HURIANA KOPEKE-TE AHO
Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho is a self-taught artist and illustrator.
Influenced by their whakapapa, fierce aroha they hold for their community and their takatāpui identity, Huriana creates imagery speaking to the political and social struggles of their communities.
Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho (They/Them) walks up through our lil ngahere, vape smoke billowing out around them, a true Child of the Mist. Ranginui hangs gloomy over our whare, wistfully on watch as we gather up pillows and set up a space on the pink Utu stim rug. Maia bustles quietly in the kitchen, putting together chips and guac while Kauri and I set up our notebooks and laptops. The room feels cosy as we get comfortable, our two ngeru curled up beside us, their purrs narrating the grey clouds rolling in high above.
Our space is opened and held, as always, with a karakia.
Tea pours into small tea cups and we ask our first question.
“Tell us where you’re from, kare.”
Huri laughs, ringed fingers reaching out to pet the ngeru.
“I whakapapa to Ngā Tuhoe, Ngāti Porou, Rongowhakaata, Te Ati Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, Kāi Tahu and Samoa, Scotland, Ireland and Denmark.”
A sip of tea, “When did you start with your Mahi Toi?”
“Me and my dad used to draw together all the time. He was an artist who did painting, carving and weaving. He was just like ‘You seem like you’d enjoy this, you seem a little fruity,’” a quick interruption of indigi cackles, “‘so we’ll just jam some stuff’. I probably started drawing with him when I was 6 or 7 and since then it’s been on and off because it’s the easiest way for me to communicate my feelings. Professionally, it’ll be coming up to 6 years next month so…. Yikes. I was meant to do it for a year as a laugh.”
The hum of a passing truck far below us joined our giggling. Let it be said, Huriana is perpetually hilarious and charismatic. If you have had the honour of sharing space and kōrero with them, this is something you’ll be well familiar with.
“Do you think that your mahi toi has always incorporated elements of takatāpui and political convos or did you slowly move into it?” I ask, pushing a ngeru away from our snacks.
Huri took a couple to think before answering, “I think political work is where it started. We were doing an occupation in Glen Innes for state housing and stuff. I started making work there and taking commissions to raise money for the occupation. That was always there, less Takatāpui, more Māori political work, was there from the beginning. But I think early on, I was, I don’t wanna say scared to make Māori work. But I didn’t wanna necessarily be put in one category of making work. And then it turns out I just wanted to make Takatāpui work because that’s what I am, and it makes sense and I really love it. But for a long time I tried to avoid that. Mostly because I think a lot of people look at Māori artists and Māori art and are just like ‘Oh you only do one thing.’ Which also is fine. In hindsight I’m like ‘And?’ The stuff we make is mean actually and I think it’s fine if that’s the only thing we do make.”
“But at the time it felt limiting?” Kauri asks, dipping into the guacamole.
“Yeah definitely. Well, it felt limiting in terms of the things I wanted to say politically. I was also doing Prison Abolition stuff, really heavily influenced by Black political discourse from the 60’s and 70’s in particular. People like Angela Davis and Bell Hooks and Audrey Loyd. So I was also trying to figure out how to say what I was trying to say, while also acknowledging the whakapapa of where all that knowledge came from.”
Hums of acknowledgement and understanding filled our circle, continuing underneath Huri’s kōrero.
“I feel like I didn’t know how to do that in a way that was specific to Te Ao Māori in the beginning but I think I learned eventually. But yeah, I think political work has always kinda been the point of making stuff in public and working with a lot of community organisations on campaigns, and realising the importance of art in political discourse in making it accessible for everyone. That was the point from the beginning. Making work that was simple in presentation but complex in terms of the ideas that were behind it, because I wanted everyone to be able to engage in political discourse meaningfully. If we want to make widespread political change then that has to be a conversation everyone can have.”
Tāwhirimātea whipped past our windows, sounding their tautoko whistling through our kawakawa trees. Our circle, grounded with aroha, thrummed. Utu has always, and will always, look to our art as the vehicle for political discourse and change. What is more powerful than an art piece that speaks to your heart and mind?
“How did you begin to navigate those two separate kōreros of political liberation within a Māori context?” Kauri asks, the question feeling more like it came from the space than from them.
Huri answered thoughtfully, their voice soft.
“My mum gave me a political education from a very young age. And so many of the theorists she referenced were people like Angela Davis because that was all we had access to at that stage. The concept of race politics is an importation from America, we didn’t really have that here and I think the dynamics here are obviously really different… Can cats eat avocado?”
