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Robyn Kahukiwa’s Maumahara: Remember

Robyn Kahukiwa is an artist actively involved in the world, not simply the world of images.

In an engaging contrast, Robyn Kahukiwa, a manifestly political artist, spoke in a recent interview about the importance of “intuition” to her creative approach. This reflects the intense yet gentle spirit often evidenced in Kahukiwa’s works. Addressing social concerns directly related to her Maori cultural heritage is not something to contend with at an intellectual distance, but much more heartfelt and close to home.

The integrity and directness displayed throughout Maumahara: Remember, the retrospective on view at Waikanae’s Mahara Gallery, bespeaks the artist’s active involvement in the world, not simply the world of images. Many of Kahukiwa’s works are characterised by their illustrative qualities, acting as cohesive drawings as much as vibrant paintings. Moreover, Kahukiwa, throughout the course of a long and richly distinctive practice, seems ready to try almost anything compositionally. That is to say, her work is unified less by a singular pictorial strategy than by a variegated amalgam of methods, synthesising aspects of traditional Maori imagery with some contemporary stylistic turns.

Although Kahukiwa has made stirring paintings on an epic scale, her specialty has often been the clear depictions of strong individuals on a smaller more intimate scale: the everyday moments of mothers and children, the extended family and, as in the portraits The Outcast (1980) and Girl in Bush Shirt (1982), a realism seemingly true to the figures portrayed, subtle and tender rather than sentimentalised or caricatured. One of the most striking large paintings in the show is Resistance/Te Tohenga (2009), a vivid history painting of a history going wrong, an evocation of the current moment in which pressing issues of social justice are often either tabled or exchanged for corporate or governmental gains.

Similarly, Environmental Product (2011) serves as a reminder that treachery towards the environment and its fair use ultimately amounts to treachery towards ourselves. Over three decades, Kahukiwa has made major inroads in revising perceptions of Maori culture and has reinterpreted with great vigour its iconography. Of particular importance is her assertion of the key roles of women, not only in canvases and prints, but in the form of empowering and widely accessible public projects: the collaborative book Wahine Toa (Strong Women) with writer Patricia Grace; commissioned works for Tapu Te Ranga Marae in Island Bay; and even the recent dissemination of her images via Facebook for newer audiences.

As it combines community commitment depicted via sensitive portraiture and graphic media, Kahukiwa’s imagery is reminiscent of African-American artists Faith Ringgold and Kerry James Marshall. Ringgold has also made many children’s books, and Marshall has appropriated the format of superhero comics as a narrative tool, just as Kahukiwa has explored the notion of reclaiming a heroism for contemporary Maori youths in action figures of Maui and Hina and boldly colourful paintings like Whaka hokia te Whenua (2007).

Her interest in communicating to younger people through such gestures, which to some could be read as mere novelty or oversimplification, is actually a crucial aspect of her practice, as it engages in continuing a line of discourse from generation to generation. The pedagogical feel of much of the artist’s work is also not entirely unusual, given that Kahukiwa first devoted herself to art-making on a full-time basis after years spent working as a teacher.

Curator Hinemoa Hilliard does an admirable job of presenting and contextualising Kahukiwa’s diverse art practice, despite awkward gallery spaces that don’t allow much visual breathing room for such an inclusive show. The installation features mostly large-scale paintings and graphics in the main room, with a plethora of prints, drawings, books and smaller works in an adjacent space. Also on view is a short informative documentary on the artist, and a catalogue is in preparation.

In a brief statement posted in the entryway, Kahukiwa says: “Greetings to all people … my strength is not that of the individual but that of the many.” Certainly many styles and notions are conveyed and converge in this insightful survey of one of the most significant artists of Aotearoa New Zealand. An essential show.

MAUMAHARA: REMEMBER, Robyn Kahukiwa, Mahara Gallery, Waikanae, until April 29.