a question, merely filling out the whakapapa of her thoughts, “I love that film by the way. Saw it when I was 14 and it blew my mind. But that’s all people see when it comes to the topic of transgender. That was definitely a thing in the old days because that’s all we could do was entertain and be entertainers. For our girls that was the only avenue back in those days. Carmen Rupe’s day, that was all they had. But what do people learn today, when they meet someone like me with my history? They quickly realise I’m just a person who wears my shoes, drives my car, owns my own business. Once people realise that, it’s how they get over things. Because there’s so much misinformation out there like, ‘we contaminate children’ and all that. You know what I mean, all these silly kōrero out there that demonise us. But then they meet us, or they meet me, and I don’t do anything other than ask how they are. They realise you’re just another human being.”
I hear both Kauri and Maia humming in tautoko, the silhouette of Kawakawa swaying to their hum across my bedroom walls.
“It relates to our Māori identity too. A lot of people took that abuse and fought the oppression for our culture. It’s that same attitude. That’s given me quite a hard skin as well, knowing that part of my history and what our people went through. Cause back then you’d get looked sideways for being brown or saying ‘Kia ora’. Today you can see it being more fully accepted but we still have that huge history of being discriminated against and that goes hand in hand for takatāpui. Although both takatāpui and our culture should be at the same level of acceptance. But it’s not, because half of the issue comes from our own people who can get quite violent, sadly, or quite dangerous to be around, if someones unfortunate enough to be in a family that’s not as accepting, loving and caring of takatāpui identity.”
“For me it’s my whakapapa and my lineage of art that binds me together. Because my whakapapa comes from a lineage of artists. You know Rongowhakaata is the tribe of art? We are one of the main tribes that created art. A lot of the tribes from the East Coast would spread their art throughout, even Ngāti Toa (we have links to the east coast from there). Then there’s Te Rauparaha, he’s from my line. He carved the marae on Mana island, he wrote music. At Rongowhakaata, my ancestors carved all the things that Cook took to the British museum. That’s my ancestry.” Pride fills out the tone of her voice. I watch Kauri’s shadow as they lean back, posture indicating a smile, shared pride over the history of our people.
“We all have that in us,” Ariki states, “different iwi have different strengths in different things. Other tribes are the Masters of plantation and Rongowhakaata was art and carving. There’s not one day where I go without thinking about art or art things, it’s just there. I was even born from it essentially because my parents met on an art project.”
“Can you tell us more about that?” Kauri asks, shadow head tilted with curiosity.
“Yeah! Of course!” Ariki laughs, voice filled with mirth as it floated, disembodied, towards me.
“So, my Father, he came from a hard out, rugged whānau. My Nan and Koro, they had nothing, and actually every whānau I’ve met in Aotearoa, all our Nans and Koros had nothing. It wasn’t until our parents did something that we started to become politicians and all these other things.” Without needing to see Ariki, I could feel her arms moving, gesticulating ‘all the other things’ with a rolling of the wrist. I settled deeper into my bed, getting comfortable for what I could feel would be a very full story.
“But before that, all our Nans and Koros were hard as hard. So my Dad came from a rough upbringing. My grandparents were good but like many Māori at the time, they held a lot of trauma and that passed down through our genetics. Anyway, my Dad got sent to his Nans, who lived in Ōtaki at the time, for her to sort him out, to raise him. He used to catch her sleepwalking at night having a nightmare and he said to me, ‘she was trying to wipe the blood off her face from one of our ancestors being shot in the head.’ Te Rauparaha, his daughter, got shot in the head by a sniper trying to kill him and her blood splatters went all over his face. That was in Nelson. It’s one of the reasons why I went there. But my great grandmother, Te Huatahi, kept getting up now and then at night having these nightmares and my dad would ask her ‘what’s wrong?’ and she’d say she’s trying to get the blood off her face.” The whare filled with a reverant silence, Ariki holding a space for her whānau before continuing.