Our whole whare filled with brown laughter at the sudden tangent and we all turned to see Ghost, our biggest ngeru, his nose threatening to be buried in our guacamole.
“That’s not for you,” Huri laughed, pushing Ghost away, “Sorry, just got distracted… but… anyway yeah, thinking about the ways I was raised in Te āo Māori, I think that there are similarities in terms of interactions with Police, the Justice System, Foster Care, government agencies in general that we can learn to navigate from other people. Māori do have a really strong political identity in terms of Tino Ranagatiratanga here, and I think both of those things can exist together. Both are useful, can coexist and influence each other.”
“You said something earlier about your work feeling vulnerable. Does your Takatāpui work feel like a vulnerable thing?” I ask, again fending of one of the cats.
“Yes and no. There are some things that are just my personal feelings about this very specific instance of how I feel heart broken and sad or upset,” They laugh, “It’s less that now and more about trying to find community and connection, which is also very vulnerable but in a different way. It feels more structured than these train of thought pieces where I just say ‘Here are my messy feelings, that I haven’t actually sorted out yet’ unfiltered.” Our circle giggles in tautoko, all of us familiar with that feeling of art making.
“Now it’s more intentional,” Huri continues, “when it comes to sharing pieces that are more about broader concepts of takatāpuitanga, wanting to find a place of belonging, safety, community and home. That space is still very vulnerable but easier to navigate, especially now I’m older. Before it was very much, me not knowing anything and trying to figure it out. I’m still learning, but I’ve figured out a bit more.”
Kauri laughs, the kōrero drifting briefly to how many people we know who have been inspired by Huri’s work. In their humbleness they laugh and brush it off, clearly mildly uncomfortable at the idea, “That’s really nice, really.” They laugh. We all can’t help but laugh with them.
“What was it like navigating through more professional spaces as Takatāpui?” I ask, feeling the laughter fade and the space settle again.
“Oof,” Huri chuckles dryly, “A big part of why I didn’t wanna make specific types of work was because I didn’t wanna be hired on the basis of checking off an ‘x’ amount of boxes for people. I didn’t want people to be like ‘Oh you’re not just Māori, you’re also Takatāpui. Not only that, you’re also not cis. You really just cover all of our bases and we don’t have to think about anything else outside of the work you provide us.’ Luckily I’ve worked with mostly community organisations, so I’ve worked with people who generally understand concepts within Te Ao Māori, and issues surrounding Takatāpuitanga. It’s been okay for me, and I feel lucky being able to say that. I mean obviously sometimes, people are… feral,” hums of tautoko sound as they continue, “And I know that alot of the work that I get is because I fit into alot of different demographics that people don’t really wanna think about. But I also know I can take the money that I get from this work and invest it back into community projects, or working on a sliding scale for community organisations. So that work is a necessary evil. I also need to pay rent. Yeah I mean I guess as long as I’m not compromising my own tikanga and representing us in a way that enhances our mana, then it’s okay to be a little bit tokenised. It also allows me to work for other people for alot cheaper than I usually would.”
“You gotta get that bag, hey?”
“Yeah, It’s hectic though. You’re not just being hired as an illustrator, you’re also being hired as a cultural consultant and not being paid for that stuff, it’s that cultural double shift that people don’t really acknowledge. That thing of, YOu’ll just do the karanga cause you’re Māori, and we have to a pōwhiri and you’re here but we won’t be paying you for your time. It’s interesting. There are people that I refuse to work for, the police I would never work for, the government directly I wouldn’t work for. Although I will work with government agencies especially when it comes to things like Māori health. Because I think, if we’re gonna be in the space anyway, then I would like us to be represented in a way that feels genuine and authentic and like we can actually see ourselves in this processes because we so regularly get left out of the conversation. It’s a balance… is the nicest way I can think to put it.” They laugh, ringed fingers running through the rug underneath us as they think.
“Do you feel like over time you’ve felt it getting better?”
Huri’s fingers, continue drawing patterns, decorating our wānanga as they answer.
