In conversation with Tracey Tawhiao, a revered artist and curator hailing from Aotearoa, New Zealand, I had the privilege to explore her culturally vibrant, and boundary-pushing artistic journey. Emerging from the rich soil of Matakana Island, Tawhiao’s deep immersion in Te Ao Māori bestowed upon her a profound understanding of interconnectedness—a worldview that permeates her artistic expression. Guided by the wisdom passed down through generations, Tawhiao’s work resonates with an authenticity rooted in the essence of her heritage.
Within the realm of art curation, Tawhiao pioneers a narrative-driven approach, dismantling the Eurocentric gaze that often obscures indigenous perspectives. For her, curation is not merely a selection of artworks but a platform for amplifying voices and advocating for kaupapa and purpose. Her recently concluded December exhibition “Christmas” provided a space for artists like George Nuku, Tame Iti, Paula Schaafhausen, Rakai Karaitiana, and Shona Tawhiao to showcase their profound narratives through painting, sculpture and multimedia collages, setting the stage for her upcoming exhibition, “The Treaty.”
Standing as a poignant response to ongoing governmental discourse surrounding the attempt to abolish Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Tawhiao’s unwavering dedication to spotlighting voices of significance and igniting national urgency opened February 6th, the same day the Treaty of Waitangi was originally signed by Maori and the crown in 1840. In our dialogue, we traverse Tracey Tawhiao’s artistic legacy, unveiling the layers of meaning intricately woven into her own creations and those of the artists she champions, celebrating the transformative power of creativity in fostering dialogue and understanding within Aotearoa and beyond.
“Smell ignites memories and crosses all barriers. Work speaks of colonial influences that melded to become cultural norms today. It will eventually disintegrate. Paula Schaafhausen is a Samoan Artist. The plinth is draped in a painted garden tarpaulin created by Tracey Tawhiao. In her own words: “It is used domestically to cover up things and here it covers up an unattractive white plinth, a true overthrow. Pun intended.”
Clare Gemima: Your artistic journey is deeply rooted in personal experiences, particularly your time spent with your grandparents on Matakana Island. Could you elaborate on how this experience shaped your artistic vision and prompted the use of newspapers as the foundation of your work, incorporating block colours, Māori symbols, and highlighting specific words or headlines?
Tracey Tawhiao: Being with my grandparents on Matakana Island brought me into line with the fundamentals of Te Ao Māori. This is the universe of Māori thinking and being with the Universe. But it’s more—it’s the source of all Māori knowledge and understanding of the world relationally, including the Sun, Moon, and Stars. My grandparents were simple, extraordinary people. They had lost all their land but I never thought once that they were poor. They had such incredible insight, and because of this they were humble but very aware. They were not poor because they were not materialistic. They were very rich in non-material ways. I learnt the true value of things including recycling what others called rubbish.
I was given the whole idea for painting on a newspaper by a long silver fish called Para, or frost fish. It lay like a silver sword glistening in the sun on the seashore with its huge eyes open. When I looked into its eyes, I got a direct and loud message from it to paint it on a newspaper. I knew instantly it was a great idea to paint on a newspaper, as there was so much of it in my grandparents home.
On our island there are no art stores—so recycling materials is usual. Yet, I hadn’t thought of it until that fish communicated the idea to me. I went home and painted a long and telepathic fish. It was my first newspaper painting. I have never stopped painting fish onto newspapers. It’s a symbol for my own enlightenment, of nature’s consciousness. Years later I found the painting hanging in ex-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Auckland office. It was so basic and badly drawn that I asked to replace it, but they insisted they loved it as it was.
The way I paint is wholly intuitive, and I’m gifted not in art but in listening to the unseen and unheard natural universe. All of this I learnt while living with my grandparents. The newspaper taught me to see what others call ‘nothing.’ Nothing means everything in Te Ao Māori. Te Kore, is the expansive nothing, the womb of everything. Soon I was receiving messages from the words left in the paintings. It became the real news. Prophetic.
Clare Gemima: The incorporation of Māori symbols and motifs in your artwork adds a layer of cultural richness. How do you see your cultural heritage influencing the visual language in your pieces, and what significance do these symbols hold for you in the broader context of your artistic expression?
