Could you give us a bit of background about your practice as an artist?
On my father's side, my grandfather's brother was a carver from Ohinemutu. Doc Taepa is what he was mostly known as, but Taunu Taepa was his birth name. My dad is a carver and a clay-worker. And on my mother's side, my grandmother is a painter. So I grew up in an artistic family and for those of us who were fortunate enough to, art isn’t a learned thing. It's just part of who we are as creatives.
My early influences were probably my mum's mother, in painting. As a young kid I did a lot of landscape painting and paintings of birds with my nan. Dad was carving houses with Jock McEwan when he was working at the prison, so I was exposed to the customary arts as well.
When I got to Te Aute College [in Napier] our art teacher, Mark Dashper, was working on Te Whare o Rangi and doing the kōwhaiwhai panels for that house. It's a really big house and it was a special time to be there, as a 13-year-old to an 18-year-old. It made a big impression on me, being around a house being built. The carving, the weaving.
Then I went to study at Massey with Bob Jahnke, Kura Te Waru Rewiri and Shane Cotton, and others like Pare Richardson, Taiarahia Black, and Julia Taepa. Mason Durie was the head of school then, so led by him we had a group of academics who were in a revitalisation stage and were passionate about Māori development. We were part of that. And we were fortunate enough to have a kaupapa Toioho ki Āpiti, the Māori Art kaupapa, being grounded in Māori studies, which meant that we always connected with other aspects of our culture – it wasn't done in isolation, and that was deliberate and designed.
It was during that time that I formally decided to focus my master’s on kōwhaiwhai as a subject. During my master’s I was fortunate enough to be able to do the kōwhaiwhai for the mahou on Taharoa, Bob Jahnke’s marae. Shortly after that our house, Tutanekai, was burnt, so I also worked on that restoration.
From my master’s onwards I decided to commit to being a student of kōwhaiwhai, and I’ve been learning ever since.
When you talk about being around art from very early, you must learn that the non-written is just as important as the written.
Well it is our oldest language. You know another word for kōwhaiwhai is tuhituhi, which is the word we now use for writing. Kōwhiawhai was the writing of our ancestors. That's the way they decided to describe what they saw in the world through the written language of tuhituhi or kōwhaiwhai. I'm quite conscious that this art form pre-dates, in our culture, the written word and part of my master’s was the impact of the written word on our visual culture and on kōwhaiwhai.
Could you describe how this project started?
I had my third show at Tino Kori in 2007. It was during that time when I was trying to put myself in a place where I could learn about this taonga, kōwhaiwhai. And I was also engaging – and have been ever since – with karakia and whakapapa, and kōrero that relates, in this sense, to the creation of all living things.
Te Haeata was an exhibition that looked at started in Te Pō, in that space of absolute potential. Then you work through looking at each different aspect of Te Pō and think about how that related to everything: The growth of a child, the development of an idea, the space we live in. That exhibition was on show in Wellington and (then-Curator Māori) Chanel Clarke made contact, with the support of (then-Curator of Ethnology) Roger Neich. And I know that Roger was involved with that acquisition. And I was pretty blown away because he was one of our major texts. He committed his whole life to trying to learn about our painted histories. So it's nice to be here, as I acknowledged earlier, and he was part of that.
What is it like to have your work in Māori Court? How do you feel that your work relates or speaks to the pātaka panels that were there before?
As an artist, as a practitioner, it's a massive honour, but it's also quite daunting to be in amongst things that you revere. The pātaka, Puawai o Te Arawa: these are like our Mona Lisas. These are the things we’re marvelling at, going 'Man, how did anybody do that? Our ancestors were amazing!' And that's not being boastful, that's just being in awe of these taonga that they left. But as a practitioner, you never see yourself in that at all. I do what comes naturally to me, and if people engage and enjoy that, then I'm happy that I've contributed to others.
Knowing that it's a continuum, and that things never stop. Here's some of our thinking of this time, that connects to the future and the past.
But seeing our pātaka was like, ‘oh kei te pai. Kia ora.’ My tūpuna are here. This is in another rohe, it's Ngāti Whatua, it's another area, the land that we're upon, so I'm conscious of that. But when I saw that actually, my ancestors are here too? Kei te pai, kei konei ko tūpuna. There was a comfort that immediately washed over me when I saw my tupuna here.
The relationship for me is the space really. I've come here before specifically to see those taonga. So it wasn't lost on me that they're leaving. The relationship for me is that they've created a space for this mahi to go in and that has been decided by yourselves.
To be able to come into a space and engage with the taonga there has been a real privilege. And I say privilege because it's not always the case with taonga. You know, they're very intimate, personal, and therefore they're cared for and looked after in a certain way. We've learned a lot in there, and I hope that's relayed to the people of Te Whānau o Apanui when the panels go back there. That their time here was enjoyed and it was a privilege for those of us who were students of Māori art.
What do you hope or envisage that our manuhiri will take from this work in that place?
I hope that people feel welcome in the first instance, looked after and then also safe and free to explore visually what's in front of them. And for our young kura kids and our young Māori people, I hope that they see that there's a place for them in these places.
(Curator, Pou Arahi) Kahutoi Te Kanawa was talking about the fact that often we think about these places as places that are for the work of our ancestors from a long time ago, even though some of them aren't that old, but we do think about it like that. That's our psyche. So maybe in the context, this work sort of says, ‘we can be here now too'. It's not just people from the past. And maybe too it opens up possibilities for the next generation by displaying a diversity of what our visual culture has to offer the community.
The process, like the pātaka next to it, it's carved and it's wood and it's of a certain time, style, period. The question is, are these places for that, or are they a continuous expression of that visual culture? And I think it's interesting that something that's been done in fairly recent times is being displayed in amongst that.