On a bright green island: an interview with Emily Karaka

Emily Karaka’s new exhibition, Rāhui, at Visions in Tāmaki Makaurau was produced during her time living and working at Parehuia, Titirangi, as the first McCahon House Artist in Residence of 2021. Francis McWhannell, curatorial adviser to Visions, visited towards the end of her stay and spoke with Karaka about the residency and resulting exhibition.

Date 29 April 2021 Interview Francis McWhannell Photography Sam Hartnett, courtesy of Visions

Emily Karaka, 3 of the Team of 5 Million; Do Not Enter (diptych), 2021, acrylic, oil and pastel on canvas, 1600 x 2000 mm overall.

Emily Karaka, Rāhui; Mana Motuhake, 2021, acrylic, oil, oil pastel and kauri leaves on canvas, 1250 x 1600 mm.

With a career that spans more than four decades, Emily Karaka is one of Aotearoa’s most highly respected artists.(1) Her work explores social, political, and environmental issues, placing a particular emphasis on the importance of mātauranga Māori and tino rangatiratanga. It has featured prominently in major exhibitions in Aotearoa and abroad, including Five Māori Painters (2014) and Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art (2020–21) at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Every Artist (2021) at City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi, Two Artists: Emily Karaka and Shona Rapira Davies (2015) at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, NIRIN (2020).

Francis McWhannell: Artist residencies naturally offer time and space for the making of new work, but, I wonder, is there anything in particular that led you to apply for a McCahon House residency?(2)

Emily Karaka: A good friend of mine, Andy Leleisiʻuao, recommended that I apply. He was a McCahon House Artist in Residence himself [in 2010], and he thought I would enjoy the experience. Over Christmas in 2019, I spent two weeks at Parehuia, an opportunity that is sometimes offered to mature artists. I found that I did indeed wish to hold the residency, especially in the summer. I appreciated the ethos of the programme. I liked the idea of responding to and being part of Colin’s legacy. That is what it’s all about. Coming to this place, connected with a master of New Zealand art, and being inspired, both by the bush and by his painting—having it in your mind’s eye. It was always going to affect what I produced.

You knew McCahon, didn’t you?

Colin visited my first solo exhibition in 1979 at Outreach [today Studio One Toi Tū]. He was teaching there, and Anne, his wife, was taking pottery classes. They both came to the show. For me, it was very special. He stood in front of my work In the Mixing Bowl [from 1978, now in a private collection]. He said to me, ‘I like that painting, particularly the cadmium yellow.’ He was talking to me like he was talking to another painter. I said, sort of shyly, ‘Oh, thank you.’ And he said, ‘No. You will go a long way. You show promise. You will go a long way.’ And I have.

You sure have.

I’ve had breaks, of course, intermittent breaks doing other things, which people call ‘politics’. Really it has been whānau, hapū, and iwi business, and Treaty claims and settlements. It’s about my identity. Some people don’t get that. Anyway, I’ve never forgotten that they were there, Anne and Colin, at my first solo show. And they bought something, a little pencil drawing. Two drawings sold. One was to [Canon] Manga Cameron, my sister’s father-in-law. Colin bought the other. So, it was religious men who acquired the works. They were bush drawings, about walking on a path in the bush. I can’t remember where the bush was, to be honest.

And here you are now in the bush where Colin and Anne lived after they moved to Auckland [in 1953].

That’s what I’m saying. There’s always a connection with these things, isn’t there? In his recommendation letter for this residency, Ron Brownson [senior curator at Toi o Tāmaki] said that the work I would produce here would be important. And I think it is. It shows that there are these artists of the generation ‘after McCahon’ who have gone on.(3) Different topics. Same influence. He was hard-working, Colin, a very hard-working man. I think I’ve been through some of the same personal stuff myself. There are some similarities you can draw.

After that meeting at your show, there was another encounter with McCahon that was important, wasn’t there?

Yes, there was. As you know, I’ve written about it for the McCahon 100 project. My friends, Phil [Clairmont], Tony [Fomison], and Allen [Maddox] all knew Colin, and they told me where he lived, so I knew where to go when I needed to see him. From time to time, I would spot him and Anne out strolling in the Kingsland area, where Phil and I lived, and I would wave. But I didn’t connect with him until I needed to go and see him about what I wanted to see him about.

And what was that?