Tracey Tawhiao: The artworks come out of their own accord. They aren’t something I think about consciously, they just are. Being Māori isn’t a cultural heritage, it’s my identity—so very basically I’m just being myself unadulterated. I can’t try to be myself from an objective standpoint. I am myself, and what I create is me. Visual language is just like ordinary language, you are what you think. To be yourself is the most important expression there is. In a colony where you’ve been told you’re not good enough as a Māori and you need to fit in… well, my paintings show simply, “too bad because this is me.” I had no formal training and was criticised for it, but I kept going regardless of the madding crowd’s opinion. I had a great education. It taught me how to think something through from all sides. Especially the sides others may not see until you show them.
“This kind of patterning is called kōwhaiwhai. Part of the tension between traditional Māori art and contemporary Māori art is the living being of Māori art. As George Nuku likes to say, “it’s contemporary today and traditional tomorrow.” I do not stick to the past, I push on through. I have no problem with inventing the new. Indigenous people don’t need to be held back by tradition. Tradition is the grounding for our future. Our future is what we make from where we stand. I recreate my own patterns which are non-uniform and free flowing—just as my ancestors did.”
Clare Gemima: Your unique artistic approach spans various mediums, including poetry, painting, performance, filmmaking, and curation. How do these different forms of expression intersect and inform one another in your creative process?
Tracey Tawhiao: In a colony as a Māori, the idea of being good at one thing is a privilege—not a necessity or a rite of passage. Instead to be heard, to be seen, you most definitely need more than one song on the playlist. Māori are notoriously adept. Everything I express in any medium I use is for exactly the same reasons—to create from my soul, and to express myself without judgement. I was discovering my own identity at the same time as I was expressing it. There is no objectivity until after the poem is written, or the painting is finished. Until it’s complete, I’m very much in the mystery of it. Ideas intersect my heart which informs my hand. It’s a subconscious process moving its way into consciousness.
Clare Gemima: How do you navigate the balance between different mediums while maintaining a cohesive artistic voice across your body of work?
Tracey Tawhiao: These questions are formed from a eurocentric point of view of art. Being an artist of multiple mediums is not like schizophrenia. It’s not in compartments. You don’t have different personalities or motives. Art is simply a creative process for the inner world to be moved into the outer world. It doesn’t matter what the medium is, you are always you. Multiple mediums are your own multiple inner dimensions.
“Rakai Karaitiana is a multimedia Artist. He is Ngāti Kahungunu, like George Nuku. In this exhibition he has pottery, photography, print, painting and three dimensional tablets and collage. He is a consummate artist, a true talent of many mediums. He cannot stop what wants to come, and he has no problem following his heart. I don’t know what to call an artist like him except a marvel.”
Clare Gemima: As a curator, you not only create your own art but also showcase the works of others. Can you share insights into your curatorial approach, and perhaps highlight some artists featured in your previous exhibitions who resonate with the themes and techniques present in your own creations?
Tracey Tawhiao: My very first art experience in a setting outside of my own personal practice, which was done in my kitchen with two small children, was Te Urupatu (Scorched Earth) with Tame Iti. We co-curated an exhibition of artworks that were placed on the land confiscation line in Ruatoki and Tāneatua. Their land had been removed from their possession by an Act of Parliament. I had just finished law school and was aware of how land had been stolen by legislation. So armed with this knowledge we and our whanau created artworks that spoke to this kaupapa. As a law graduate, I was adept at organising things. I fell naturally into curating because as I’ve said, I was discovering my path as I walked upon it.
I was also motivated by a deep desire to ensure Māori knew they weren’t the problem of poverty, but that the system was broken. As the hip-hop group Dam Native says (and also my husband), “you can’t expect a system built to destroy you to save you.” I acted from a place of love for all things Māori. I knew the negative statistics and I knew they were blamed on Māori, and I knew that was a false narrative. I did everything to upend it. Whether it was a painting, a film, or a poem, I had only one desire and that was to expose the lies and diseases.
Clare Gemima: How does this collaborative aspect of your practice contribute to the overall narrative you aim to convey in your curated shows?
