culture | 25 october 2017
Jordana Bragg talks with artist Kauri Hawkins ahead of their trip to the inaugural Hobart Biennale in Tasmania, where they will be representing Aotearoa and the Artist Run Initiative ‘Meanwhile’.
interview: jordana bragg
artworks: kauri hawkins
portraits: russell kleyn
Jordana - The first time I encountered your work was at Thistle Hall (293 Cuba St, Te Aro), a year or two ago. From memory it was an impressively rendered small scale oil painting of Drake. Since then I have noticed your developing found object and moving image work.
To start with - can you talk me through your most recent video titled - “Fall in Line”.
Kauri - That work was inspired by the Māori Pioneer Battalion for the First World War and I wanted to look at the influences that these men and their decision to go to war for Britain had on Māori 100 years later, especially Māori men.
The video is a contemporary view of labourers within the city of Wellington with found-audio cut over to tell the story of The Maori Pioneer Battalion, who were sent to dig trenches and maintain communication lines in the heat of battle, while labourers are paid an hourly rate to dig holes for contemporary infrastructure. The commercialisation of the Māori male was a particular reference point for the video
Do you have a preference between working with physical materials or video footage? or does the concept determine the medium?
The concept determines the medium: I see myself as a multiple-disciplinary artist who can articulate certain ideas in various ways, video and sculpture being two while I also have skills in design, painting and performance. If I had to pick one it would be sculpture, I like working with my hands, physically crafting objects.
However it's all down to the concept of what the artwork should represent. For example, the road cone represents a particular object within the street. It’s usually seen as a barrier - a clear delineation between spaces within the street. With my cone artworks I’m trying to figure out the deeper meaning of that object.
Whereas my film work explores different narratives and combines them. A road cone is a particular object with a particular context but the video work that I make is using conflicting material to make a single narrative, to remake a new storyline, something that creates its own meaning. For example 'Fall in Line' was going on a digital platform and needed to be viewable on the phone - in that instance a sculpture or the video of a sculpture wouldn't have had the same impact.
In Aotearoa high visibility fluro orange is synonymous with construction and road work(ers). The colour permeates the majority of your physical objects, when did you first recognise the colours' symbolic potential?
I noticed that there were actually two colours of hi-visibility clothing, yellow vs orange. When I first started making these works I was looking at who was wearing which colour and my work became particularly orange. The men that were wearing orange were either Māori or Polynesian , while a police officer or contractor would predominantly wear yellow and are usually Pakeha.
This particular reference between the colonised and coloniser is the basis for my work. While this may seem like a generalisation, it has been my experience to see people who hold authority over a particular space such as Police officers wear yellow hi-viz whereas you might never see a road worker simply because they are wearing orange. The policeman is visible whereas the road workers are uncannily invisible - but they’re both wearing hi-viz.
"The men that were wearing orange were either Māori or Polynesian , while a police officer or contractor would predominantly wear yellow and are usually Pakeha. "
Your work is clearly an exploration of the contemporary issues surrounding Māori as we move through the 21st century. How does your use of the found object or “ready made” lend itself to these concerns?
I think the found object within these urban environments provides context and conceptual information that I try and Maori-fy because of the relationship we have now with these objects for employment within the urban environment. What they signify, what they mean to us.
Road signs and road works are possibly the endpoint of colonisation in terms of the land. Once you’ve sealed it with tarseal you’ve sealed it forever. You’re killing that part of the earth. Nothing can grow through that tarseal. For an hourly rate Maori and Polynesian men are paid to do this daily. I had an experience on the weekend where a labourer said to me that his contractor is constructing houses in the Hutt. The houses were priced up to $700,000. The contractor said he could never afford one of these houses, but he was the one building the structure.
Working backwards - where did you grow up? does this place have bearing on the work you make now?
I was born in Palmy. I then moved to Fielding. Then I moved to a small place called Pahiatua. When I was 10 I moved to Turanganui-a-kiwa (Gisborne) where my father is from. Gizzy provided me with a Maori world view because of to a lot of Māori, that place is the centre of the world. A lot of Pakeha history begins with Captain Cook, he landed in Turanga first and I always knew that growing up. It was only when I came to University did I come to understand what the implications of that first visit were. I guess you could say that event has a clear influence on the work I create, a genesis point for me.
Although I grew up in New Zealand my mother is also from Rarotonga through her father. What I've only just begun to understand is how important my whakapapa is in terms of being both Maori and Cook Island Maori but also being from a area where the Māori navigational waka landed followed by Captain Cook on the same path. This foreshadowing of Colonialism is what I try to portray in my artwork
I left Turanga at seventeen in the hopes of pursuing an art career, studying at Massey University in the School of Art. The only Maori people I saw were road workers in the central city. The culture shock of the urban environment lay the conceptual basis for my artwork I create now. It made me feel as if they were just servants. They were second class citizens paid an hourly wage to create the buildings for the educated man to work in. I felt that I was supposed to fulfil that role. So I actively make work against that notion.
Looking forward - From the start of November Jesse Bowling and I will be in Tasmania (AU) with you for two weeks to represent your work and New Zealand in the first ever Hobart Biennale. Excited?
Yes. Excited for the opportunity, and actually wrote this down as a goal, not Tasmania but to be an international artist exhibiting over the world, this is that first opportunity and I plan to take it with both hands. Thank you Jordana and Jesse for putting your confidence in me to represent Meanwhile.
You will be producing a public sculpture “Te Ara Te ao Hauāuru” for the biennale, what should we expect to see?
A contemporary Maori road sign: it emulates the front face of a Marae but also within the design is the evolution of convict labour to manual labour. It’s going to be big and it will stand around 2 and a half meters of black, yellow, red, and blue. Made of aluminium.
'Te Ara Te Ao Hauauru' means 'The Pathway to the Western World'.
Aotearoa has an undeniably dark colonial history. In jumping ‘across the ditch’ we acknowledge Australia is no different. Do you have the intention to produce a video component to address this connection between here and there?
The initial concept revolves around five Maori prisoners who were sentenced to transportation for life from Wellington to Hobart in 1846. These men arrived on the shores Hobart and they were given sympathy by the Tasmanian council: basically they saw these Māori men with moko and korowai as men who had defended their own land and had been wrongfully imprisoned for it, a precarious notion given the fact that Aboriginal people were not recognised for doing the same.
They were separated from convict labour, duties and life. Their experience within Hobart was possibly more positive than Aotearoa at that time in its colonial history. Four did however return to Aotearoa after one fell ill and died on Maria Island, the death prompted an inquisition as to how these men came to be in possession of the Australian government, their sentences were revoked and they returned to the Whanganui river in 1847.
This feeling of new beginnings is quite relevant for Maori today in moving to Australia or who have already moved there - I would like to articulate that in my video work.
On a lighter note - have you ever been to Tasmania? What do you hope for while we are there?
No I haven’t been to Tasmania. Beer, heaps of cheese, and the occasional wine.
I am interested to see how Australian artists connect with the native cultures of the land if at all but also I’m just interested to see what the Australian art scene looks like: subject matter, contemporary practices, and possible further shows…
But first and foremost: BEER.
Kauri Hawkins: Website
Kauri Hawkins: @brocasted
Jordana Bragg: @jordanabragg
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