Dreams and friendships and painting. Things that are important to me. I had a particular dream. It was my first in vivid colour. I had never really dreamt in colour before that. There was a sort of dark Stonehenge form, a huge rock plinth with a tabletop, on a bright green island. [Karaka gestures outside.] See the sunlight on the tips of the leaves of that nīkau there? It was that colour.

Blazing green.

That’s right. Blazing. I was being chased. I don’t really know what was chasing me, but just before I was caught, I managed to penetrate the rock. When I woke, I felt as though I was pregnant, though I knew I wasn’t. I decided to go to Colin. I felt that he would understand. I did these pencil drawings about the dream, and I showed them to him. I told him that I felt uneasy, that I felt like I was pregnant for some reason, and that I kept wanting to rub stones with my hands, like they were little babies.(4)

I told Colin about this. He said, ‘Tell no one.’ And then he said, ‘They will throw stones.(5) And, you know, he was right. I’ve had to deal with people throwing stones quite a lot. There has been much tainting of my character by people with political or pecuniary agendas. It has come from individuals like Ross Meurant, who characterised me as a radical, and from others who have had ulterior motives and vested commercial interests to do with my work on resource consents as an iwi representative.(6) Throwing stones—really, they were boulders!

Was there anything else McCahon said to you?

‘Keep painting.’ Just that. ‘Keep painting.’ One work that relates to the dream is The Treaties [from 1984, now in the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa], which of course has stone forms in it, and darkness, ochre, the earth.

Besides McCahon, Maddox, Fomison, and Clairmont, you’ve spoken about Jackson Pollock as an early influence…

I was very taken with the abstract expressionists in general. Willem de Kooning was a big one. I couldn’t help but be influenced by such great painting, could I? Not that I ever saw the works in real life. I only saw them in books.

I read the other day that De Kooning once made a comment to the effect that bodies were the reason that oil paint was invented.(7)

That’s a lovely comment. Certainly, the act of painting is very sensual. If you’re really into painting, it becomes very sensual. Most good painters realise that when they’re working. You can see how a lot of painters become reclusive—not needing many other people around them, because they have the paint to do the translation, to communicate their thoughts and feelings.

Your work is highly sensual, in terms of colour and texture. It certainly embraces the visceral dimension of abstract expressionism. But, as you indicated earlier, it’s also underpinned by what people often call ‘politics’.

Well, you know, politics is life is art is life is politics. It’s all interwoven, like a whāriki, like a mat. No one is in fact living on an island on their own. We are all involved in politics.

And then you, Emily Karaka, have specific responsibilities.

Things come up. Last week, the king [Te Arikinui Tūheitia Paki] came to a hearing and I was asked to attend the pōwhiri for him. There is a case in the Auckland High Court at present looking at who is mana whenua, who holds mana, customary rights and responsibilities, with respect to Tāmaki Makaurau and its natural resources. On top of matters like that, there is a reconstruction being carried out by the powers that be, who are contriving that there is only tangata whenua and tangata tiriti. It’s like cultural engineering. You can’t help but be very passionate and ask, ‘Why is this happening? Who is this benefitting?’

I’ve only found out about my heritage in the last 40 years, found out that I am mana whenua in Tāmaki. And I very much want to help my children and their children understand that they belong too. It seems that things are being misconstrued. The colonial constructs that people perpetuate—it’s a headache, actually! So, of course I paint about political issues. I couldn’t not. I paint what I see, what my mind’s eye sees.

What inspired you to make the works in Rāhui? Obviously, they are in part a response to this place, to your experience of this place, and what you saw…

They are. Although, of course, it’s not just what I see but what I feel when I enter this place, this domain with Colin’s studio. It’s a heritage site, really. Coming to where this man, who told me that I would be a good painter, got his start in Auckland, it’s special. Being here, understanding that this is where he raised his whānau, is important to me. At the same time, in the bush, I’m greeted by atua, these kauri, and that’s our ancestry. However, when I start to look more closely, I see the ‘kauri dieback’ and it’s really tragic.

In February, when we went back into lockdown because of the Coronavirus, the crisis situation really came into focus for me. I thought of the reality of humanity, where we’re at, and the reality of the atua, the kauri, where they’re at. We’re one and the same. We’re not differentiated. I knew I had to address that and, therefore, I made the show, Rāhui. My iwi here, Te Kawerau ā Maki, placed the rāhui on Te Wao Nui a Tiriwa, the Waitākere forest. However, people can still move about on this street [Otitori Bay Road, where Parehuia and McCahon House stand]. In ten years, a lot of the trees will be gone, because they’re not sufficiently protected. 

