Renati Waaka is an interdisciplinary artist based in Pōneke. Under the moniker of Amio, he uses photography as a vessel to take space for Takatāpuitanga in industry art spaces, showcasing the beauty of indigenous people as they stand on their whenua.
Our interview with Renati Waaka (he/him) starts as all of them do. A karakia to open the space and clear the air. We sit huddled on our lounge floor, still in our pyjamas, warm tea mugs in our hands. A period of adjusting as we both try to find the right lighting for our Zoom call.
“I’m a photographer, I have to make sure the light is right.” He laughs, positioning his phone up against a window sill.
Renati Waaka is an interdisciplinary artist based in Pōneke. Under the moniker of Amio, he uses photography as a vessel to take space for Takatāpuitanga in industry art spaces, showcasing the beauty of indigenous people as they stand on their whenua. With a talent for channelling natural light, Renati creates masterful portraits that showcase the beauty and strength of indigenous bodies. We spend the beginning of our kōrero gushing over the photo series he created with his sisters and cackling over the chaos of a Gemini Sun.
Eventually the space settles, and after some quick catchup chat we make our way to our first question.
“Maybe we just start with who you are, where you’re from?”
“Kia ora, my name is Renati Waaka,” a chuckle at the formality, “I’m 23 years old, and I’m an interdisciplinary artist from Rotorua with photography as my current primary practice. Nō Te Arawa me Tainui ahau. I grew up in the Bay of Plenty, went to Rotorua Boys’ High School, and I’m currently in my final year of study doing my masters in Fine Arts at Massey. I completed my undergrad in communication design at Victoria University.”
“Kia ora. What was it like growing up in Rotorua, constantly surrounded by Mātauranga Māori? Were you brought up in Te Ao Māori?”
“My early childhood was spent going to Te Awanuiarangi in Whakatāne with my parents and siblings. My Dad was also a kaiako there, and my mother was a carver and researcher. My early childhood was deeply influenced by Te Ao Māori. I was fluent, my siblings and I all went to Kohanga as babies, I started school at a Kura kaupapa. Of course, life happens, family dynamics changed, and we moved away from Whakatāne and ended up in Whanganui, then eventually Rotorua. Te Ao Māori wasn’t a big part of that journey unfortunately, and I had lost my reo in that process. My life in Rotorua really only consisted of family, school, and church. There wasn’t much social life or work and ambition back then. And at this point, reconnecting wasn’t even on my mind because Rotorua has such a strong Māori presence. I kinda just expected all of Aotearoa to be the same lol. And I didn’t realise that I needed to get back to those roots until I left Rotorua and got the biggest culture shock of my life, even in the same country. I’m slowly finding my way back to those roots, but that’s difficult away from whānau. It is quite sad to think that I didn’t take the opportunity back then to dive into Te Ao Māori where it is so abundant. But that’s life innit.”
Tautoko fills our space. It’s a unique experience, the indigenous one. In a world built of systems that don’t value our inheritance, it’s difficult finding your way through. But Te Ao Māori always seems to find a way into your life when you need it most. If you hold mamae over reconnecting, know you aren’t alone. We’re all on this journey together, and we’ll hold each other as we go.
“What inspired the imagery seen in the photos of your sisters, and what depth did it add to the art, using them as subjects?” Kauri asks, a sip of tea quickly following.
“Having my sisters for that photoshoot makes it deeply personal. They bring something out of me that nobody else can. I want them to see themselves the way I see them. They’re effortless in front of the camera, which is a dream for a photographer. Those images are really to honour the influence they’ve had on me. That divinity, that feminine energy that is so a part of me now. My sisters hold me like no one else can. They’re my weakness and my strength.” Renati’s face lights up with so much love and warmth, we can’t help but smile with him.
“As for the imagery,” he continues, “I love working with natural light and Te Taiao. Nature needs no art direction, it’s beautiful, unexpected, and it challenges me.
