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Introducing 2021's Arts Laureates

07 Aug 2021
Meet this year's class of world class creatives given one of the Aotearoa arts most recognised honours - including a new, unique bond for a talented father and son.

Being recognised by your peers and your famous dad is a big deal for renowned New Zealand sculptor and installation artist Brett Graham.

He’s one of the country’s finest who’s been elevated to Arts Laureate status by The Arts Foundation Te Tumu Toi in the 21st year of the event, winning the My Art Visual Arts Award.

And father Fred Graham was given a sweet surprise at a special function on the eve of the awards, which celebrate and empower outstanding artists across all genres.

The 93-year-old is one of the Arts Foundation’s 20 living icons of New Zealand and was still glowing with pride after finding out his son is becoming a laureate, when they sat down to talk to The Big Idea about their achievements, their ideals and their relationship.

“It was a .. “ Fred hesitates as he fishes for an apt description of his emotions.

Brett helps out - “A big deal.”

“Yeah, a big deal. It was good. 

“Awards and so on are part of life I suppose .. and other people are also responsible”.

His son is admiring his impressive bronze trophy that signals his entry into an elite club of creatives - and like his illustrious father, Brett is taking it all in his stride.

“Today was lovely.  It was a wonderful day and we appreciate all that’s been done. Being recognised by your peers is definitely a boost for what we do”.

It’s all about whānau for the elder statesman of Aotearoa sculptors.

“I’ve always encouraged all my family.  My daughter’s name is Katherine, and Brett is B… and my other son is G, Gary (Brett interjects “all good colonised names”)... I call them the KGB.

“I just let them decide what they wanted to do.  I find it takes a while for some people to decide... what they want to do”.

Fred Graham has the room in the palm of his hand as he celebrates his son Brett (sitting in white) becoming an Arts Laureate. Photo: Supplied.

Brett Graham has strong views on the country’s tainted colonial past and its impact on tangata whenua. He’s been rewarded for his thought-provoking and imposing art works, recently centre stage at the Govett Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth and now at City Gallery Wellington.

“I don’t think it’s provocative,” Brett remarks, “I think it’s telling the truth. That’s the interesting thing about this country, like saying ‘kia ora’ as an operator was provocative .. once.

“In the same way, dad’s work in that generation just making artworks was provocative once.

"Actually, I’m not the radical, it’s him and his generation who were far more radical than I am.  They’d say those things in quiet .. they don’t say them in public.

“That’s the only difference. I say them in public, he would say them under his breath.”

He’s forthright about his art too. Brett’s imposing installations from his most recent exhibition Tai Moana Tai Tangata revisits key events of Aotearoa’s history as witnessed by Māori who suffered during the colonial process.

Brett Graham, Maungārongo ki te Whenua Maungārongo ki te Tangata, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Photo: Neil Pardington.

“They’re never deliberately supposed to be menacing.  It’s just a result of the scale, if a sculpture is going to work in a particular space it needs to be on a particular scale because it has an affect on your body. Physical presence that affects you.  I’m not obsessed with size, it’s just in that space to make it work. And make that space work”.

His father’s past still hangs heavily over his attitude to the past, and how their art portrays it.

“It’s still storytelling. Still trying to make people realise that we’re - for want of a better word - Kiwis.

“We’re different because of living in the islands, this is our story rather than telling other people’s stories.

“When I was in school, I knew more about the Magna Carta than I did about the Treaty of Waitangi. We are different, and our attitudes are different in New Zealand”.

Brett is encouraged by the shift in generations.

“Attitudes are definitely changing. The response to my exhibition was definitely tempered by COVID, the #MeToo movement and things that were happening overseas. With people questioning those systems.

“You see that with the use of te reo and how prominent it is now with Pākehā and Māori genuinely making an attempt to speak te reo. So that’s a great example of that.”

What about the increasing multiculturalism in New Zealand - has that helped us grow up and the way people look at your art?

“Multiculturalism is fantastic. All our lives are enriched by many cultures,” Brett declares.

“However there’s always a special place for tangata whenua. That’s what makes us different. We’ve certainly grown up, which puts more of an emphasis on our identity as Aotearoa and what makes us unique."

There’s plenty more fire in the belly of Brett Graham as he approaches the next dynamic stage of his impressive career, boosted by his new status. His elderly dad is a former Maori All Black and still passionate about sport.

“You remember artists for a long time,” Fred reflects. “I gave up rugby in 1957. But I’m still going at art at 93”.

An icon and a laureate, champions of toi Māori and art in Aotearoa from different generations, but sculpted from the same creative genes.

Meet the 2021 Arts Laureates

Photo: Supplied.

Nina Nawalowalo – Theresa Gattung Female Arts Practitioners Award

Nawalowalo has worn many hats in her career spanning more than 35 years - internationally acclaimed theatre director, performer, mentor, teacher.  But perhaps her proudest is as Artistic Director and Co-founder of Wellington-based theatre company The Conch. 

