Britomart people: Tracey Tawhiao

The first artist commissioned for our Works on Paper series turns bad news into beautiful things.

Tracey Tawhiao (Ngāi te Rangi, Whakatōhea, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) has been painting over newspaper for more than 20 years, transforming a medium she finds unnecessarily negative into an intricate vision of positivity.

“It’s creating the new news from the bad news,” she says. “From a Māori perspective I was so tired of all the negative framing of Māori issues, so I recreated it so there was some better news being presented.”

Tawhiao is the first artist to be commissioned in Britomart’s new Works on Paper series. She’s created four new artworks on newspaper that, with her guidance, we’ve combined into two posters that will adorn the black fencing surrounding the construction site for The Hotel Britomart.

Her process for creating her artworks is instinctive, a skill she’s honed over the last two decades. “I would lie newspapers out and read the words that were left there and there was always some kind of message or other kind of statement there,” she says. “I paint the newspaper and these words are left, and I don’t know what they’re going to say but at the end they really say something. It feels magical. I find that quite cathartic. The newspaper is putting a version of the news out to us, and I’m really colonising the page and reappropriating the page and making the new news.

“It’s a combination of letting it just happen in the painting, and letting it resonate with particular types of work. When I’m doing commissions, I think of the people it’s for, and their words resonate better. Before people were buying my paintings, I was doing it purely for myself. It’s a synergy thing.”

Despite pressure for reinvention, Tawhiao has found a mode of expression that suits her, and she’s sticking with it.

“There’s a thing in art where you’re supposed to change who you are, like fashion or something, but it’s not like that. The newspaper is the ark of my art story. It’s the talisman.”

Tawhiao lives and works in Piha, and says her bright colour palettes are inspired by nature, especially the sea. “I’ve always lived by the ocean and that dictates a lot of colours,” she says. “People will comment on my colour combinations, but when you’re in nature, red, blue, green, orange and pink are all together and we don’t question it. So I’m nature influenced when it comes to colour.”

And while her paintings over newspaper started as a form of protest, Tawhiao has lately been noticing a change for the better in the way the media presents Māori issues. “I’m just noticing in the last few years when I paint newspapers it’s not so hard to find really great words that I like, that I resonate with,” she says. “It felt like a little more work before that. We’re all growing. People are way more aware of how they’re telling their stories now and whether they’re being racist any more. It’s not just blind colonialism any more. The next generation seems a little bit more aware.”

Tracey Tawhiao’s Works on Paper are now on the long black walls surrounding the construction site of The Hotel Britomart, on Customs Street near the corner of Gore Street. Portrait by Chris Traill.