“So, my grandparents had 10 kids. My dad grew up fighting everything, like his brothers. He left school at 14 for beating up all the Pākehā’s that would make fun of his ripped up clothes, and his tinfoil wrapped lunches, because all the Pākehā had the fancy tin lunch boxes āe.” A pause, seeming to be filled with a knowing smirk and classic Aunty side eye.
“Anyway he got sent to Ōtaki for being too much to handle and it was there he met our Raukawa, Ngāti Huia relations. When he started to learn his whakapapa, the kaumātua all convened and because they liked the way he stood, they took him in to teach him. From there they took him to Putiki Pā, and taught him Mau Rākau. At Ōtaki they taught him whakapapa. Then Ngāti Toa took him in and they taught him carving. He started to carve at Takapūwāhia Marae when it was being built. He actually carved some of the carvings that are there for his teachers who ran that project. From there he was asked if he wanted to learn to build waka or marae. He chose waka and from that point on in the 70’s, they started to conceive the project Waka Hourua, to sail to Tahiti.”
Tāwhirimātea whistled through the hallway, breeze drifting through to my room and stirring the air.
“The logs came from the Far North, Ngā Puhi land,” Ariki continues, speaking into a dedicated silence as we all listen intently, “Fast forward as the waka project was growing, on the other side of the world my Mothers family is in Tahiti. My Mothers Father, my Grandfather, is a sailor and navigator. He sailed a vessel to Fiji to prove the Kon-tiki route and he succeeded. He had met the crew of the Kon-tiki and he wasn’t happy that they were bragging ‘Noone could go back that way’. These Norwegians were claiming they were the best sailors in the Pacific, completely disregarding our ancestry so he decided to make it back on his own and he did.” Pride fills Ariki’s voice. Maia and Kauri cheer. Stories of Polynesian success are always met with happiness in this whare.
“My Grandfather, he built war canoes. But about the same time my Dad was carving in Taupō, my Mothers brother, a young boy at the time, burnt down my grandfather’s garage. Which was where he was housing the canoe he was building.” Collective groans echoed down the hallway.
“My uncle liked playing with matches. Later he became the director of Coca-Cola which is kinda buzzy. But anyway, he burnt down the Wharewaka. That triggered my grandfather to scrap the boat. But he really needed to get this project done and he was struggling to find a carver who could carve a waka from scratch.” She pauses, perhaps interrupted by something on her side of the screen. Tūī song returns, embellishing the pause before she continues.
“In Tahiti you have to go to NZ to get cancer treatment. One of his cousins had cancer so they flew to Queenstown, NZ. Anyway my Grandfather drops his cousin off at the hospital, goes back to his hotel, turns the TV on and there’s my Father bragging about building the Waka Hourua. He decided to write to Ngāti Toa and Raukawa directly, explaining who he is. What he did to convince the Kaumātua was he said ‘You have the hull technology Māori do, but I have the other stuff, the rigging the sails the decks’ which was everything that was left to weave it all together. And for the first time since our ancestors, the two masters meet. My Grandfather and the ones from my dads side. They put that knowledge together to make the first Waka Hourua in hundreds of years.”
I could feel Kauri’s excitement building as I watch their shadow bounce up and down on their seat
“So he went to pick my dad up and convinced the tribe to take the logs to Tahiti. My Grandfather was the one who said they should sail it from Tahiti to NZ because he thought that would better prove the point that Hawakii is where we all come from. If you go the other way but it isn’t as powerful as returning from our origins as Pacific people. And they did it. SO my Father, Māori as Māori can ever be, arrives at the airport in Fa’a. His jandal strap snaps so he throws his jandals in the bush, big beard and everything.” Ariki laughs and I have to join her, the image she paints so vibrant.
“My grandfather is quite the Sir, a flash fella. He wore the rolex and the suit, he was an entrepreneur, very wealthy at the time, and knew all the politicians. He was quite high up in society and he was hitting up all his mates about this real talented Māori carver. Anyway, he was sitting there with some of the French officials who were gonna take him to see the President of Tahiti when he sees this Māori with ripped clothes and bare feet get off the plane. In French culture, they judge you alot by your footwear so he asked ‘where’s your shoes?’”