Nawalowalo has been a pioneer of Pacific storytelling across the globe including the Moscow Arts Festival, Sydney Opera House and the Edinburgh Festival.

She is passionately committed to bringing untold stories into the light, and for using theatre as a vehicle to affect social change. Nawalowalo has received the CNZ Senior Pacific Artist Award was made ONZM in the Queens birthday honours.

Shane Bosher – Burr/Tatham Trust award

Bosher has been a director, actor, dramaturg and producer for over twenty years. He’s been a part of most of the country’s major theatre companies. Most notably, he spent 13 years as the Artistic Director of Silo Theatre before an extended stint directing across the Tasman.

He is the recipient of three Auckland Theatre Awards and has been awarded Director of the Year by the NZ Listener four times. In 2018, he won the Adam Award for Best NZ Play for Everything After

Rangi Kipa – Award for Ngā toi Māori

At the forefront of contemporary whakairo in Aotearoa, Kipa is highly respected as a Māori artist and leader throughout Te Moana Nui a Kiwa.

Kipa is a founding member of Te Uhi ā Mataora, the Toi Māori Committee committed to the retention and advancement of tā moko. The wealth of moko kauwae witnessed on marae in Taranaki today is evidence of Rangi’s dedicated work along with the moko carried by many toa who undertake brave work around the world.

Kipa has forged a practice that investigates how customary Māori motifs, materials and techniques can be re-envisaged in a kōrero between past and present. He has used traditional materials like whalebone and pāua to directly reference customary Māori weaponry, whereas his hei tiki (human figures) – a central focus of his work – incorporate synthetic, composite materials with traditional ones to more explicitly interweave the customary and contemporary.

Maisey Rika – Jillian Friedlander Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa Award

Rika is a multi-award-winning artist known for her honest, thought-provoking mediations on life and Māori culture.

Rika’s star rose quickly, with her first recording, E Hine (1997) – a collection of Māori traditional songs recorded with her school choir, Hato Hohepa (St Joseph’s Māori Girls College) where she was lead soloist – went double platinum, also winning the Mana Reo, Best Māori Language Album at the 1998 New Zealand Music Awards where Rika was also nominated for Best Female Vocalist at just 15 years old. 

Since then, Rika has produced five acclaimed original albums, all of which have all reached NZ’s Top 40 Album Chart and received numerous music awards. Her waiata Hiwa-i-te-rangi is a Top 20 finalist for the prestigious APRA Silver Scroll Award alongside her waiata Waitī Waitā, which is a Top 5 finalist for the APRA Maioha Award. 

Vasanti Unka – Mallinson Rendel Illustrators Award

Vasanti Unka is an award-winning writer, designer and illustrator noted for the originality of her storytelling, her riotously colourful and inventive illustrations and the considered design and production of her picture books. While she has extensive experience in magazine and book publishing, her true passion is creating stories for every child.

Among her many triumphs over the past decade, Hill & Hole, The Boring Book, Stripes! No, Spots!, Who Stole the Rainbow? and I Am the Universe have won acclaim both locally and around the globe.

Harry Culy – Marti Friedlander Photographic Award

Harry Culy’s passion for his craft sees him not only capture moments, but stay in them for extended period of times. Often returning to places and communities that he has a personal connection to, he works on long term projects that often span a number of years, examining contemporary everyday life in both Australia and Aotearoa.

Culy works predominantly with large-format film photographs, and within the expanded documentary photography tradition. He has frequently exhibited across New Zealand and Australia over the last 5 years.

Florian Habicht – Dame Gaylene Preston Award for Documentary Filmmakers

In the world of distinctive voices in documentary filmmakers, Habicht is one that stands out.

His recent success with James & Isey has become one of New Zealand’s most successful box office releases - done with minimal crew and just an eye for both the unusual and the relatable. 

While he’s lived and travelled extensively overseas, including studying in Amsterdam and time in Italy and New York, Habicht’s touch is uniquely New Zealand, as shown with his 2004 hit Kaikohe Demolition, which won Best Digital Feature at the New Zealand Screen Awards.

Nigel Borell - Moment in Time Award He Momo

This is a new award that will only be awarded when someone comes along that fits the criteria - not necessarily on an annual basis. 

The Moment In Time Award is to recognise a change-maker who has had a significant impact on our arts and cultural landscape, in that year (or 12 months before it).

Borell fits that mould unequivocally. The artist and Māori Arts curator was the creative mind behind Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art – the landmark survey exhibition that marks a true moment in time for Aotearoa’s arts landscape. It was the largest exhibition in the 133-year history of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki with over 300 works, the innovative display made it the most visited at AAG since 1989.

Written by Chris Forster.