Matekitātahi Rawiri-McDonald is an architectural graduate who works at Britomart-based TOA Architects. He also designed the flags for our Matariki celebrations in Takutai Square. Here, he talks to Britomart’s Jeremy Hansen about his creative process, and how he’s celebrating Matariki at his turangawaewae. 

JEREMY HANSEN: Matekitātahi, thanks for creating the flags that will be in Takutai Square as part of our Matariki celebrations. You’re working at Britomart-based TOA Architects designing buildings and community projects, but do you consider yourself an artist as well?

MATEKITĀTAHI RAWIRI-MCDONALD: Yeah I do. I guess I try to look at my career as a contemporary version of Māori architecture in past. Māori architects in pre-European times were artists and carvers, they crossed boundaries. So to me, art and architecture are all one and the same. Creativity translates across mediums and scale. I lean heavily on my creative artistic side. 

You’ve designed a flag for each of the nine stars in the Matariki constellation. How did you come up with the designs? 

In the last few years Matariki has been going through a revival, and so I wanted to do that justice by sharing a lot more of the old knowledge of Matariki, and how to read the stars and what the stars represent. Each star [in the constellation] is tied to a certain aspect of nature, whether it’s fresh water or sea water, the gathering of food and resources from those, looking back at our natural environment and what colours you see and what are reflected in it. So in the flags, there’s a deeper blue for the sea, a more pale blue for the fresh waterways. That’s where I really wanted to drive the colour palettes from, a reflection of Aotearoa’s natural environment. 

What does Matariki mean to you?

Growing up, my parents were heavily involved in the push for Kura revival and normalization of Te Reo Māori, so they wanted to set things like Matariki on a par with the celebrations of mainstream culture. We grew up knowing Matariki was a special time of year; it’s been really cool to see it become more commonplace. To me it’s a time for reflection and looking back. For Māori, this marks the end of this year, so we can look back at it from this kind of perspective, and think about how we got through those challenges of lockdown and how we can look to the future. 

We’re in a really interesting moment where the Black Lives Matter movement has thrown the spotlight on racism generally and the rights of indigenous people along with it. I wanted to ask you how you’ve felt about what’s been going on, and about what you think might come of this. 

With lockdown, I feel like everyone was forced to take a step back and slow down a bit from the usual standard business, and were able to really think about what’s important and what’s right in the world, and what should be promoted and what should be discouraged. This is a key shift, and it’s important for us to take that point of reflection and understanding and move forward. We can continue to ignore things that happened in the past, or we can accept that’s what happened and how we’ve come to this point in time, what is critical is now how we choose to move forward from this point. For me, especially in New Zealand, I feel really positive. It’s a chance to think further ahead and think from a position of [Māori and Pākehā] being equal partners. 

You’ve recently moved, with your partner and son, out of Auckland to Omaio in the Te Whānau-a-Apanui iwi region (Opotiki district), and you’re continue to work for TOA from there. How’s that working out?

This is my turangawaewae – my mother and all my tīpuna before me lived on this land here. My Mum left to go to university in Auckland – and became the first wahine Māori registered architect. The reality was that you had to be in the city for those types of professional careers. Before Covid, the reality of proposing that you’re going to work remotely would have been out of the question. I didn’t think I’d have this opportunity to have the best of both worlds. Now our son has this connection that you can’t replicate, growing up on your own land with the marae is right next door and running around with close relations. My cousins that live here are blown away that we live back down here and that I’m still working the same job that I had in Auckland. The reality here has been that if you’re not doing forestry or roads, or those kinds of hard physical jobs, there’s nothing else really – there’s never been anything else since the introduction of money and professional work. That’s a big focus for what I also want to do while we’re here: how do we help engage with the community, especially the younger generations, to inspire and show them that there are other opportunities with the change in technology and the way the world works. You’re not limited in what you can do and how you may influence your world just because of where you live. Having come through this lockdown and talking to my closest friends, a lot of them are doing the same thing, working remotely because of the opportunity to have the best of both worlds for Māori. The turangawaewae and marae model was all right when there was that older generation that never left and they grew up fluent in te reo Maori and an understanding of their region and identity, but there’s been a big gap between them and the ones that had to shift to cities and towns to find work. It’s a pivotal moment to re-energise marae and Māori communities. It’s really exciting.

What are you doing for Matariki?

All of our whānau will come down and we’ll have a big hākari down here. My mum always likes to do a big thing with Matariki, so that’s definitely on the cards. We’ll time it for a weekend of the first week of Matariki rising again, the 18th or 19th of July. Hopefully it’ll be all outside – the last couple of nights has been the new moon period, so we’ve had clear starry skies. We’ve got a big mountainous ridgeline, the Raukumara, that run all the way along our southeast border, so when you’re looking out for Matariki during this time you can’t see it until later on, so here Matariki is replaced with another star, Autahi, that’s used as a substitution because it is visible before Matariki during this time of the year. All iwi and regions have their own unique and different methods of observing this important time of year.