Tracey Tawhiao: Curation is a bit of a weird one for me because the artist is the curator. The artist’s work informs the narrative, not the curator. The institutions tend to model everything from a Eurocentric point of view and this leads to labels that aren’t really correct for what I do. For what many Māori artists do. I create opportunities by building a platform for us all to say what we need to express. I also see viability in art as the messenger—the healer. All I do is say what the kaupapa is. What the purpose of the exhibition is. If it’s a group exhibition, I’ll say the kaupapa is “The Treaty,” which is the next exhibition I am producing in response to the current government’s agenda to abolish Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
“This work is a natural flow grounded in traditional tukutuku panels that line the interior of the wharenui. The geometric construction is traditional and imbued with stunning knowledge. For example, the nature of vibrational patterns. I open that whole story up to incorporate the reality of being Māori post colonisation. It’s not such a determined pattern anymore. It’s all up in the air as we navigate our past into our future. It has its own vibration. Being ourselves is the most potent thing we have as humans and as artists. Flaws and all. My line is a stream. I just enjoy the flow.”
Clare Gemima: How do these artists’ diverse perspectives and techniques align with or complement the overarching themes that you believe all practitioners should be concerning themselves with right now?
Tracey Tawhiao: I don’t think anyone, let alone Artists, should concern themselves with anything except who they truly are. The Artist is the last bastion of freedom to think and to be true to their own spirit. I think all practitioners worth anything are true to themselves. It’s very difficult to be true to yourself these days because there is so much pressure to comply and succeed. To take the money and deal with the consequences. There is also a dumbing down of what art is. The commodification of art is multi-edged. I made a concerted effort over covid to look forward and not back. Art processes help me to move forward and to use the worst to make the best. My own theme is always the importance of the natural world. Our personal relationship with nature matters more than ever.
“These works were placed on the confiscation line in Ruatoki at the foot of the Urewera in 1998. The land was partially returned under the Te Urewera Act 2014.”
Clare Gemima: Could you highlight several pieces from your recent show that particularly resonate with you? What stories or messages did these specific works convey, and how did they contribute to the overall narrative of the exhibition?
Tracey Tawhiao: Each artist in this exhibition is well-versed in their own practice, in their own intentions and in their own hearts. They are senior artists or mid-career, as they say, but they are most importantly well-versed in all things colonisation. They are artists because like me, they found their way by following their own natures. My first cousin and also an artist of Te Urupatu, Shona Tawhiao, makes work that is existential. It is both traditional and contemporary, practical and esoteric. Her harakeke woven pods are an example.
I say what she says, “they are seed pods to new life.” It’s difficult for the practical mind to bend into the esoteric, but to have a future we must all bend our minds a little bit every day. Her works inspire because they showcase an ancient practice of raranga (weaving). Māori incorporated esoteric symbols into every garment, every tool and implement. They wasted nothing and maintained their relationship with nature in every design. Shona continues this practice and innovates. This is how it’s a living art, a constant flow from past to present. She is a sacred keeper of knowledge.
George Nuku, is also an artist of Te Urupatu. He is an important artist because he goes into museums and leads our Tupuna Taonga (ancestral treasures) into today. He creates carvings from modern materials and adds them to traditional collections. He has done so in over 100 museums worldwide. He exhibited four carved Patu (club) in this exhibition. They are virtual beings. These Patu show us that our ancestors are still living well within us. This is George’s true genius, as he can unravel the mystery at the same time as keeping it a secret. It’s a golden gift. It’s represented in everything he creates. It just is.
Tame Iti is a dynamic artist who has been labelled many things. A radical, a terrorist, a Tūhoe, but nothing suits him better than an Artist. He is a veritable icon these days. His history is spectacular even before the womb, and his paintings are no less. They’ve always been clues to the Earth’s past, the peoples bones are in the Earth. They rise up when called for. Tame Iti has called them forward many times. At the beginning of every Whaikorero (speech) he brings them back to us, and then he paints them for us to see. We love to see what we never get to visualise in real life any more. He creates visualisations of the past for us. All our people are still here.
“This is a photo of one of my collages. It’s my eldest daughter, she is wearing Shona’s harakeke costume and holding George’s Patu. I have recently discovered digital collage and have an intense passion for it now.”
To keep up with Tracey Tawhiao, please visit her Instagram: @traceytawhiao