Ariki’s cadence shifted, mimicking that of her Grandfather.
Her voice shifted again, carrying the same rhythm of every East Coast uncle I’ve ever met.
“‘Aw they broke, I just threw them in the bush.’ .. ‘You know we gotta meet the prime minister soon, āe?’…’So? Not my prime minister.’”
Laughter spilled down the hallway, joined by a kāka
“But that’s how he met my mum. She was in France at the time studying and he saw a photo of her in my grandfather’s house and he asked who she was, ‘That’s my daughter. But you came here for the canoe, not for her.’ When she came back from France is when they first met. He refused to put on anything flash to wear to see my grandad’s mates. My grandad was starting to get real upset cause he liked to go to the bar and have his whiskey, a cigar, all that but my dad wasn’t into any of it. My mother goes ‘I can get something for you to wear.’”
Arikis voice sounded cheeky, haututū. A Tūī warbled outside my window, tautoko to Ariki’s energy.
“My grandmother, my mothers mother, was eternally cross that they started a relationship because, sadly it’s badly colonised in Tahiti,” Her voice mellowed as she continued, “So with my grandmother’s generation, they wanted you to get married to a french man. If you married a Tahitian or a Māori they were considered a lesser person. So she was upset about that at first, but then she grew to love them. My grandmother was very tahitian, very dark, spoke tahitian and everything but that colonial mindset is strong. But the waka was built and my brother and sister were born. In 1985 the waka was launched to come here, with a crew of 5 they sailed through a cyclone to Rarotonga. Then they sailed to NZ, about a 3 month voyage. They landed in Hicks bay, then at the turn of the year ‘86, they arrived at Whakatane, then mission bay which was their main waka landing. And then in 1989 I was born. So if that waka didn’t make it, I wouldn’t be here. That waka was the last voyage ever done by our indigenous peoples that was hand carved, woven together, lashed, bamboo and Totara. It was the conjoining of two cultures and materials from both our motu. No engine, no sat-nav, My grandad used the stars and they made their way here. Most modern canoes with all that modern tech can only go 4 knots, 10 at the most. My koro and dads canoe went 22 knots. They grew kumara on the back of the waka, because the sea water would never get to the shoots. The shoots used to grow out and weave their way around the deck I learned. There were 5 people that sailed that waka. In a modern canoe they need 10 -14 people. So that’s how my parents met.”
Our space filled with awe, the vision of Ariki’s whānau inspiring. For a moment, I could feel Kauri and Maia hold the space and that feeling, with reverence.
“When you were talking about stepping into your whakapapa while you were in uni, what was it like stepping into a pākehā institution while learning those things about yourself, and what’s it like for you navigating art institutions?” Kauri asks, smoothly leading into another topic.
“I would say, I’ve never really come against anything being takatāpui in that field. I think I found the pākehā side being quite helpful and supportive. However with the artist side I always bumped heads with the institute. For me their method was to create a piece that’s outside of our thought, styles or context rather than something I was comfortable creating. I always bumped heads with teachers like that. I would argue otherwise with some of them because I already knew what I wanted and I already knew who I was and so being told otherwise, I just didn’t agree. I still ended up getting higher marks as well, because my project was of such a great magnitude. Even though they didn’t agree with my style or my approach, they couldn’t deny the work I’d done.” I can’t see her, but the strength and staunchness of Ariki’s mana was empowering.
“With your mahi, you were talking about being inspired by liking anime and sci-fi, and then your embracing of whakapapa, which really fits our issue’s theme of indigenous futurism.” I could hear the smile on Kauri’s face.
“It’s what I grew up with,” Ariki stated simply, “Back in the 90’s on TV. If you tuned in in the morning you’d have Samurai Pizza Cats or Sailor Moon, you know? And all these shows from Japan started to come out on television and then in the afternoon you’d have all these cool cartoons like Gargoyles and stuff. And then the video games started happening, Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario. All of that had a huge impact on the levels I wanted to reach as an artist. Taking that and then going back to my roots, I ended up weaving them together.”
