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Art inspired by our Struggle: Tame Iti and his Lest we Forget series

Art inspired by our Struggle: Tame Iti and his Lest we Forget series

Artist, educator and activist, Tame Iti (Tuhoe) is selling pieces from his “Lest we forget” series based on the Tuhoe evidence given at the claims hearings.

All these works are based around the Tuhoe raupatu, the things that happened more than 100 years ago that Tuhoe has not forgotten about. It’s all based on Tuhoe evidence given at the Waitangi Tribunal hearings,” Iti says.

Three pieces have  already been sold by word of mouth.

Below is a wonderful and articulate piece written in 2007 about Tame and this series of artwork.

Iti paints to honour Tuhoe History (by Adam Gifford)

Tame says the use of words in art is rooted in Tuhoe tradition.  Every April the country stops for a morning to remember the dead of World War I and II and the other conflicts New Zealand has been involved in.

Fair enough, says Tame Iti. So why, when Maori want to remember their history, their dead, “we are told we should move along, forget about the past”?

That is why he is calling his latest show of paintings Lest We Forget, the Rudyard Kipling line adopted as the epitaph of the War Graves Commission after World War I.

All these works are based around the Tuhoe raupatu, the things that happened more than 100 years ago that Tuhoe has not forgotten about. It’s all based on Tuhoe evidence given at the Waitangi Tribunal hearings,” Iti says.

Those hearings gave Iti further notoriety when he was charged and convicted of a firearms offence for blasting a flag with a shotgun during a welcome for the tribunal to the eastern Bay of Plenty.

Iti describes it as a performance piece, “a remembrance of land confiscation and the murder of Tuhoe and the invasion of the Tuhoe nation”.

Theatre, art, or protest? Or criminal disorder? Iti’s sense for the spectacle, and the fact many of his actions are drawing on cultural references or narratives which are unfamiliar to most New Zealanders, means he is always going to be misunderstood.

The question of the day, though, is whether he should be taken seriously as an artist. If he had gone to art school in his teens, the question would not have come up, but Iti had a public profile through his often amusing and thought-provoking protest actions before he first hung a painting on a gallery wall.

“I’ve always loved art. I used to go to exhibitions. I remember going to one of Ralph Hotere’s in Hamilton in the 1970s,” says Iti.

Maori artists of his age and older often got their basic training at teachers’ college. The Maori Affairs welfare officers who played such a prominent role in shaping his generation decided the Ruatoki teenager was better suited to the trades, and packed him off to Christchurch to learn painting and decorating at the technical institute.

He married, had kids, moved to Australia for a spell, worked as a painter, worked in the bush, kept in touch with the world of Maori and with Tuhoe, protested, social worked, washed dishes at the marae, filled up a life.

I first came across him 20 years ago when he came into the Wanganui Chronicle during a national tour to protest against a plan to clear bush off Taiarahia, the sacred mountain overlooking Ruatoki, and replant it with pines.

In 1990 he did a workshop at an indigenous people’s conference in Canada.

“A Blackfoot elder gave a presentation on healing where he drew these simple pictures, using circles and specific colours.

“I was then working in youth and mental health, so I used those techniques with younger clients. You’d get them to do a picture, and the next session you asked them what the picture was about.

“I started as well – as a thought experience on myself. I was giving the paintings away, until a friend said I should put them in a gallery.

“Next thing I am in an exhibition of Tuhoe artists in Whakatane, in a Tuhoe group show at Taumata Gallery in Auckland, and then my first solo show at Arch Hill Gallery.”

Iti gave himself an art education. He went to Amsterdam to look at Van Gogh and other painters and the landscapes they painted. He looked at the work of New Zealand artists, and talked to many of them about art.

He believes after more than a decade of painting, he is developing his own style. The works in Lest We Forget are done on black building paper. He says the use of words in painting is rooted in Tuhoe tradition, and many of the tribe’s meeting houses include carved or painted words.

“There may be 20 or 30 heke [rafters] in a wharepuni, and each represents a different story,” he says.

Tuhoe has been a rich source for modern Maori artists. Apart from the innovations in the houses built or inspired by Te Kooti, who drew support from the area, there was also the rich, symbolic, visual language associated with 20th-century prophet Rua Kenana.

Iti says it may take viewers some time to unravel the meaning of the works. “A lot of Pakeha still don’t understand Maori. They think they look like thieves, they’re useless, dumb, unclean. That attitude is changing. I don’t think we have to continually explain ourselves.”

The work is not about himself. “We have to go beyond our own egos. If you look at many of the artworks, the carvings, the tipuna whare in Tuhoe, no one talks about the art; it’s about getting the message across.”

Kia ora to the NZ Herald for this article.

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