Pacific art star exhibiting at Pataka

CAREER CHANGE: Niki Hastings-McFall in her studio. "In our family art wasn't an option. It was something you did for fun.
CAREER CHANGE: Niki Hastings-McFall in her studio. "In our family art wasn't an option. It was something you did for fun.

In two decades, Niki Hastings-McFall has risen, along with the prominence of Pacific art, to become one of its strongest performers. A survey show at Pataka, luminous with colour and deep with her trademark exploration of cross-cultural issues, looks back at 15 intense years of her creative practice.

Hastings-McFall has exhibited in hundreds of group exhibitions, here and overseas, and about 50 solo shows in New Zealand. She's the epitome of an established artist. She's been collected, commissioned and awarded. But her whole life and even her career choice, she says, have been "very random. You couldn't plan it. If you wrote a book about it, no-one would believe it".

Auckland-based Hastings-McFall's "unplanned" career as an artist did not begin until she was in her 30s. Her life began 53 years ago in an equally unplanned manner, which she sees, on reflection, as being "more normal than normal".

"I think it is an interesting background, but a really common story. It's right across the board.

"My mother was 15 when she became pregnant and 16 when she had me. That was not a good look in those days. She wasn't allowed out of the house till it was dark. Her parents were European. My mother was born in England and was 6 when they migrated to New Zealand. My father would have been 17 or 18 when I was born."

Her father was Samoan and, in tune with the times, a marriage between Hastings-McFall's mother and father was not countenanced. No way.

"My grandparents were horrified. Dad was an Islander, as they were called in those days. It was bad enough being unwed, let alone a brown man. It was, in the context of its time, how things were."

She was brought up in Titirangi by her English grandparents to believe her mother was her sister – "another classic. I thought she was marvellous. I adored her anyway. She moved out after she had me, basically".

Hastings-McFall's grandparented childhood was happy and loving.

"They were great. Dad [my grandfather] died when I was 19 and mum [my grandmother] died about 11 years ago, unfortunately. We were a pretty tight unit."

She found out "by mistake" when she was 10 or 11 that "mum and dad" were actually her grandparents and that her father was Samoan. She wasn't fussed at the time. Her mother and stepfather "now grow award-winning olive oil up north. Funny, eh. It's really common. Just human." Mother and daughter, she says, are estranged.

Hastings-McFall was mildly interested in art as a child – "making rice and lentil pictures, scribble patterns and painting".

She went to Auckland Girls' Grammar School, but did not take art. "In our family art wasn't an option. It was something you did for fun."

At Auckland University she "basically kicked up my heels", waiting for career inspiration to strike. It didn't and she ended up working in bars and restaurants, "mostly restaurants. The work wasn't so grubby".

At 30, an enthusiast motorcyclist – "hanging out with bikie people"– she went to Britain and worked for a pit crew. Back home, fed up with the hospitality industry and at a loose end, she tripped off to the "labour exchange", thought learning how to make jewellery could be fun, and was accepted for a course at Manukau Institute of Technology.

Almost in the same moment she had an intense yearning to know the father she had never met. So, simply, she looked him up in the phone book. "He was living only a few kilometres away."

He was also dying of cancer and had a few months to live. He was thrilled to see her and they "hung out" together before he died. She found she had four younger half-sisters.

Until then she hadn't been to Samoa, or even thought about it. She visited, as she has often since, and found answers to her life and ancestry. They informed her newly developed intense interest in making art.

"I loved Samoa. I felt really at home. I loved everything about it."

She began to research Samoan history and the impact of colonisation there and in the wider Pacific – "catching up".

"I found it interesting, the whole thing of totally different cultures meeting and how they worked together." She also accepted she was neither pakeha nor Samoan, another influence on her fledgling art practice.

"I still find some things that aren't are more interesting than things that are. You can be who you are. You're never going to fit in. When I was young I was very dark skinned and given a lot of grief for being dark, and then you go to Samoa and people go: 'You're not a Samoan'.

"I always qualify it. There's a lady up the road who says she knows another lady with those tattoos [Hasting-McFall's], 'but she's a proper Samoan'. I've had people give me a hard time saying I'm not Samoan.

"I always say I'm a pakeha Samoan. People get a bit funny. You realise you're not one thing or the other. It means you can be who you are, whatever that may be."

Hastings-McFall first made her name as a jeweller in the early 1990s. Within a few years she'd "gone as far as I could with jewellery. I found it brought up other things I wanted to explore. I was really interested in jewellery, researching and exploring, but that led to other things I couldn't do with jewellery. I wanted to make objects without the whole conversation about body adornment. Today there are definitely elements of jewellery and jewellery-making in my work. I don't deny it or repress it. I've always been inclined to making objects about ideas".

The materials she uses include synthetic leis, a cliche and symbol of Pacific warmth and colour. Typically she covers furniture and everyday objects with them. For the Pataka exhibition she has used petals like wallpaper.

The exhibition has work from her past lei, lightbox and lamp series. Her latest work, Variance, incorporates favoured materials like road signs, vinyl and acrylic. "It's a continuum of a series, layered and more complex."

It continues to explore the interface between Western civilisation and settlement in the Pacific and its impact. She's influenced by stained glass church windows in the Pacific and in Medieval European churches – "using the light coming through the church windows, a way of meditating and considering and thinking and using materials and patterns.

"It goes on and on."

The Dominion Post