She pauses briefly, finding another thought to follow.
“You look at our marae too,” she begins again, “one of my marae back in Manutūkē just out of Gizzy, there’s no carvings but all the artwork was painted on around the 1800’s, and you can start to see the influence of western in there. Not through the westerners pushing it on us but from us perceiving it. In the artwork you’ll see traditional patterns and looks but if you look closer, you’ll see Irish clothes and even a cat. In other marae you’ll see a mixture of things as well. You’ll see your traditional pō and carving and then you’ll see a fella holding a rifle, representing a soldier from the war. Our art has always been transformative, but it needs to be told through us. Not to us by people on the outside. People on the outside can learn but it needs to be acknowledged by us that they’ve learnt it correctly and respect our culture.”
Shadow of kawakawa was slowly climbing up my walls, as Tama-nui-te-rā falling from his zenith deeper into the afternoon.
“Fast forward into the 90’s – early 2000’s, that’s what’s influenced my art to what it is today. The mural I have in front of Nautilus, the style of the characters and the way I painted it, is a result of what I grew up with, through my dad, the culture and through television.
The other thing too is, my art is a combination of not just māori but my tahitian side. That’s me expressing ‘me’. But also I like to remind our people in Aotearoa where we come from. A lot of the work I do here is predominantly māori but there’s little elements I add in that point to Hawaiki. I think that’s important.” Ariki finishes, soft but sure.
“I tried to study gaming at Massey but decided it was too hard.” Kauri stated simply.
“It’s quite an abusive environment. Especially for artists. Some people have proposed I work at Weta. I’m always like nah. Why would I put all my life force and energy into mahi for some pākehā fellas that have millions of dollars, who work for more pākehā fellas that have millions and millions of dollars overseas. Why would I want them to take my art, declare it no longer mine and have it locked and sealed away forever? That’s slavery. I don’t give a crap about the money or experience, that’s an industry I do not wanna be a part of. Only on my own terms, where we have our own independent māori artists and directors creating content, that’s where I’ll go, but nothing else. Aotearoa is not Lord of the Rings. I love LotR but it relates to our british storytelling. It’s not this place.”
“I love how your pieces, with the style and colours have that scifi futuristic element. Is that something you think about during your process?” Kauri questions.
Ariki doesn’t respond immediately, the space silent for a second.
“Yeah, it’s like, ‘how do I take something that’s purely indigenous, make it modern but not muddy it up or degrade it by following the western style?’ That’s what I find is the huge issue of our art today, on the mainstream level. You got a lot of the māori institutes, schools that will teach the main foundations of our art but it’s never changed. Which is all good, but then you’re expected to follow the next curriculum and the next curriculum for māori art which is totally not how it’s supposed to be, you know? I see alot of our art today feels quite watered down or generic. Never lose where it started cause you need somewhere to ground yourself and anchor. But once you attain that ground and plant your pō, let’s say for the art of weaving. Cool, you’ve learnt raranga and the traditions of raranga, but now you can do anything you want. You’ve claimed that right, earned that right to do it. But really our art had many styles and aspects to it, before it was cut off in the late 1800’s. Then you follow the Tohunga Suppression Act in 1907, but there’s a few decades where the art and culture nearly died, it stagnated. Then Apirana Ngata stepped in and he started the program to restore our art. That was successful.”
She pauses. I can feel the silence swell with a ‘but..’
“However, he picked and choosed what he liked from our art which is very east coast focused style. And as a result of that, that style became institutionalised through his vision. From there that became the generic template for māori art, like the koru for example, throughout Aotearoa. Many iwi have their own styles but they’re barely noticeable. When you go up to the far north, a lot of marae up there are very empty, nothing on them. The east coast is very decorated but it’s a limited window on what our art is. That was needed at the time but it’s overshadowed a lot of what our art was from a traditional standpoint. That’s when you get those cheesy cutout styles of māori toi. The marae that Cliff Whiting did in Te Papa? That’s a cool piece but it became this cornerstone for what is considered modern māori art. It was an interesting piece but after that everyone just thought that’s the way our art is meant to look.” Ariki pauses again.
