Tame Iti marks 'end of era' for Tuhoe with exhibition
Activist and artist Tame Iti and photographer Birgit Krippner focus on Tuhoe in a new exhibition. An old mattress is key, Iti tells Diana Dekker.
The key piece in the exhibition Iti, at Wellington's Suite Gallery, is a mattress, battered, encased in plastic and symbolic.
Dramatically tattooed Maori activist and artist Tame Iti took the abandoned stretch of foam rubber from an old occupation site in Te Urewera. After its past use and abuse by many people in Tuhoe country it has become an installation. Austrian-born, Wellington-based photographer Birgit Krippner photographed it and Iti, who otherwise contributed paintings for the show.
Iti says the mattress was in a hut 20 years ago when Tuhoe came up against Tuhoe over the felling of trees on Ngai Tuhoe's sacred mountain, Maungapohatu. "We resisted against our own."
Three thousand people own the land around the hut the foam mattress rested in. Some of them have both slept and carved names on it.
"It was created by the people who slept on it and becomes an art piece. It represents 3000 owners."
He's called it Te Manawa o Tuhoe Block.
Iti says the shared exhibition with its common subject stemmed from working with Krippner "and an idea about Tuhoe moving forward".
Most of the work, he says, "is about how back in the Land Court you have land [that] Tuhoe [has] now become shareholders of".
"[Tuhoe] are always there but Tuhoe people are sitting on the fringe. There are Tuhoe who know they are Tuhoe but don't know anything further than that. Large numbers don't know anything about Tuhoe. They don't know the language, all they know is their grandfather and grandmother are Tuhoe.
"How is it, and what does Tuhoe now look like, what shape or form?" His images, he says, mark the end of an era of Tuhoe.
Krippner was introduced to Iti after she was asked to photograph Tuhoe's $15 million tribal headquarters, Te Uru Taumatua, which opened in Taneatua last year and was given the New Zealand Institute of Building supreme award. She asked if she could photograph Iti and took three images.
"One really captured him. Months passed and I heard by email from Tame that he liked the photograph and wanted to meet me."
Last April she was invited to his 62nd birthday and anticipated a big party.
"I drove up and took two bottles of wine and ended up cooking for Tame and his partner and son."
Iti told her he would like to collaborate with her and she began photographing him and his surroundings. "It was the beginning of a friendship with him. Every time I met Tame I took photos, of the Ruatoki house where he lives, how he lives, his family. A few months later we drove to Lake Waikaremoana, a symbolic place for Tuhoe, and Tame went into the lake. It was very cold and you can see the goose bumps. It's a very symbolic photo of Tame and the lake and the history attached. In one of the photos he almost looks like a taniwha."
The exhibition's title has meaning beyond Iti's name. The Tuhoe meaning of the word is humbleness, or in the background. The show was set in train after Krippner introduced herself to David Alsop at Suite "and in the most beautiful way it fell together". Alsop had already contemplated Iti's art while the activist was in Waikeria prison for firearms offences. "I tried to approach him in prison but without much success."
Krippner was trained in graphic design and has exhibited in Europe and New York where she met her New Zealand husband at an exhibition. She has lived in Wellington since 2003 and her first exhibition here, at Photospace Gallery, was of photographs shot in the streets of world cities.
She will show a collection of her Tuhoe images in April at the Harvey Milk Photographic Center in San Francisco.
Iti is a self-taught artist. At primary school in Ruatoki he and the other kids "did drawing and painting on our hands and scribbling on walls". Their inspiration was Donald Duck, Tonto and Phantom comics, and warplanes. When some of his teenage peers were off to art school in the 1960s, Iti did a decorating course at Christchurch Technical Institute - "painting and wallpapering".
"A lot of the teachers came from Scotland, England and Holland, and we learned [art] history. That's my background, interior decorating." He learned about colour. But, he says, he "didn't come randomly" to a lifelong love of art. Tuhoe come from a long history of artists active even at the height of the Maori Wars.
His first exhibition, Blackboard, in the early 1990s, harked back to early school days "when you had to write 100 times 'I must not speak Maori' or you were put out to pick up horse shit and dog shit from the school grounds".
In 1999 he threatened charges over the destruction of his artwork of 14 old car bodies, put through a crusher by Whakatane District Council. Iti had created this roadside exhibition in Ruatoki the year before, placing the wrecks on their sides and using their roofs and bonnets as canvases for protest paintings symbolising the invasion and confiscation of Tuhoe land.
Iti briefly had an art gallery in Auckland in the 1990s and made art during his time in Waikeria, frustrated by the difficulties of getting art materials. That art was "mostly a reflection of when I was in a small space".
He's contemplating becoming a fulltime artist. "Art, I always find, relaxes me and allows me to be more creative."
- The Dominion Post