“I feel like now, there is more pressure to be aware. I don’t know if that necessarily means that things are better, just because I think if it’s coming from a sense of obligation because you don’t want to be perceived as ignorant then how much of this can you actually learn when it’s coming from a place of guilt and shame. There is definitely more of a conversation happening now, but obviously with that also comes, pushback. And we are seeing a lot of racist rhetoric in public now. Māori are saying, no actually Te Reo Māori is valuable, Tikanga Māori is valuable and Kaitiakitanga, us preserving the environment around us in the face of climate change is important and we have people reacting to that with rage. But I think those conversations happening in public are important and it’s always going to be that way. There’s always going to be people who are scared of change.” Their hand wipes the patterns away, drawing more where the others had been.
“But I think it is getting better. At least it has in my working environment.“
We sit, a quick tangent following closely after this kōrero, watching the cats as they play off by the front door. The light outside seems to fade and grow cold as clouds continue to roll over Ranginui’s face, our space becoming a haven.
“God I need a vape.” Huri whispers. We all burst out laughing.
“What would a decolonised art space look like to you?” I laugh, moving our group back into the kōrero.
“God, honestly Māori people being able to make whatever the fuck we want,” They exclaim passionately, “I feel like so often we get boxed in to specific genres of making, having to be exceptional or really forward thinking or really out-the-box when it comes to our ideas or our work. And if we don’t succeed in that, all Māori people get painted with the same brush. Pākehā get to be average. They get to make average work and do average shit, and none of it is ever attributed to them being Pākehā. But when it comes to Māori people, we should be allowed to be whoever we want, and make work that represents us in whatever way that we want without that being considered the one exclusive way to be takatāpui or Māori. Māori don’t get to be multifaceted people I think is the problem. ‘We’ll hire you for a Māori show, because you’re Māori and you’re well known generally in public’ without actually considering whether you’re the best person for that kaupapa.”
My mind jumps back to a kōrero Huri and I had on our porch. Despite the fact it was month or so ago, spoken into the night, it felt relevant so I prompted them.
“Yeah we were talking about Māori art, I think I said something about how Māori art is considered craft, folk art, in a way that Pākeha people and their work will never be considered. It isn’t given the credit that it’s due, and that’s a problem. Because it does take an immense amount of skill. I also feel if you’re marginalised in any way, you’re expected to talk about that experience all the time. And then when straight, cis, white people do it with double the resources and reach, it becomes incredible and revolutionary because they’re using their platform to talk about these stories.”
A quick side-eye at Taylor Swift, but we acknowledge we aren’t part of her targeted audience. Huri laughs at a one off comment, “But also the work of white people is seen as the norm, and if you are speaking about something from your community that sits outside that norm it gets criticised.”
Kauri takes on the responsibility of redirecting our kōrero
“How was your journey stepping into Takatāpuitanga and Te Ao Māori?” they ask, their voice grounding our energy.
“Honestly I think it happened both slowly and all at once you know? I feel like one day I was just fucking around making dumb shit,” They chuckle, “I just started making work that I wanted to see and trying to find examples of Takatāpuitanga. I didn’t discover the word Takatāpuitanga until I was about 21. Then I discovered all of these terms for being gender fluid like Tāhine or Irakore. And in learning all of those things, it became important for me to talk about that stuff in my work because I wanted others to learn those things. I didn’t want other people to get to the age of 21 and still feel like they couldn’t be Māori AND queer. I wanted to show that those things have always existed together and that we have always had a place amongst our people. For the longest time I felt like I had to choose between my Māoritanga and my Takatāpuitanga, I didn’t feel like I could be both. And so making work that reflected that reality, showing that I am both of these things, and that they are both essential to each other, in the way I express myself in the work,” They stated softly, pausing in thought.The aroha we hold for them swelled with that statement, we wait, with love, for them to complete their thought.
“And then I just kept doing that,” Huri continued, so matter-of-fact, “and it kept happening, and yeah. It hasn’t stopped yet. I’m still queer, still hangin’ out, still figuring it out. But it was definitely a matter of speaking myself back into my own life, I felt like, not to be fuckin melodramatic but I felt like a ghost for so long. I didn’t know who I was, without my whakapapa, who am I? Without my queerness I didn’t know how to relate to people. So that artwork became the process of trying to figure all of that out.” They pause again, sitting in their thoughts before continuing.
“It’s interesting, you know. I think people see the work of those who are proudly Takatāpui in public and say ‘Oh you got that all figured out.’ Like, nah, I’m very much still learning. Both from other people, and sitting in self reflection. And that’s me, you know. I love to learn, even if I’m a bit stubborn about it.” Huri chuckles. Their fingers reflexively draw patterns into the soft rug underneath us.
