Follow the revolution!
In the lead up to New Zealand Arts Month, I was lucky enough to kōrero with three very talented artists from Aotearoa. I’ve been a huge fan of Chevron Hassett, Hanelle Harris and Miriama Grace-Smith for a while now, and talking kanohi ki te kanohi (via skype) was both exciting and humbling. We covered broad and complex ideas around what it means to be Māori, Urban Māori, and a Māori artist in this country. And while each artist had a unique and individual perspective, their kaupapa points in the same direction. These interviews were both insightful as well as therapeutic, and writing this article has drawn me closer to my own identity as a Māori artist.
Chevron Hassett was raised in Lower Hutt on an urban marae setting. He is currently working on a mural with kids from his neighbourhood and is also on a visual arts residency with the Wellington Council, through Toi Pōneke. Chevron was born from art. His parents literally met in art class in high school and he grew up around creatives.
“It felt 100% negative to be Māori growing up, so I would never express it outside of my family. I went to a school which was predominantly Māori and Pasifika. We were all around one another and we all felt the same, so that says a lot. Not until I was at university and my perspective changed, I became no longer shy to be Māori.”
Chevron naturally upholds tikanga and kaupapa Māori in his work, influenced by his father who was a carver.
“I like making sure that when I work with someone, they are not a subject. They are a person; this is their life and their voice being represented. I try to experience and listen to their mana and their mauri. Probably the most important value out of my work at this point in time is Whanaungatanga - establishing and maintaining relationships throughout my community.”
Te Manawa Tapu sculpture - Chevron Hassett
Chevron understands that tikanga is ever evolving, and different approaches are required for different circumstances. Despite stigma around growing up in the city, Chevron has maintained his mana and is proud of his roots. In regards to being “urban Māori”, he explained.
“I’m really proud of it. I tried to run away from it, but I can’t. There’s more Māori in urban settings than not and there’s still a stigma towards us. In some cases, you’re seen as less Māori for living in the city, but it’s not our fault. We’re some of the only native people around the world who do live in the city and flourish.”
Looking forward, Chevron says we have to be strong.
“Our generation is born of more than one culture. You look at all the great western artists and you can see they’ve been influenced by other cultures, by people like us - Oceania, Native American, South American… We’re leading in a lot of ways but I want to see people of my age group flourish in a global sense. I feel like there’s space for us to fit on the world stage. I don’t know how exactly, but I know there’s a way.”
A Place Tū Be - Chevron Hassett
Auckland filmmaker and creator of the ground-breaking webseries Baby Mama’s Club, and co-writer and co-director of the hit show Ahikaaroa, Hanelle Harris is a force to be reckoned with. I called her up with the intention of asking a few questions, but the kōrero swiftly turned into an incredibly rich hour and a half long discussion about what it means to be Māori in the art world.
We talked about Hanelle’s experiences with Baby Mama’s Club, as well as the systems we have to challenge in order to be ourselves and fight for our community. It’s been tricky to whittle down the ideas exchanged into a few pages, but here’s the tea:
When I asked her where she saw the future of Ngā Toi Māori headed, Hanelle threw out some quality whakaaro.
“I see a lot of things happening. Firstly, I see us reclaiming sovereignty over our stories. To date, even though a lot of Māori and Pacific films have been made and done well, if you look behind the kaupapa of the films and check who was involved, there is still a lack of Māori voices behind the Māori faces on screen. Writers, directors, producers - often only one out of the three is Māori. We need to step into key creative spaces, and hopefully fill out all three of them so that stories are by Māori, for Māori.”
“There is still a lack of Māori voices behind the Māori faces on screen. We need to step into key creative spaces ... so that stories are by Māori, for Māori.”
Hanelle believes in the power to heal people through the screen, “Representation matters because it validates our place in society. When you get characters on screen who are authentic and relatable, you feel validated and like you matter. It’s that simple.” She continues, “I think another way to heal and move forward is to ask ourselves: how do we decolonise our practices in our craft?”
“Decolonising the processes in which we work is vital to the future of Ngā toi Māori, as a lot of the time those structures don’t fit Māori very well. So I ask - how can we continue to build structures for other emerging practitioners without making them conform? So that they are reaching their potential in a way which is both guiding and understanding of them and the way they work.”