I feel that you are also drawing a connection between the Kawerau ā Maki rāhui and the lockdowns, which are sometimes referred to as ‘rāhui’ themselves. The former, of course, is mana whenua-led, while the latter are government-mandated.

They’re both prohibitions. The Waitākere Ranges Heritage Area Act 2008, which has allowed the rāhui to come into effect in an official sense, is an Act of Parliament. The rāhui itself is connected with a tapu. Rāhui is a tapu of a sort. It’s a protection. Sometimes it pr

ohibits people from entering an area or accessing a resource. Sometimes it responds to a tapu tied to the loss of something or someone. It protects. They’re similar, the rāhui and the lockdowns. They protect life, the mauri. That’s the word: ‘mauri’, the essence. The essence of the trees and the essence of humanity are being threatened. I don’t think we’ve come to grips with what we’re facing.

It occurs to me that both a rāhui and a lockdown depend on a kind of common consent. They only work if people agree to abide by them.

The fact that the rāhui is working in Waitākere is evidence to me that people are actually willing to work with mana whenua. There hasn’t been a big march of people opposing the Kawerau ā Maki rāhui! It’s the same with the one at Parnell, which I refer to in my work Rāhui at Taurarua; Kaitiaki at Mataharehare. Awareness is being raised. In particular, people want to protect the big old pōhutukawa in Dove-Myer Robinson Park, on the site of the proposed Erebus memorial overlooking Taurarua [Judges Bay]. There is concern that the works will impact on the tree. The local community has become engaged.

I wanted to portray some of the history of the place in my work. There was a big battle there, at a Waiohua pā. Ngāti Whātua claims to have slaughtered Te Waiohua. It’s been said that they were completely obliterated, but that’s not so. Descendants are still here. Kiwi Tāmaki, mokopuna of Te Hua-o-kaiwaka [for whom Te Waiohua is named], is one of the tūpuna for Te Ākitai Waiohua. I am a direct descendant of Kiwi Tāmaki. The Tainui tohunga Hape, or Rakataura, is a common ancestor for tribal groups in Tāmaki. You can see him in the carvings at the Arataki Visitors’ Centre, not far from here. Rakataura is now included in the official name for Mount Albert, Te Ahi-kā-a-Rakataura.

There are whakapapa connections all over the isthmus. These are the kinds of things that have been distorted by colonial historians for the sake of crooked deals—stealing land. Of course, whakapapa is everything when it comes to land. It’s all intertwined. It’s that whāriki I keep referring to. Some of my best paintings, I think, have been open to a more general interpretation as whāriki or korowai, cloaks.

Pōtatau Te Wherowhero [the first Māori king] warned, ‘Beware the rim of my cloak.’ And the rim of his cloak is the Tāmaki area. It’s also called ‘Te Kei o Te Waka o Tainui’ [the Stern of the Tainui Waka]. That was one of the reasons for putting CULTURAL ID; Marae, Maunga, Motu into Toi Tū Toi Ora at Toi o Tāmaki. I wanted to acknowledge the Kīngitanga marae and Te Whakakitenga, the parliament, and their ongoing relevance.

Returning to Rāhui at Taurarua; Kaitiaki at Mataharehare, you’ve mentioned that pōhutukawa, like kauri, are under threat from disease.

Yes. Pōhutukawa suffer from ‘myrtle rust’, a disease that is also affecting mānuka and rātā. The tree is white in my painting to portray its spirit. The rāhui has been placed and is being supported by the community to protect the tree and to try to prevent the monument from being built there. It’s about safeguarding the mauri of the pōhutukawa and the site. The red in the painting acknowledges the blood spilled during the battle at Taurarua, where Logan Campbell later built his mansion. I wanted to record in my painting that Te Waiohua were not annihilated. People call me political, but I’m only telling the story as I know it.

The other three large works—I Bow My Head, Kawerau ā Maki Rāhui; WRHA Act 2008, and Moe Mai Rā, Tohorā—focus on the rāhui to protect kauri, and they’re perhaps more self-explanatory.