“There’s a bittersweet comfort in that, so much information has been lost, so we’re all relearning and rebuilding at the same time.” The thought slips from my lips before I had a chance to think on it, prompted by the energy held in our circle.
“Yeah,” Huri responds, “We get to figure out how we want to be in the world, how the future looks, and what we want the future to look like. I think about how interconnected everything is all the time and how I want that to be the way we look at things in the future. My takatāpuitanga is essential to my expression of my Māoritanga, I can’t separate them because they are inseparable. But yeah, we get to make cool new shit, and cool new ways of being, and new tikanga and new traditions. And that’s exciting, we have an opportunity now to build on our foundations so the next generation after us can discover infinite new ways of being who they are. And that’s wonderful. Of course it’s sad we’ve lost so much, but I feel like in many ways we’ve gained so much more.”
Our space holds our hope, our love, our feeling so softly. We sit in it for a moment, soaking it up, feeling the tautoko. Tāwhirimātea sings through the windchimes hanging on our porch. Somewhere, the conversation begins flowing again, reaching out of the past topic and into Indigenous Futurism.
“I was doing this Dreaming project a while back, trying to figure out, if anything is possible, what do we actually want in the future.” Huri begins, thoughts tumbling out of their mouth like a freight train. There’s always an energy of excitement and joy when this topic comes up.
“For me,” They continue, “it’s a hard thing to conceptualise because so much of my work focuses on what we already have. I want Landback, I want Takatāpui to be able to live on their Papa Kāinga and be seen as an essential part of their whānau, hapu and iwi, I want Food Sovereignty, I want us to be able to make things without having to worry about rent. I want space for rest, and play, and creativity and joy and growing things. I want us to be in a relationship with Papa, and Te Taiao. It’s all pretty standard but that’s the life I want. Simple but somewhere we have an ability to control our own futures and the way we live our lives. Everything now feels so out of control, I have to think about working X amount of hours each week so I can pay rent, as well as be able to do this or that. And I don’t have any capacity for joy in between all of that. No one does. But that’s all I want.”
‘Āe’s flow round our circle in agreement, underscoring Huri as they continue.
“Joy, and being on the whenua. Hangin’ out and making art, music, whatever. Honestly even just walking around. Going on a wander for no other reason than you just want to is fucking sick.” They finish with a cackle. The conversation only snowballs from there, and it’s hard to find a direct line of thought to follow and type out. So instead I drop us here, when Huri begins talking about what the Indigenous Future could look like.
“It’s very much the concept of ‘Ka mua, ka muri’, walking backwards into the future. Claiming the things we want to take from the past. Controversial take though, not all of it was mean, in pre-colonial Māori times. We can definitely nick some of it. We don’t have to take it all. But taking the things that were essential like making time for rest, spending time with whānau and building relationships especially.” Huri cackles in a way that only those who have experienced true Scorpio chaos will understand.
“On the other hand, the idea of Chrome and neon wharenui would be dope in the future. I’m actually working on something that’s very Astronesian futurism vibes. Like have you seen the cover of Poi ē? The album art? It’s amazing, Indigy futurism? I want it to look like that.”
If you have not made an in-depth study of the imagery on the “Poi ē” album cover, I beg you must. Huri pulls it up on a nearby laptop and we spend the next 15 minutes gushing over how crazy yet fantastic the artwork is. It takes a minute, but slowly and surely we calm down. Tuning back into the space, and the questions left to ask, we find it’s coming to a close. Kauri asks the last question, voice soft.
“What do you want people to take away from your art, Pākehā or Māori alike?”
Huri snorts before answering, “Pākehā, I don’t really care. If you find something in it that resonates, then pop off, but it’s not for you. For Māori, I just want us to realise that Takatāpui people are cool as fuck, and we’ve always belonged. We are as natural to Te Ao Māori as the Maunga, the Moana and all of that. If Takatāpui people can look at the work and feel some sort of connection, or home, or safety or belonging, then I have done my job. And that’s pretty much it. I just felt so out of place all the time, and like I didn’t belong anywhere. I felt like I didn’t fit into what it meant to be a Māori person even though it was so essential to who I was and how I navigated the world. I want my nephews and nieces to know there are other possibilities for them and the lives they wanna live, and whoever they wanna be.”
We hold their intention in our space for a moment, before reciting our karakia and letting it go. Huri steps outside for their vape, sitting briefly on the porch with us for quick catchups before disappearing into our lil ngahere, leaving behind a cloud of smoke.