BRITOMART PEOPLE / CHARLOTTE GRAHAM

The artist behind ‘Te Waiora’ the huge new temporary artwork whose water droplets are now flooding the Britomart precinct, talks to Jeremy Hansen about her work and herself.

Where did you grow up? I was born in Perth. My father John was a rugby player and played for Western Australia. Both my parents are Māori – my father is Pare Hauraki/Pare Waikato and my mother June is Pare Waikato. We moved back to New Zealand six months after I was born. I have two older sisters.

Were any other members of your family creative? We all have it! My aunty is artist Emily Karaka, my uncle is Mikaara Kirkwood, Te Rongo Kirkwood is one of my cousins, another cousin Reuben Kirkwood is a master carver for Te Kawerau a Maki. My sister is an artist and a painter, my other sister is a weaver. My grandmother, Rose Isobel Simons, was a designer, a tailor, who lived on the Manukau Harbour at Whatakapuka marae. I get my inspiration from her. A lot of my shows have a reference to her. She used to tell us all her stories. Her mother was Pākehā, descended from the poet Shelley, and her father was Patara Haimona, one of the Waikato Tainui chiefs.

I grew up around her feet, so I guess she was always making. She was always industrious in her making and had an ‘I can do it’ attitude. She built a home without knowing how to build a home. She learnt how to do everything. She instilled into us that we could do anything we wanted. That’s what creatives are able to do. We build visual narratives. That’s what inspired me.

So did you think you were going to be an artist when you were young? My primer one teacher said I was going to be an artist. I don’t remember drawing, I just remember being in the art room. At high school I did the most arts subjects you could do. There was no room for anything else. I went to Mount Roskill Grammar – we were living in Waikowhai by this stage.

But you didn’t go to art school after you finished high school, did you? After high school, I started a Bachelor of Social Work. It’s working with people. But I quickly decided I didn’t like it. I decided I would go to art school so I started at Unitec, then the first Māori degree came out, the four-year Bachelor of Māori Visual Arts at Massey University with Robert Jahnke, Shane Cotton and Kura Te Waru Rewiri. It was awesome. We were the first year. What I learnt was how to build visual narratives through concept. I very rarely work intuitively – often it’s built up around this whole narrative as a body that has bones and flesh and layers.

It’s never easy to make a career as an artist – did you try to do that when you graduated? I trained as a teacher and taught at a Māori boarding school, St Stephens. I did exhibitions at the same time. When my eldest son, Te Kahu Whataarangi, was born, I’d just done a show called ‘Trouble in Paradise’, a series of paintings based on Te Tiriti o Waitangi. But I felt I wasn’t making substantial work until the foreshore and seabed issue put a fire in my belly. I decided to walk with my paintbrush.

You mean it took political action to help you find an artistic purpose? I think that’s what makes me do my art. That’s what activates my desires to put forward my ideas. It allows us to speak, to educate, to transform, to change; art can offer up a different viewpoint. My constant over the years of making works is that they are around land and people, whakapapa, indigeneity. It’s us looking back, honouring the past, moving forward, and acknowledging all of that. The future is around connection to our environment and to each other.

How did you come up with the concept for this work at Britomart? I was thinking of what Christmas means to people, and I thought immediately of the idea of connection with whānau and friends. That’s the powerful part of the celebration. And to express that connectivity, I thought of using water, the element that connects us all. Everyone that lives here has come across the water to reach Aotearoa. We’re also connected by our love of our harbours and streams, how they sustain us and how we need to take care of them. Water has the power to cleanse and purify us too, and that seemed like an appropriate sentiment for the end of the year. And I also thought of this place, Britomart, and how we’re on reclaimed land, and how the waters of the Waitematā used to flow across this space. It made immediate sense to me to use the ground through this space as my canvas. So I created a series of watercolour paintings of water droplets, in various shades of blue and green and magenta, and with a variety of Māori patterning referencing the natural world. It all happened quite organically. We’ve had those droplets printed as 1200 decals that are now flooding the precinct.

How have people been reacting to the work? It’s been incredibly gratifying. I spent three days installing the work with a wonderful team of students, and the reactions to it really struck me. People were stopping to ask what was going on, and then would seek me out to explain more of the work to them. I was pleased with how the change in the environment with the addition of the work made them think differently and want to know more.   

You paint, you do installations, you’ve worked in video art too. I get bored really easily. That’s why the works change over the years. Installations, painting, video and sound. I jump. The link is the concepts but the jump is my way out of boredom, through material and concept.

There’s also a strong environmental theme running through your work. My last solo show was ‘Waikawa’, a show on tribal lands and the acidification of our seas from dairy farming. In the beginning my artworks were a lot about land and politics and then they went into politics and healing. In the last five years I’ve been actively working with The Kauri Project, which is raising awareness and education around kauri dieback. To me as an artist, I don’t want to make a pretty flower painting – I want to make a work that compels somebody to make a difference, to speak more, to talk more.

Charlotte Graham’s ‘Te Waiora’ is on display now throughout Britomart’s nine blocks until late January. Photographs by Joe Hockley. 

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Charlotte has created a limited-edition series of prints from the droplets she created for Te Waiora, sized A3 (edition of 100, $250 each unframed) and A2 (edition of 50, $500 each unframed). Enquiries via email to Charlotte at keikoneiauis@gmail.com

From top: ‘Te Waiora’ in the Atrium on Takutai; Graham wanted the artwork to encourage children to jump from drop to drop, something they did instinctively as soon as it was installed; the installation team included Kayla Williamson, Takurangi Graham, Texas Shepherd, Eva Newell and Katya Rasskazova. 

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei’s Te Aroha Morehu leads guests through the work at a dawn blessing to officially open it. 

Artist Charlotte Graham at the dawn opening of her work, ‘Te Waiora’.

Te Aroha Morehu in front of artist Chris Bailey’s 2011 work, Pou Tū Te Rangi. 

Britomart’s Matthew Cockram, Charlotte Graham and Pita Turei at the official opening of Te Waiora. 

Dancer Aruna Po-Ching performed a traditional Hawaiian hula as she led guests through the work at the official opening, a way to connect the work with the Pacific diaspora and the ocean journeys of Aotearoa’s first settlers.