This story is part of VICE NZ’s ongoing series on how Māoritanga is being adapted to thrive in 2018. To read more stories about young Māori breaking new ground and creating a world that is both unconventional and drawing on traditional values, go here.
When I first saw an exhibition of Kauri Hawkins’ work, I couldn’t tell if it was an art exhibition, or a dingy student party that I had walked in to. It was at Playstation Gallery, just off Dixon St in inner city Wellington. There were construction materials all over the ground. A group of young people were sitting on a picnic table in the middle of the room drinking warm beers.
It’s a similar situation when we meet to have a kōrero. Kauri (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Pākehā, Kuki Airani) looks like a scaffolder who has just clocked off for the day. When Kauri was young, he told his parents that he wanted to be a builder. Because builders made things. When he was ten, builder became artist.
“Its the same concept, I just dont want to work for someone”
Kauri is a recent graduate of the Massey University Fine Arts programme. He’s currently working out of a studio at Toi Pōneke, and last year he exhibited his work as part of the Hobart Biennale. When I talk to him, he is unapologetically a realist; he deals with his own lived reality in his work.
His mother is Cook Island and Pākehā, his dad is Māori, from Ngāti Porou.
“I grew up on the East Coast of New Zealand. My whole life was basically just going along state highway two. I used to live in Fielding and like small rural towns, like this place called Paihiatua.”
It’s an upbringing that has shaped the work he chooses to do now. The duality of life in small predominantly Pākehā towns, and Te Tai Rāwhiti, an area that is such a strong hub of Māoritanga. Kauri attended Gisborne Boys High School. It’s one of the few schools in the country where you can do whakairo—carving—through official assessment standards. While he appreciated the whakairo work of his friends and other traditional Māori art forms, it didn’t interest him in the same way.
“When you’re like 15 or 16 you don’t really care about traditional frameworks to working.”
One of the first actual art works he created is a flag made from bandanas. It’s inspired by David Hammons' African-American Flag, and patches together a New Zealand flag from paisley bandanas. Among other things, they are a popular motif of New Zealand gangs. The art work received a heavy critique from his lecturers.
“They said, ‘this is so negative, and you’re talking about gangs’ and I was like yes it is! This is how you perceive us. ... If you look at my work, you would see that it’s not exactly all positive, it’s not exactly bringing out the best in New Zealand, you know. I don’t think that will help us. If we're going to move forward, we’ve got to look at ourselves. What can we work on? What’s holding us back?”
His questions are critical, of Pākehā and Māori alike. But at the same time he wants to make sure he is conducting an open conversation with his work, and to invite people to share that conversation with him.
“I don’t wanna nail down on all these things, so that when I walk in and see my own artwork, I feel like shit. It’s just a lot of personal experiences that I try and bring out that I know people are going through.”
It reminded me of the story of Tapu Te Ranga marae in Wellington, and how easy it is for a gang narrative to be pasted on to the lives of brown people. Similarly, I think Kauri has an eye focused on the many brown bodies that walk through this city, unnoticed and unrecognized. Kauri talked about coming back to university, after a stint as a kitchenhand. He noticed the construction workers conducting repairs on the university buildings. They were predominantly Māori and Pasifika.
“When you go into the city in Wellington, the only Māori people you see are the ones in hi vis. They’re sort of invisible."
“When you go into the city in Wellington, the only Māori people you see are the ones in hi vis. They’re sort of invisible. I saw that as a subject matter. They don’t live here, but they’re making all the buildings that are around here. They’re just coming in for a job then going back out to the Hutt or Porirua.”
In the post-Treaty of Waitangi era, so much of the efforts of Te Ao Māori are focused on decolonisation. On re-emphasis of a Māori worldview. One that utilises old knowledge and old stories. Connecting to the traditions that anchor us as a people. But Kauri is the third generation in his family not to speak Te Reo. He grew up around his iwi, but pre-colonisation Māoritanga is not his reality.
“I walk down the road and see roadworks, and that’s a reality. That’s what we’re actually doing every day. It’s not caught up in something that has happened 1,000 years ago, or something that’s not real at the moment.”
Like most of his work, it’s a viewpoint that invites controversy. It is biting realism, and despite any critique, it’s a viewpoint that is relevant to many Māori. I ask him how he feels about decolonisation movements. He takes it with a grain of salt. He cannot see the logic because a lot of decolonisation ideology is spread through social media.
"Mark Zuckerberg bought an island in Hawaii, that’s the ironic thing. That’s what a coloniser does."
Kauri agrees that his Māoritanga has shaped him at the core. If he was raised somewhere else, it is likely that he would be making different art. As he puts it, "all of the great New Zealand artists are Māori". But Kauri wants to be "more than a Māori artist". I ask him what he means. He doesn’t want to be undermined in his success because someone things he is the brown guy.
“Yeah, there’s always this underlying racist tone—'You're only a great artist because you deal with Māori things. He doesn’t actually have substance in the art world because he’s the token Māori guy. He does korus and stuff.'”
He brings up the legacy of artists such as Ralph Hotere. Kauri wants to show his work at the Venice Biennale. I think at the heart of this work, there is a powerful intention to democratise art. Make it accessible for Māori and Pākehā, curators and construction workers alike. Kauri doesn’t give a shit who you are, come and share your realities over his art.
“I think it’s a good time to be a Māori artist that’s for sure. It’s become a trend I guess. But like, fuck it, let’s run with that. If you’re going to pay me, I’m going to do some work. Doing art in the 70s and 80s, getting into galleries was a hard thing unless you’re Ralph Hōtere or something like that.“
His goals are practical too. Make enough money to survive, and to set his family up for life. Be an artist and also a curator, so that art spaces can be built on his terms.
“I want to find common ground in between New Zealanders as a whole. I don’t like to separate things.”