Yes, they are. They look at the rāhui here and further north to Tāne Mahuta in the Waipoua Forest. Tāne Mahuta is really why I included the whale in Moe Mai Rā, Tohorā. They’re both atua, the kauri and the whale. They’re connected in stories that call them brothers, and by the fact that the trees become ocean-going waka. For that reason, I also included a waka pathway in I Bow My Head. Recently, it has been suggested that the whale’s blubber might be used as a medicine, put on the tree roots to protect them against the dieback. I could go on and on. Whales of course are under threat, like the kauri. The environmental cause has to be number one. It’s all related, all circular. And we’re just not taking it seriously enough.

It’s interesting to me that despite the presence of those spectral figures in Moe Mai Rā, Tohorā, it’s gentler than some of the other works you’ve produced.

The whale isn’t necessarily dead. He’s just at rest under the trees. [Karaka gestures towards the painting.] And there’s Tāne Mahuta at the centre, where he always is.

I imagine that a lot of people will be taken with the figures in your triptych, also called Rāhui, which seem to form a protective force, as well as mourning the loss of the kauri.

They are the rāhui really.

And their cloaks are made of fallen kauri leaves.

I think of the leaves as the tears, the roimata, of the kauri. A lot of the elements operate in several ways. The vertical lines on many of the trees are the splits in the bark, where the sap is coming out as they struggle to breathe. But they’re also like threads hanging from korowai.

It seems to me that your works are calling for more attention to be paid to mātauranga Māori. My sense is that you feel that the Waitākere Ranges Heritage Area Act 2008 empowered mana whenua and helped the rāhui to have a more forceful effect.

Oh, it did. It has been very important. And you must know that one of the people who really fought for the establishment of the area was John Edgar, the sculptor, who just passed away.

He was a close family friend. I have fond memories of visiting the Karekare house that he and Ann Robinson shared when I was young.

Speaking of whānau, or whanaungatanga, I know you were interested in the references to family in my paintings. Really, I’ve always woven whānau into my work. I think of Hinewaka [from 1996], which shows me and my three children in a waka. Whānau is really my core value. It’s political, especially today, to be so staunchly whānau-based. There’s this other creature now, this cold, hard, corporatised, digital animal—a new kind of human.

What some people call ‘Homo economicus’.

It’s quite something else, this being. Unfeeling, unscathed, untouched, decultured. It certainly isn’t cultured. It has nothing to do with indigenous values.

Part of what put me in mind of whānau was seeing your great granddaughter, Emily-Rose, in Rāhui; Mana Motuhake. That got me thinking of your descriptions of her painting alongside you—both of you gaining strength from one another, especially during the Level 3 lockdown in February. I also know that her mum, Jess, has been out here with you a lot, and has been a great support.

Having my moko, Jess, with me at Parehuia is everything. And for her it’s everything too. She’s blossomed out here, seeing the buzz around my work. She’s been hugely involved, taking pictures, and remembering how much she loves doing that, reading about the issues I’m looking at in my work, as well as in the court case. And Emily-Rose, her daughter, has been making the loveliest paintings. She made one with a rainbow in it, and when she put her paintbrush down she was so proud. She said, ‘That’s definitely going on my wall!’

Do you think that’s part of the experience of staying at Parehuia, something that comes from the place?

Definitely. It’s a family place. They ask when you come here, ‘Do you have family? Will they be coming here?’ Well, of course they will be.

And at the same time, I suppose, your practice gets to be the centre here. This is a place dedicated to making work.

For little Emily-Rose that’s exactly what it is. She’s made three paintings out here. She gave me one and told me where to put it. She said, ‘That’s to go over your table.’ So, I put it there.

To watch over you.

There you go! That’s exactly what it’s about. They have important roles, paintings. That importance has always been there for me, even when I haven’t been able to paint as much as I really wanted to. Over the next couple of decades, well, I get to refocus—find a good studio, a settled studio and home. I thoroughly enjoyed making the big paintings in Rāhui, with the black and gold. I can see whole new bodies of work coming. I stalled on that for a time. I remember Allen Maddox saying, ‘Love, that Māori stuff will take you away from your painting!’ And every time I was called up for a meeting about a claim or court case or what have you, I’d think of his words. But now, here…

This residency has offered me a real chance to differentiate, to think in terms of my time, my place, my work. That’s what it’s done for me. It’s been significant coming here, for me the painter.

