“He kupu kei runga—There are words attached”

Cameron Ah Loo-Matamua on the indigenous gaze of Robyn Kahukiwa.

Four figures stand in contemplation of a towering sculpture, its twisted metal depicting the scene of a first encounter between Māori and Europeans. A child and her mother gaze at a plaque that details a brief biography of British navigator James Cook, who explored the South Pacific and arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand in 1769 aboard the HMS Endeavour. On one side of the sculpture stands Cook with a rifle in one hand and a raised flag bearing the Union Jack in the other. To the other side, where the gun is pointed, lay a group of Māori whose bodies are only differentiated by the tā moko that clothe their limbs and heads, a fallen patu lying to their outer edge. 

This image, titled Monument (2019), is rendered by artist Robyn Kahukiwa in acrylic, watercolour and ink on paper, and it reads as a sort of prototype or sketch for its titular structure. What if this prototype were to be erected, the work seems to ask. What would it look like placed in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland’s Albert Park, replacing the monuments of Queen Victoria or Sir George Grey? Would it invite the kind of curious contemplation shown by Kahukiwa’s drawn spectators, or would it incite rage? 

Kahukiwa’s Monument was created in response to the Tuia Encounters 250 commemorations, a Manatū Taonga Ministry of Culture and Heritage-led project that marked the sestercentennial anniversary of Cook’s arrival to Aotearoa New Zealand. Part of the project involved the sailing of six vessels across the country, and included waka hourua and other Pacific double-hulled craft as well as replicas and adaptations of British vessels such as the HMS Endeavour. Their voyage was part of a larger year-long programme that aimed to promote a “balanced and honest” historical narrative of the nation, while increasing awareness of the innovations in Pacific, Māori and European navigation technologies and techniques.[1] Across the year hundreds were able to participate as onboard navigation trainees, while thousands were able to observe the flotilla as it sailed and docked at fifteen different locations.

Robyn Kahukiwa, Monument, 2019, acrylic, watercolour and ink on paper, 59.4 x 42 cm. Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of the artist and Season Aotearoa

In a series of essays released in the years approaching the commemorations, and now collected in the book Kia Mau: Resisting Colonial Fictions, Māori and indigenous rights advocate Tina Ngata connected the commemorations to the cultural lineage of the Doctrine of Discovery, an international legal concept developed through the Catholic Church that authorised the exploration and colonisation of non-Christian territories by European Christian nations, beginning in the fifteenth century. As the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues notes, the Doctrine of Discovery “is still being applied to indigenous peoples … and is often marked by the violations of cultural practices and spiritual expressions, expropriation of lands, territories and resources.”[2] In her essays, Ngata voices a critical position that ultimately asks “why should we be basing any celebration of ourselves around the arrival of the forces that sought to undo everything we are from?” To celebrate this, she argues, is to celebrate the pillaging of lands, murder of native peoples and the introduction of new diseases.[3] 

Her position was shared by many, including the late Māori lawyer and indigenous rights activist Moana Jackson. In his article titled ‘James Cook and our Monuments to Colonisation’, Jackson further unpicks the decision to commemorate the anniversary of Cook’s arrival by connecting it to his analysis of monumental forms of art:

… the monument is an example of history being retold. For histories are really just stories that people tell in their own way, about themselves and their past. They are ‘our-stories’ that exclude as much as they include, and forget or misremember as much as they choose to tell. When the our-stories are erected in bronze or marble monuments, they become physical statements of power embedded into the land.[3]

In this way then, the Tuia Encounters 250 commemorations are envisaged as a kind of monument in theatre form, a durational performance of cultural amnesia and enforced colonial power. The flotilla of Pacific, Māori and European sailing vessels peacefully travelling amongst each other becomes a crudely imagined rehearsal of a fleet that never was—especially with the knowledge that Cook shot at a group of fisherpeople within the first days of his arrival, only so that he could better inspect their waka. Indeed, many iwi protested the commemorations by refusing to hold pōwhiri for the flotilla’s arrival, or outright banning it from entering their tribal territories. An iwi representative for the Far North’s Ngāti Kahu said of their ban, “Cook never came into our rohe … it’s a fiction for him to ‘re-visit’ us because he never came.”[5]

