Ko Aoteoroa Tenei! This is New Zealand!

11 June 2012

She might be better known for her power suits, but a new exhibition at Toi Poneke Gallery confronts viewers with former Prime Minister Helen Clark wearing a moko.

Clark will be joined by Dame Whina Cooper, Maui, Sir Edmund Hillary and other Kiwi heroes in the exhibition Ko Aoteoroa Tenei! This is New Zealand! by artist Johnson Witehira.

Each work features a prominent New Zealand figure, to reflect the people Witehira considers have shaped this country.

"I've created portraits of people who I think are fundamental to New Zealand's sense of identity, and the key thing for me is that it includes both Māori and Pakeha tupuna," he says.

"I was really trying to resolve the conflict you have as being someone who is half-caste, someone of mixed identity. It's like you've got no control over it, you're either considered to be Māori and representing Māori culture, or Pakeha and representing your 'Kiwi' side, which can be frustrating."

The heroes are a modern interpretation of pou-tahahu, a type of carved pillar seen on marae. These pillars traditionally feature important ancestors entwined with one another.

Referencing carving styles from different iwi, Witehira has created each pou digitally using a 2D graphic design aesthetic. The result is a unique fusion of illustration elements that reflect both cultures.

"I was trying to draw those European figures into the Māori world, but at the same time using graphic design techniques and digital tools to pull Māori into the European world.

"Having Maui in there is quite interesting, because from a Pakeha perspective, he is the only figure who is based on myth, whereas from a Māori perspective, we all whakapapa back to Maui - so he's just as real as anybody else."

Born in Taumarunui but raised in Gisborne, of Nga Puhi and Tamahaki descent, Witehira was the typical urban Māori. His heroes were in video games or movies, and te reo was not spoken.

Studying a graphic design degree at Whanganui School of Design, Witehira was uncomfortable when lecturers asked him why he didn't include Māori design elements in his work.

During his Masters degree he began to explore the relationship between graphic design and Māori carving, and has continued this during his PhD at Massey University's Te Pūtahi a Toi.

Johnson Witehira will give a free talk about the artworks and his approach to design from a kaupapa Māori perspective at an artist's talk at 6pm on Thursday 28 June.

Ko Aotearoa Tenei! This is New Zealand! opens at 5.30pm on Thursday 21 June, and runs until 14 July at Toi Pōneke Gallery, 61 Abel Smith St.