Photographs by Joe Hockley

Charlotte Graham’s monumental painting has been made onto posters that feel just as monumental on Customs Street. 

Artist Charlotte Graham (Waikato, Ngāti Whanaunga, Ngāti Kotimana, Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki, Ngāti Puku, Ngāti Tamaoho) will be familiar to Britomart regulars: her work Te Waiora - made up of 1,200 watercolour droplets  - was pasted to the pavements of the precinct last December. Now she’s back with a huge new worked named Kaitiakitanga, an oil on canvas painting that has been photographed and repurposed as posters on the Customs Street construction site for The Hotel Britomart. Here, she discusses her environmental focus, her work teaching art to psychiatric patients, and how she’s opening her studio to visitors in early November.  

The posters on Customs Street are an adaptation of your painting Kaitiakitanga. What’s the painting about – what message are you trying to send?

Kaitiakitanga translates as ‘guardianship’. It’s a call to all people to look after and protect our lands and seas. My work has always had a strong environmental focus on land and people. This particular work is compositionally reformatted across a multi-directional landscape. The work is populated by cursive patterns (pakati) based on the koru (life) and refers to the seas eating away at the land. The forms of waka that used to traverse the Waitematā harbour and Te Manukanuka-a-Hoturoa are in there too - these waka used to be pulled from one harbour to the other. Together, land and text made up of the many different words that resonate from the word kaitiakitanga, reminding us to live more sustainable lives so that we can protect the fragile ecosystems of our planet.

What is it about environmental issues that inspires you to create work?

I have children and my desire to have them live in a stable world requires us to act now by educating people about climate change and environmental damage. 

Do you think that we’re doing what we need to do as a society to reverse the environmental damage that’s been done? 

I think that we can always all do more. We need to be proactive and make efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. We need to make things manageable by purchasing less and buying things with less packaging, to eat local food and less meat, to ride a bike, walk, catch a bus or train, use less power, plant trees, buy second-hand goods. All these things can help if we are all more mindful.

You also work in Māori mental health with psychiatric patients. How does art help the people you work with there? 

Art is great and can help people process their feelings, reduce stress and anxiety and increase their self esteem. Creating art can also help people to acknowledge and recognise feelings that are hidden in their subconscious. I’m currently  teaching a raranga/ weaving programme with great results. Participants are able to visually, aurally, kinaesthetically and through smell work their senses. It’s very grounding and I  teach things that can be completed within a class session. 

What else are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a long-term project with my iwi and older sister Raewyn Graham who is also an artist to embed our tribal narratives into artworks within our tribal lands. I’m currently working on a series of works for a major show in Tāmaki in 2020 based on our tipuna maunga throughout Tāmaki. I’m super excited to assist with the kowhaiwhai and tukutuku for one of our marae, Wharekawa. and in a few weeks, I travel back to our marae Turangawaewae for an indigenous gathering of some 120 people hailing from throughout the Pacific to wananga/make art and share our world views over a 10-day period.

I’m also painting a ground artwork in Henderson over summer and in a few weeks I open my studio for the event Open Studios Waitakere on the 9th and 10th November ( I even have a set of limited-edition watercolour raindrops in the studio from Te Waiora Britomart project available alongside many other works. It’s a great way to meet the artists in their studios and see where all the magic happens. Life is busy but in my downtime you’ll find me and my children hanging out at Piha, walking a maunga in Tāmaki or lying horizontal at home. Mauri Ora.