In Kahukiwa’s Monument, the fictions that shroud colonial histories are removed. She presents Cook’s arrival as it really was, unequivocal in her depiction of him as a murderously violent colonialist. But the blurred contours and phantasmagoric haze of her counter-monument suggest something more than a sketch or prototype, their faint lines contrasting with the crisp detail of the plaque didactic and family of viewers. What if, instead, we are seeing the depiction of a mental image, conjured by another more staid representation of Cook like the now removed monument of him that stood atop Mount Titirangi for fifty years, or the replica of the HMS Endeavour that sailed into the shores of Te Tairāwhiti Gisborne to begin commemorations? For us as the audience, the assumed fifth viewer of the sculpture, it could be said that we see this scene through the eyes of Kahukiwa—through a Māori and indigenous gaze. Kahukiwa’s imagined scene might suggest that for Māori or other indigenous cultures of the Pacific who suffered the arrival of Cook, looking at these monuments to colonialism already means a confrontation and sighting of the violence and pain of these first encounters, regardless of how their heroes or histories are portrayed. What we can only ever see is “the Indigenous truth of what happened two hundred and fifty years ago,” as Tina Ngata frames it.[6] The colonial project of fictionalising history does not work within this framework of Indigenous truth or spectatorship, whose gaze is often marked by opposition and resistance. 

Robyn Kahukiwa, Honour the Treaty, 2022, from the ‘Sovereign Māori Nations’ series, acrylic on cotton canvas, 120 × 90 cm. Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of the artist and Season Aotearoa
Robyn Kahukiwa, Return Stolen Lands, 2022, from the ‘Sovereign Māori Nations’ series, acrylic on cotton canvas, 120 × 90 cm. Sharjah Art Foundation. Courtesy of the artist and Season Aotearoa

Monument is currently on show as part of the Sharjah Biennial 15 (SB15), in which a major selection of Kahukiwa’s works from 1971 until today are presented. The biennial is curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, Director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, and was conceived of by late Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, who had initially been attached to the project prior to his passing in 2019. In an email to Al Qasimi detailing his plans for SB15, Enwezor remarked that he viewed the biennial “as a module with which to deal with the disruptive power of artistic monolingualism, but also as a horizon of the possible to conceive another theoretical space for thinking historically in the present.”[7] Al Qasimi takes that last point, Thinking Historically in the Present, as the guiding concept and title for the biennial, interpreting it as a proposal to “critically centre the past within the contemporary moment.”[8]

This is a helpful framework within which to view Kahukiwa’s practice, having acted as an incisive interrogation of Māori life within Aotearoa New Zealand over the last sixty years and into the present. In 1983 her work gained national prominence with the series ‘Waahine Toa’, in which she gave painted form to eight atua wāhine who feature in Māori mythology—a response to the then largely male perspective that had dominated the tellings of traditional Māori myths. Completed with the support of a Māori and South Pacific Arts Council grant, Kahukiwa also collaborated with Māori writer Patricia Grace to create the enduringly influential book that catalogued the series. 

By 1990 her work had become fully embedded into national conversations surrounding biculturalism and Māori politics. As part of Haeata, a collective of wāhine Māori artists, her work featured in an exhibition titled Mana Tiriti held at Wellington City Art Gallery (now City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi) to mark the sesquicentennial anniversary of the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. The exhibition was proposed to the gallery by the collective, and was billed as a partnership between themselves, the gallery and Project Waitangi (a Pākeha-led organisation aiming to educate and promote awareness of issues surrounding the treaty and equality in Aotearoa New Zealand). Haeata created a whare wahine (woman house), with Kahukiwa contributing two large banner-like panels, one of which read in large font, ‘TIHE MAURI ORA’. Reflecting on the exhibition, Kahukiwa reiterated that the anniversary “was not a celebration for many in Aotearoa, but a commemoration.”[9] 

