Johnson Witehira Brings Contemporary Māori Design to Courtenay Place

4 April 2014

As Witehira launches into his latest public art exhibition for the Light Boxes on Courtenay Place, he runs through the long list of projects he is working on.

Johnson's depiction of Kupe for the Courtney Place Light boxes

Johnson Witehira's Land of Tara - Kupe


To call Māori artist and designer Johnson Witehira a busy man is an understatement. It is a happy thing to meet an artist in New Zealand struggling to keep on top of his workload.

Having just finished the visuals for Hone Kouka’s play, The Beautiful Ones, while working on his Post Doctorate at Massey University, he is designing Māori learning resources for his company, Nga Kakano, creating playable artwork video games and completing a mental health project for Auckland University.

The amount of work coming his way hasn’t hindered his process. Each image featured in the exhibition took Johnson 20 to 30 hours to complete from the research, sketching, refining to the finished work. He wants the light boxes to create the feeling where the figures are welcoming those standing in front of them, “like on a marae.”

Council’s Arts Advisor, Jodie Dalgleish, says: “Witehira's Land of Tara exhibition, with its bold outlines and patterns, will transform Courtenay Place Park into a kind of Paepae presenting ancestors in light boxes that represent the carved pillars, or pou-tāhuhu, of a Māori meeting house. Of particular interest in this contemporary context, is Witehira's knowledge of Māori and Pacific designs.”

Witehira says the light box figures illustrate the history of Wellington in terms of the early Māori navigators. “When I’m doing figures like Kupe and Toi I’m actually doing them in a style that looks more Polynesian then Māori. As the figures get closer to our time, I’m making subtle changes to them so that towards the end they look very Māori. Through each figure I’m trying to show an evolution.”

In 2012 Witehira was selected from 131 applicants for the Chorus Digital Art Contest and flown to New York where his work was exhibited in Times Square, in the first ever synchronised display of digital content. His designs were shown simultaneously on 34 billboards for three days. “It was amazing; you don’t get many opportunities to see your designs in such a big space and so available to so many people.”

Witehira says this is the reason why he does what he does. “My goal as a designer is to bring Māori visual culture back into the lives of Māori, to make it accessible.” One of the projects created as a result of his PhD was a set of Māori Alphabet Blocks, which are being stocked by design shops and education providers nationwide. He is currently designing Māori wallpaper as part of his post doctorate studies.

Witehira, of Tamahaki (Ngāti Hinekura), Ngā Puhi (Ngai-tū-te-auru), Ngāti Haua and New Zealand European descent, spent six years studying the use of Māori imagery and patterns for his PHD at Massey University’s Te Putahi a Toi, School of Māori studies.. “In some ways the doctorate has given me the authority to use those traditional art forms in my own way. I don’t do it lightheartedly.”

He was recently commissioned to design the cover for magazine Corporate Knights (distributed by Washington Post and The Globe). The cover, titled Business Power and the Indigenous Renaissance, will include Witehira’s own Māori typeface, Whakarere, alongside his artwork.

Witehira's Land of Tara exhibition opens at Courtenay Place Park on Thursday 10 April and runs until 3 August 2014.