When speaking on the future of Ngā Toi Māori and her fellow creatives, Hanelle exclaims that “Māori producing is amazing!” Fellow creatives who are in the same waka, such as Kristen Ross and her partner Hōhepa Tuahine who made Pipi Mā, are also exceeding expectations of Māori in the entertainment industry.
Quinton Hita is another awesome creative building capacity for emerging practitioners. Hanelle expresses her gratitude to him for believing in her, as well as other rangatahi. To whakamana rangatahi so they can reach their full potential is key. But this is only possible with the breaking down of barriers and re-building environments that nurture and work around tikanga.
Left photo: Hanelle Harris photographed by Apela Bell
Right photo: Hanelle on set photographed by Mataara Stokes
Miriama has been making art since she was a wee taitamahinetanga. At Steiner School, she said kids weren’t allowed to draw their own pictures. So, taught by her nan who was an art teacher, she would draw outside of class. Miriama was the only girl in her school who practised graffiti.
She studied fine arts in Wellington to learn as much as possible, knowing that being Māori and her heritage would naturally present itself through her work.
“I was pretty much the only Māori student in all of my classes and I found that quite isolating. I spent a lot of my time trying to explain the obvious about my work in my critiques.”
Miriama grew up with creative parents, so gained a thorough understanding of what it means to be an independent artist from an early age, and she has utilised this information in her adult art career.
“As Māori we have so many stories… I think art has a massive role in the healing process for Māori.”
“As Māori we have so many stories… I think art has a massive role in the healing process for Māori.”
In terms of upholding tikanga and kaupapa Māori in her work, Miriama explains that it happens naturally.
“Not so long ago, I was asked to talk to a group of students about indigenising public spaces (around my graffiti work) and I didn’t even realise I was doing that. Also with my clothing line, Foresight Clothing, it’s the same. I enjoy bringing our unique form of art and expression into the city. I’m noticing even more now with this new generation, we’ve put this twist on being Māori, bringing in a new style and questioning what being Māori means and looks like.”
Miriama and I agree that there should be no rules or limitations, because there is no supreme power in charge of what art should be.
“I feel like there are more Māori in the city now,” she muses, “there’s a crew of Māori creatives supporting each other, different age ranges and mediums. It’s really cool to see that because I didn’t have that when I was younger. I think as Māori being in the city, it can be quite full on, so it’s important we hold this space for others to grow and feel supported.”
We ponder over this notion. Being urban Māori, we are required to push and pull ourselves in various directions - to pay rent, make friends, feed ourselves, stay sane, protect our wairua, and remain connected to our whenua and whakapapa. It’s tough. Along the way, it’s hard to decolonise the mind and body, and a lot of our art ends up catering to the Pākehā appetite.
“When I was doing fine arts I did find myself questioning my art more, thinking I had to change it so that [pākehā] understood. I once got selected to be an emerging curator for a show and found a lot of the talk was about a world that I’m not really a part of anymore… I started questioning myself, thinking they wouldn’t accept my work if I didn’t change it to meet the standards of the “fine art” world.
I’ve never been able to fit into a box. For example, I’ve never had funding for projects because I’ve never been able to fit into the criteria that they (grants) are looking for. I’ve realised I shouldn’t have to change to fit in and maybe they should change their criteria.”
Miriama’s advice? Just keep doing what you want to do.
“What keeps me going is the fact that I know I’m not just doing it for myself. I think about how it’s going to benefit and impact others. We’re eventually going to pass one day and I want to make some sort of difference.”
So where does Miriama see the future of Ngā toi Māori headed?
“I hope it’s going to be easier for the next generation. I can already see things have gotten better in my life time, especially with the presence of social media, we’ve been able to put ourselves out there more. I’m working on this film called Cousins which has been on standstill until now. This film questions us as Māori and I reckon the reason it’s taken so long for it to get made is because if it was made earlier, people might not have been ready for it. But now, especially with our rangatahi, people are ready for it, they want to see it.”
He waka eke noa by Miriama Grace-Smith - photo supplied.
This September is New Zealand Arts Month! You can read more and join the kōrero on Artsmonth.co.nz
Written by Jessica Thompson Carr