Words: Kirsten Lyttle

In the year of Black Lives Matter, where various monuments memorialising colonialisation and genocide have been toppled, Māori artist Brett Graham (Ngāti Korokī Kahukura, Tainui), continues his more than 30-year practice exploring commemorations from an Indigenous perspective.

Graham’s exhibition history is as extensive as it is international, reflecting study, residencies and engagement with other Indigenous peoples and systems of knowledge across Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, the Pacific and Turtle Island in North America. Highlights include his collaboration with Rachael Rakena (Ngāi Tahi, Ngāpuhi), representing New Zealand at the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007). Or his sculpture TE HŌKIOI (2008) shown at the 2010 Biennale of Sydney. More recently, in 2017, his work was represented at the Honolulu Biennial, Middle of Now Here, in Hawaii.

Tai Moana Tai Tangata (The Sea The People), curated by Anna-Marie White (Te Ātiawa), is a major solo exhibition including new and site specific work, and follows Graham’s 2019 residency at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth. Embracing a range of mediums from film, animation, textile, and sculptural installations, Tai Moana Tai Tangata is shown across all five gallery spaces of Govett-Brewster, exploring the complicated relationships between tangata whenua (local Indigenous peoples) and colonial settlers/imperial forces.

Graham tells the stories of his family history, iwi (tribal) histories, Māori mātauranga (knowledge) and tikanga (lore) through a range of appropriated technologies. His work is monumental in both scale and technique; entering Gallery 1, viewers will be dwarfed by his 10-meter-high work Nui, while in Gallery 3, O Pioneer reveals how his craftsmanship can turn even a gun turret into a beautiful object, seducing the audience with its “wedding cake” aesthetics. Graham’s big objects tell big, complex stories, weaving together tales of invasion, weaponry, war, peace, assimilationist policies, intermarriage, miscegenation, indigenous resistance, and survival.

During February to March 2021, Graham is also in the opening group exhibition at Alison Bartley’s new space on Garrett Street in Wellington. The exhibition, called Recalibrating, also includes work by Joyce Campbell and Lonnie Hutchinson. According to Bartley, the exhibition “re-presents historic work by the three artists who explore non-western world views and the suppression of Indigenous histories”.

In 1992, Graham said that his works were “dedicated to the Indigenous peoples of the world, whose cultures have sprouted, flowered, and then withered in the Winter of colonisation.” Perhaps, almost 20 years later, his work is proof that through the practice of First Nations artists and artisans, Indigenous cultures may yet see the Spring.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 95, January to March 2021.

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