And do you think you will now be better placed to set aside space and time for painting?

That is just what I’m going to do from now on: paint. I might advise on things, of course. But I’m no longer going in boots and all, outside the studio. With the new show coming up, well, it’s all culminated, hasn’t it?

(1) Karaka’s affiliations are Ngāti Hine (Ngāpuhi), Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki, Te Kawerau ā Maki, Ngāti Tamaoho, Te Ākitai Waiohua, Te Ahiwaru, Ngāti Mahuta, and Ngāti Tahinga (Waikato).
(2) Karaka is no stranger to residencies, having been the 1991 artist in residence at Tylee Cottage in Whanganui.
(3) After McCahon was the name of a 1989 exhibition at Auckland City Art Gallery (now Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki), which featured the work of Karaka and other younger artists, such as Julian Dashper, John Reynolds, and Merylyn Tweedie.
(4) Palm-sized stones from Motutapu form part of Karaka’s installation CULTURAL ID; Marae, Maunga, Motu (2020), which features prominently in Toi Tū Toi Ora at Toi o Tāmaki.
(5) Years later, this expression would appear in Karaka’s 2020 work Kīngitanga ki Te Ao (They will throw stones), painted for NIRIN.
(6) Meurant was a police officer and later a National Party Member of Parliament for Hobson. He was a leader of the infamous Red Squad riot unit during the 1981 Springbok Tour, which Karaka opposed. In his maiden speech to Parliament, on 6 October 1987, he referred to a group of Māori women, including Karaka, Titewhai Harawira and Donna Awatere Huata, as ‘the principal cell of the Maori nationalist movement in New Zealand’, claiming that they wanted ‘total Māori control of New Zealand’.
(7) See Justin Paton, ‘The Second Person (A Romance)’, in Michael Harrison, Love in the Shadows (Auckland: Artspace, 2002), 31.

Emily Karaka, Rāhui (triptych), acrylic, oil, oil pastel and kauri leaves on unstretched canvas, 760 x 790 mm; 1590 x 510 mm; 760 x 790 mm.

Emily Karaka, Rāhui (triptych) (detail), acrylic, oil, oil pastel and kauri leaves on unstretched canvas, 760 x 790 mm.

“Dreams and friendships and painting. Things that are important to me. I had a particular dream. It was my first in vivid colour. I had never really dreamt in colour before that. There was a sort of dark Stonehenge form, a huge rock plinth with a tabletop, on a bright green island. [Karaka gestures outside.] See the sunlight on the tips of the leaves of that nīkau there? It was that colour.”

Emily Karaka, I Can’t Breathe, 2021, acrylic, oil and oil pastel on canvas, 1500 x 1200 mm.

Emily Karaka, Titiro, 2021, acrylic, oil and oil pastel on paper, 1410 x 1790 mm.

Emily Karaka at Parehuia, 16 April 2021.

Emily Karaka, Pandemic, 2021, acrylic, oil and pastel on paper, 1410 x 1780 mm.

Emily Karaka, Rāhui. Installation view, Visions, Tāmaki Makaurau, April 2021.

Emily Karaka, Rāhui. Installation view, Visions, Tāmaki Makaurau, April 2021.

Emily Karaka, Rāhui. Installation view, Visions, Tāmaki Makaurau, April 2021.

Emily Karaka with Kawerau ā Maki Rāhui; WRHA Act 2008, Parehuia, 16 April 2021.

Emily Karaka, I Bow My Head, 2021, acrylic, oil and pastel on canvas, 1830 x 1830 mm.

Emily Karaka, Kawerau ā Maki Rāhui; WRHA Act 2008, 2021, acrylic, oil and pastel on canvas, 1830 x 1830 mm.

Emily Karaka, Pandemic (detail), 2021, acrylic, oil and oil pastel on paper, 1410 x 1780 mm.

Emily Karaka, Moe Mai Rā, Tohorā, 2021, acrylic, oil and pastel on canvas, 1830 x 1830 mm.

Emily Karaka, Rāhui at Taurarua; Kaitiaki at Mataharehare, 2021, acrylic, oil and oil pastel on canvas, 1830 x 1830 mm.

Emily Karaka, Rāhui. Installation view, Visions, Tāmaki Makaurau, April 2021.