My aesthetic choices are influenced by a lot of things. And I found my style through imitating the work of others. And from there I feel like I’ve formed my own visual language. Lemonade, by Beyoncé, was probably the first project which I felt reflected a style of imagery and storytelling that I connected to. And was honestly one of the reasons I started photography. That level of storytelling, representation, and cultural significance was so captivating to me and brought forward a standard for the work I put out.”
“Having encountered the art space as Takatāpui, what would a decolonised art space look like to you?” I ask. Renati pauses before answering.
“I’m very new to the art world, and I’m still trying to figure out how things operate. So I’m not sure if I can give a clear answer. I am really lucky to be amongst other takatāpui artists. And I have a lot of Tuakana who are there for me when I get lost in this space.” He starts, his voice mixing with the quiet ‘Āe’s of both Kauri and I.
“It’s only really in my postgrad that I have been actively involved in art spaces,” Renati continues. “It’s hard for me as someone who is a postgraduate student in a university where most of the students around me have been through their studies in this space and have a clearer understanding of how things are. I’m beginning to view art through an academic lens, which I had never considered before beginning my masters. For context, my undergraduate degree was in communication design, where my experience contrasts greatly to what my current mahi involves…” Another pause. We can feel the space filling with a classic Māori storytelling trait, tangent impending.
“As a photographer, it’s an interesting conversation surrounding the topic of colonisation. Photography is a colonising tool, both in the past and present. The language we use as photographers, whether intentionally or not, has apparent connotations to subjugate the other. For example: ‘Can I shoot you’ or ‘Capture your image’, the language, and the general act of immortalising a moment in someone else’s life, for yourself, or someone else, is reflective of colonialism. To contextualise my photographic practice, I situate myself in contrast to the history of European photographers and painters whose portraits have been regarded around the world as authentic Māori representation. The intention of my practice, at the moment, is to disrupt the notions of Māori identity that have been portrayed through a western gaze. Jimmy Nelson is a contemporary example of somebody who uses photography as a tool to portray this narrative with his book “Before they pass away”. This narrative has been placed on Māori since the 1800s and continues to happen today… What was the question again?” He laughs, and with his laugh we all begin cackling. The tangent is always necessary, an essential element of storytelling for Māori, and best be aware, here at Utu, we love it.
A quick reminder of the question, a reshuffling of screens and Renati goes on.
“I’m not even sure what a decolonized art space can look like if we have no example of it. The art world is rooted in colonialism. I’m just rambling at this point. But I guess a decolonized art space would look like a place without colonisers. Get back to me when y’all have an answer.” He finishes with a laugh.
“How do you get past that fear of being misunderstood, when presenting your work?”
“To be completely honest,” he chuckles, “I don’t care that much. If you don’t get it, it’s not for you. I’m secure in my talents and intentions. Of course there are moments of insecurity and learning, but I take pride in my work. Often, over the last year specifically, I have been the only Māori, let alone queer person in some spaces. The insecurity is present because my work is super vulnerable and personal, and I’m inviting others into my space to judge and critique. But, at the end of the day, my work is for me and for those who see themselves reflected in it. That’s all that really matters to me when presenting my work. For Māori, I feel like there’s an expectation on us to create work that looks traditionally Māori. My work IS Toi Māori, but not in the traditional sense. It’s Māori because I am Māori.”
A resounding “Āe!”. Our kōrero explodes with personal experiences, brought on by that feeling of mutual understanding and validation. A kōrero warm and solid, that could only be fully understood from within the space that held it. Slowly but surely, we feel the wairua shift, our conversation coming to its natural end. And here, we give Renati our final question.
“What do you want people to take away from your art?”
He answers, voice soft and full of aroha, “I want people to see the world the way I do. There’s beauty everywhere. The way we, as Māori, as Takatāpui, see the world is so special. A lot of people who have been down this awa didn’t have a lot to look up to. But the mahi you are all doing, and others in our waka are doing, is so important for rangatahi Takatāpui. I want to give representation to little me, and every other person who could not see themselves represented in this world.”
We sit with that sentiment during our closing karakia, breathing it deeply, holding it, before letting go of the space.