Sunday, October 15, 2006


When does three sacks of dirt constitute a work of art? Or a row of burning cars? Or even a submission written on an old blanket?

Maybe the former Minister of Maori Affairs, Doug Graham, can answer that question since the blanket now hangs framed in the Treaty Settlement Offices in Wellington.

“I keep sending them a bill for it,” says Tame Iti of the Tuhoe Nation. “Ten thousand dollars for the original work of art with interest accruing at twenty percent annually.”
A quick calculation brings us to the realisation that, since it was presented in Opotiki at the 1996 Fiscal Envelope round of consultation Hui, the work has doubled in value.
“A bit like the land,” I venture.
He nods, “Like the land.”

The burning cars?
“That was for the opening of Te Urupatu, an exhibition in Tuhoe. We arranged these cars along the road leading into town so they represented the foot soldiers, we set the cars alight to remind people of the Scorched Earth policy.”
Iti was sent a bill from the district council when they removed the wrecks; the then Mayor Colin Hammond eventually paid the bill for Iti and accepted a painting from the artist in kind.

With rolled up sheets of building paper under his arm and a paintbrush in his ear, Tame Iti believes in art that is as mobile and adaptable as the artist himself. He currently paints on building paper because “It’s easy to move around with.”

“I believe in taking art to the streets, to the paddocks, to wherever it is accessible to the people. It’s not so much about the artist but that the stories are being told. For Tuhoe it is important that our stories are recorded.”

“What this means in terms of art is that we need to represent the whole story. For instance, James Carroll, the man who supported the Government in the Tuhoe confiscation, is painted into the history of Tuhoe. You see his figure there on the back wall of our Marae. Know your enemy; know who you are dealing with. Don’t forget.”

This theme carried over into his most recent exhibition “Lest We Forget”, held at the Te Karanga gallery on K Road.

"All these works are based around the Tuhoe raupatu, the things that happened more than 100 years ago that Tuhoe has not forgotten about. It's all based on Tuhoe evidence given at the Waitangi Tribunal hearings," Iti says.

Best known for his ability to turn the mirror back on itself, Iti is more than aware of the theatre involved in his sometimes novel perspective and protest actions from appointing himself as the first Maori Ambassador, to the “exercise in dispossession” that the theft of the Colin McCahon artwork was supposed to have taught the nation, and the more recent ‘performance piece’ at the powhiri for the Waitangi Tribunal when it sat to hear the Tuhoe claim, Iti is not afraid to challenge perceptions.

“I don’t just paint for the sake of painting,” he says. “I live it.”

He began to paint seriously ten years ago when he was included in a group of Tuhoe artists invited to exhibit at the Whakatane Museum.

“The bags of dirt were part of my first exhibition. I dug the dirt up from the confiscation line (a disputed boundary line between Ngati Awa and Tuhoe), put it into paper bags and painted chocolate box housing estates representing the exchange, what we were trading. All the main players of the drama at that time were named on the bags of dirt, and invited to come and take their bag of dirt. It was a challenge to them.”

Being mentored in his early days by fellow Tuhoe artist Chas Doherty is something Iti credits as being exceedingly helpful. Working in collaboration with other artists such as George Nuku, Daniel Tibbet and Tracy Tawhio, moonlighting as Dr. TuTu on a few CDs as well as turning up in the odd film and award-winning documentary (“Meet The Prick”), Iti practises a lived-in kind of creativity and is not afraid to manipulate his profile in order to have it work in his interests. “It’s a strategy plan.”
It is by using art as a space to provoke that Iti manages to force participation, “It’s interesting,” he says, “to bring different ideas together.”
Such as inviting Gerry Brownlee to open an exhibition held earlier in the year, titled “Meet the Prick”.
“Actually, the prick was representing the loss of the ure in Maori art due to colonisation, so for me it was interesting to have all these elements in the same room. Brownlee, Georgina Te HeuHeu, the art that told the story of that and so on…”

Examining the elements of that little drama gives you an insight into the artist’s viewpoint. While some may have come to see the paintings and others may have come to see the artist, the real art had already leapt from the canvas and into play with Iti holding the brush.
That was more than enough for Georgina, who apparently did a quick waiata on behalf of her mate and fled into the night.

“Maori art is too conservative by far.” Says Iti. “What happens is that there is a failure of the institutions to dare to take creativity to another level. In fact, 19th century Maori were far more creative than artists today, Maori then didn’t have to spend twenty or thirty years unravelling stuff taught to them by institutions in order to get to their core expression.”
Iti doesn’t have so much to unravel, although he does have some formal training.
“Few people know that I went through the Trade Training programme, and am a qualified housepainter. So I already understood the medium.” He says with only a trace of irony. “ All the houses in those days were oil based paints so I got an understanding of how it worked, what it would do.”

“It’s all about telling our stories so that people can read it, smell it, feel it.”

While mainstream media attempt to decode the hidden message of his art, Iti is already moving ahead to the next gig, confident that his message will some day filter through like the slow drip of a percolator.
“I haven’t done my best work yet,” he says. “The best is yet to come.”

The next exhibition Iti has planned will be a mixed media representation of “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Posted by Picasa