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The Personal and Political

The late Richard Kake, from Leilani Kake’s installation Tino Rangatira Tanga.
Tuku iho’ features a diverse range of artwork including graffiti painting, photography, cast bronze and multi-media objects by four recent graduates: Reweti Arapere, Erena Baker, Liz Grant and Kylie Tiuka.
Reweti Arapere, Ahika, 2009, aerosol on plywood, 535 x 330 x 235 mm.
Erena Baker, Hei mahara, 2009, digital photograph 585 x 490 mm.
Liz Grant, Harakeke in a pot, 2010, cast bronze, 1525 x 610 x 70 mm.
Kylie Tiuka, He Mana Tawhito, 2009, mixed media, 400 x 300 x 300 mm.
Mark Amery reviews exhibitions by emerging contemporary Maori artists showing in Wellington, incl


Mark Amery reviews exhibitions by emerging contemporary Maori artists showing in Wellington, including Leilani Kake’s moving three-part documentary video work Tino Rangatira Tanga.

"It’s an intimate portrait of her father and whanau, and illustration of the enduring strength and relevance of waiata, korero, ta moko and tikanga Maori.”

* * *

A great joy since the reopening of City Gallery Wellington late last year has been the high standard of exhibitions in the new Deane Gallery.  In an upper chamber dedicated to emerging Maori and Pacific Island artists, curator Reuben Friend has demonstrated a keen eye for fresh engaging new work, arranged in strong sensitive conversation with each other, in a limited space.

A case in point currently is Leilani Kake’s moving three-part documentary video work Tino Rangatira Tanga. It’s an intimate portrait of her father and whanau, and illustration of the enduring strength and relevance of waiata, korero, ta moko and tikanga Maori. In Kake’s family such things are part of the rich fabric of ordinary contemporary Maori life. From the exhibition title through to the words of waiata the personal is shown to always be political, making plain the need for self-detemination for an iwi as a people, and whanau as a group.

A graduate of the Manukau Institute’s School of Visual Arts, Kake started following the activities of her father Richard Kake as a rangatira or elder (descended from a great Nga Puhi ariki) with her camera, after filming him as part of Nga Puhi’s representation in the Foreshore and Seabed hikoi to parliament in 2004. The work however ended up taking a far more personal and painful path – it starts with her father receiving a full facial moko and ends with her at his deathbed and tangihanga, four years later.

The work is deliberately, and often uncomfortably, intimate for both viewer and artist. The camera is hand held, and as if in the wharenui we are seated close together, and close too to the three walls on which the work is projected. In this way Kake explores the power of the personal being played out publicly in a way which feels completely unvoyeuristic.

With a cry of “I love you Dad” as the camera comes in as close as possible to the drawing of blood from the skin of the face, the close relationship between daughter and father is made directly clear as the video work and ta moko begins. Meanwhile the family give strength and love through singing and chanting.

The tattooing is followed by a korero from Richard Kake (notably the only korero not in song in the work), and then a celebration with more song. However we then move directly to Kake’s deathbed, family singing Bob Marley’s Redemption Song by his bedside, with the Kake version featuring the refrain: ‘is this all we’ll ever have, self-determination song’. From there it’s onto the tangihanga where, in as powerful a choral group as you could hope to hear, waiata before the coffin in the wharenui gives full flight to emotion. The work closes with a slide show of family photographs.

Works this intimate are rarely this touching or rich in political and cultural pull. Structurally it’s a smart, distinctive piece of storytelling, that moves with lightness from one moment to another. It allows Maori concepts and Leilani Kake’s involvement within the story itself to provide a frame. For her the creation of the work was part of grieving and healing process. Yet not only does the work have the universal charge of the sentiments in a Nga Puhi waiata ‘Don’t hold onto anger, here is another day’, its viewpoint of Maori counters that of the news media’s camera - which gets left at the wharenui door, and often leads you to associate moko with aggression, rather than love and self-determination.

The previous show in the Deane Gallery Urban Kainga also explored how Maori and Pacific Island identity is renewed in a contemporary urban setting. A key artist in that show was Reweti Arapere with a clever rich melding of the Maori figurative sculpture tradition in plywood (paying a debt to contemporary Ngatai Taepa amongst other) and the grafitti and stenciling of street art.

Arapere is one of four very interesting recent graduates from Massey currently showing at Bartley and Company. Arapere’s camouflage figures are the guardians who challenge you as you enter the space. Compact explosive figures bedecked with the armoury of traditional and contemporary Maori street culture. Playing complex games with matrices of pattern and shape, they carry a personal and political power.

Arapere is joined by Erena Arapere showing portrait work also seen at the Mahara last year and more strong new self portraiture by way of a mihi through photography in lockets to her Kapiti Coast marae, mountain, river and island. A particular debt to Fiona Pardington can be sensed here.  Outstanding are Liz Grant’s response to the painted native pot plants of the 19th century East Coast marae, combining her mastery of botanical drawing and work in bronze, their play between two and three dimensions and nature and culture provides a strong movement forward from both Maori tradition and the work of Paul Dibble. Less persuasive for me are the diamond shaped works of Kylie Tiuka, still lacking a coherence of visual elements or a resolved distinctive style.
Across the road at Enjoy Gallery meanwhile is strong video work by recent ELAM graduate Rangituhia Hollis, exploring urban identity for Maori through a cross between documentary and video game aesthetics. Together these exhibitions in Wellington suggest contemporary Maori art is in terrific new hands.

Tino Rangatira Tanga: Leilani Kake, City Gallery Wellington, until 13 June
Tuku Iho, Bartley and Company Art, until 8 May

Written by

Mark Amery

22 Apr 2010

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.