“It’s a broad theme to try and describe,” her voice comes slowly, pulling words together with surety, constructing her thoughts in real time, “but everytime I see our art in galleries now, I never feel the same as I do sitting in an old carved wharenui. You could sit there for ages and just look. But when you go to a gallery or institution where it’s taught to you in the pākehā way, it feels very plastic rather than having that mahi created and shown in the marae. For me exhibitions and galleries are a pākehā thing. We don’t exhibit things, our art is just around us. For me as an artist, I always try to go back to the 19th century where it was nearly severed and try to think about what our art would look like today if that didn’t happen.
Whakatō marae, one of our oldest marae, has these taniwha that look almost like Chinese dragons. And that was done almost 100 years ago. Our old masters were already starting to modernise our art in interesting ways based on the communities they knew and married into at the time. I just like to think, if our art never got institutionalised and it was taught in our homes, what would it look like today? That’s what I’m trying to replicate. We were disrupted. It’s coming back, but it’s still a bit too boxed in.”
“What is it you would like people to take away from your mahi toi?” Maia asks, our final question. Tāwhirimātea cools my room, the beginning of a chilly evening.
“I want people to know where the standards are. And what the possibilities of our art are set at. Our people think there’s a limit to our art. If I go back to my fathers rock carvings in Taupō, he’s the first artist of māori descent in our history, who made a rock carving that massive in the 70’s. He led it with his cousin Jono Randall, a bunch of the Ngāti Tūwharetoa relations all on probation. One of his cousins was a cop so he asked him to bring in all those relations. His nan helped him organise to get the money for that project, but she passed half way through. He wasn’t welcome for most of that project actually. Tūwharetoa didn’t welcome him and there was a lot of racism. The 70’s was the height of the antiracism movement. The mayor, the council didn’t want him there but he got the permission of the chief at the time. He worked with the black power as well. They gave him some money to do the project. Having the honour of growing up with that, it showed me as an artist that I can make something of that magnitude. Not so much today. When I did the mural outside of Nautilus, there wasn’t much in it but that was the point. Why am I doing it? Not for the money, but because I felt a need to display something big, representing us on a wall in a part of our city where it’s lacking. That’s what I want people to take away from my art. I want people to see past the Boba Fett helmet with the tā moko, or Avengers māori party members. I want the media and other artists to see what’s possible and how far our art can reach. Also the standards, like what my father did for that Taupō rock carving. Having to dive three metres deep to build the scaffolding, making it out to the carving with the chisels on their backs. And then I look to today and think, ‘people need to remember the magnitude of our artwork as māori’. We don’t really look at art but we need to start seeing art. I want to make more pieces that reach out to people all over Aotearoa, to tell them, yeah this is it. This is where it’s at. It’s nothing to do with bragging. It’s more to say, I’m doing my culture a service by upholding the standards of our whakapapa and our culture as artists. Being a toi māori artist you are obliged to uphold our art and our culture in the best way you can. That’s the way to honour them. If you don’t and you cut corners, you’re cheating them as well as yourself. When you take the time, and you learn those skills and deepen your craft you affect the mauri of the object you’re working on. You’re putting your energy into it. That’s how I treat murals, that’s why I use paint and paintbrushes. It links me to our form of art in that realm, connecting me to my tīpuna.”
The power of her statements, the ideas she inspired, bring electricity into the air. So much so that I almost don’t want Kauri and Maia to close the space. As I hear them saying their thank you’s, I hold tight to that electricity, trying to keep some of it for myself. I hear the closing karakia, the space being let go. Ariki’s voice rings through the whare with final goodbyes. My room becomes just my room again. I settle deep into my bed, scrambling for a sketch book as Kauri and Maia begin talking excitedly with each other in the next room.
Tūī and Kāka begin their late afternoon chatter around our whare, heralding Ariki’s exit from the space. The remaining hours will be spent drawing and marinating in this kōrero, and the thoughts that Ariki inspired.