Portraits examine cultural common ground

Conflicting ideas of identity examined

SUZE METHERELL
Last updated 05:00 22/06/2012
Wellington artist Johnson Witehira
DIEGO OPATOWSKI/Fairfax NZ
CULTURES COMBINE: Wellington artist Johnson Witehira has created 2-D carvings merging traditional Maori art with modern graphic design techniques.

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Captain Cook with the Southern Cross in his eyes and Helen Clark sporting a moko is how Wellington graphic designer and artist Johnson Witehira sees New Zealand identity.

His new exhibition, Ko Aotearoa Tenei! This is New Zealand!, which deals with conflicting ideas of identity, opened at Toi Poneke Gallery last night.

Witehira, 29, combines Maori carving patterns and modern graphic design to create digital portraits of influential New Zealanders.

Witehira, who has Maori and Pakeha heritage, is concerned with notions of identity, and in particular finding common ground between his two ancestries.

"That's exactly what I am trying to do – it is really to try and bring the two cultures together. In order to do that, I am producing art that reflects how the two cultures look at the world."

A trained graphic designer, Witehira is currently studying carving for his PhD at Massey University.

"It is one of those things that every single piece of carving I look at I can find something different. I can find something interesting."

Much of his inspiration centres on the intersection between the two cultures in New Zealand, and how differing techniques and styles can be combined to create a unity between the two.

"Digital art in terms of Maori art has always struggled to get recognition because it doesn't have a whakapapa, it doesn't have a lineage, so it's not recognised in the same way as carving or ta moko."

In creating the digital portraits, he has been able to explore his own identity.

"It was kind of a way to ground me. Find my whakapapa. I grew up as a suburban Maori, and we didn't really have much to do with our marae.

"I didn't have any Maori heroes, mine were video game characters or Bruce Lee. And that is so dislocated from where half of my family is from."

This changed when he started studying carving for his masters and learning more about the art of New Zealand.

"The art, for me, has been a good process of reclaiming the other side of my culture."

Witehira will give a free talk about the artworks and his approach to design from a kaupapa Maori perspective at 6pm on Thursday, June 28.

The exhibition runs until July 14 at Toi Poneke Gallery, 61 Abel Smith St.

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- The Dominion Post

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