Robyn Kahukiwa, Muriranga-Whenua, 1983, from the ‘Waahine Toa’ series, oil on board, 118.5 × 118.7 cm. Ngā Puhipuhi o Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection, Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Courtesy of the artist and Season Aotearoa

At the same time as her work had gained prominence within the mainstream circuit of regional and city galleries across the country, Kahukiwa had continued to share her work in other ways. In addition to collaborating with Patricia Grace for the catalogue of her ‘Waahine Toa’ series, she illustrated a selection of her children’s books and novels. She also provided covers for Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors (1990), Witi Ihimaera’s Tangi (1989) and Tina Ngata’s Kia Mau: Resisting Colonial Fictions (2019), as well as illustrating posters for organisations such as Amnesty International, the Ministry of Education, the Family Planning Council and Kohanga Reo, among others. In 2019, in response to the Tuia Encounters 250 commemorations, she created a facebook group titled Kia Mau for discussion and “korero about the true history of Aotearoa, New Zealand.” Today the group has close to three thousand members. For Kahukiwa the distribution of her work is not confined to the domain of the gallery, instead her work is open to and perhaps relies upon the multilateral network of connections that begins for her with hapū, iwi and Māori, and later extends out to the rest of the country and world. 

In his comprehensive essay retrospective of Kahukiwa’s career written in 2005, the late Māori art historian and academic Jonathan Mane-Wheoki focuses in on the artist’s formal use of text within her paintings, saying: “The significance of taonga had always derived from the stories or kōrero with which they were clothed. He kupu kei runga—there are words attached.”[10] This statement can be expanded out to reflect the discursive nature of Kahukiwa’s work, whose conceptual underpinnings are grounded in a commitment to “the widest possible distribution of the messages and stories through which she strives to communicate with Māori as a Māori artist,” as Mane-Wheoki further explained.[11] Hers is a practice that exemplifies the power of art as a form of political activism, a catalyst as much as it is a mirror, and it is one that we can continue to learn from. 

Header image: Robyn Kahukiwa, Tihe Mauri Ora, 1990, oil and alkyd oil on unstretched canvas, 210 × 358 cm. Fletcher Trust Collection, Tāmaki Makaurau. Courtesy of the artist and Season Aotearoa

[1] ‘Mō Tuia 250 About Tuia 250’, Ministry of Culture and Heritage, accessed February 20, 2023. 
[2] ‘The Doctrine of Discovery: Eleventh Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues’, UN Department of Public Information, updated May, 2012.[3] Tina Ngata, Kia Mau: Resisting Colonial Fictions (Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington: Tina Ngata, 2019), 37.
[4] Moana Jackson, ‘James Cook and our Monuments to Colonisation’, eTangata, 2 June 2019, accessed February 20, 2023. 
[5] Anahera Herbert-Graves quoted in Te Aniwa Hurihanganui, ‘Captain Cook replica banned from docking in Mangonui during commemoration’, Radio New Zealand, 16 September 2019. 
[6] Ngata, Kia Mau, 93.
[7] ‘The late Okwui Enwezor announced as curator of Sharjah Biennial 15’, e-flux, updated November 6, 2019. 
[8] ‘Introduction’, Sharjah Art Foundation, accessed February, 2023.
[9] Robyn Kahukiwa, artist notations, in Robyn Kahukiwa ed. The Art of Robyn Kahukiwa (Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland: Reed, 2005), 90.
[10] Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, ‘He wahine toa: Robyn Kahukiwa, artist’, in Robyn Kahukiwa ed. The Art of Robyn Kahukiwa (Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland: Reed, 2005), 27.
[11] Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, ‘My Ancestors are With Me Always’, Toi Ata–Robyn Kahukiwa (Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington: Bowen Galleries, 1994), 9. This is an earlier version of the later text, ‘He wahine toa…’ 

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