The tree illustrations that sit alongside this year’s Greening the City native tree giveaway – which you’ll see on the panels around the Pavilions and in the Atrium on Takutai, and the tree-care cards we’re giving away with our trees – have been created by takatāpui artist Pounamu Wharekawa (Ngāi te Rangi, they/themme).

You might have already spotted Pounamu’s vibrant work on the flags waving throughout Britomart, commissioned as part of Te Tīmatanga Huarahi Toi during Auckland Pride celebrations. They’re – in their own words – an “angry indigenous baddie”, whose work focuses on bringing together the worlds of traditional pūrākau (Māori narratives) and contemporary urban life, using bold colour, humour and the beauty in the everyday. We had a chat about their latest project, and what might be coming next.

Melinda Williams: Hi Pounamu. Could you start out by talking a bit about your art practice for those who haven’t encountered it yet?

Pounamu Wharekawa: I guess I’m a multidisciplinary artist, but I mainly do illustration, fine art painting and murals. Those are kind of my vibes. I really like doing those specific three because I really value accessibility in art, and those three have different levels of accessibility. For murals, they’re wide-reach, anyone can see them and that’s what I love about them – there aren’t as many barriers to seeing them as there would be with fine art and painting. You don’t have to go to a gallery to see them. Whereas with my painting practice, that’s the bougie stuff. I get to spend a lot of time working them up and really thinking about the people who I’m inviting into the space to see it. And then with illustration, that’s really just stepping into the digital space and that’s another point of accessibility for me.

MW: You’ve just moved to Raglan after a while being city-based. Why’s that?

PW: Yeah, I grew up here but I’ve been living over in Hamilton for about eight-ish years, but I recently had to move out of the house we were living in. So my partner and I moved back to Raglan and it’s been pretty mean, reconnecting with my whānau and seeing all my little cousins and my grandma, because it’s a big house with three generations of family, so it’s been really nice being back and spending all this time with them again.

MW: For Britomart’s Greening the City project, we loved the way you have people interacting with the trees. How did you go about the process of deciding how to represent that?

PW: I saw that last year Miriama (Grace Smith) used people and animals in her illustrations and I really loved that, because I’m usually a portrait and figure artist, so I thought that would be a really cool way for me to add the thing that I am known for into it. The property that I grew up on, and where I’m living now, is on a pretty big block with quite a lot of bush, so there are quite a lot of trees that I was illustrating here, and that I grew up with, so I was thinking about the things that I’ve done with those trees. I remember specifically with the ti kouka trees, my family were always growling me for swinging on the trees, because the branches were skinny and they were like, ‘You’re gonna break them!’ So I thought I had to put in a couple of naughty kids swinging on the branches.

MW: I wanted to ask about the rengarenga, because in your illustration, it looks like the person is eating something, and I wondered if that was a reference to rengarenga being a traditional food source?

PW: No, she’s not eating something, it’s a kōauau, a little flute. I thought that a lot of the trees were ones that we use a lot in rongoā, like mānuka, but when I was looking up rengarenga, it was one that I didn’t know a lot about. There was quite a lot that I read about that was linked to rongoā so I wanted to link it back to traditional practice. I was quite inspired by a lot of my friends, who are really into rongoā Māori and tāonga pūoro, so I thought I would pay a little homage to them.

MW: Did you learn any interesting things about the plants and trees when you were researching for the project?

PW: Yeah, definitely. Like I said, I’ve seen them around but didn’t necessarily know much about them. There were some that I did because they’re pretty common, but others, it was cool to learn about them. I spoke to my grandma about them as well, and my auntie. It was nice.

MW: Oh, did they have any good stories to tell?

PW: Not so much in that way, but when I was choosing the trees I wanted to illustrate, they were like, “You HAVE to do this one or that one” when I read them the list. They were trees that they had connected with in the past.

MW: Are there any particular trees or places with trees that you particularly connect to? They don’t have to be ones that were included in your illustrations.

PW: It’s pretty basic, but I’m really into kawakawa. It’s good because it’s the rongoā that everybody knows about. I think it’s really interesting to see that so many people can access and connect with kawakawa. I also really like pohutukawa, being a person that grew up around beaches. They’ve always reminded me of home.

MW: We’re also enjoying the flag designs you created for Te Ara Tahuhu. Can you tell us a bit about the work you did on those?

PW: For those, Hāmiora [Bailey, who curated the artworks for Britomart] hit me up about doing them. It was pretty informal, he was just like, ‘Hey bro, are you up for this?’ and I was like ‘Hell yeah. Always keen.’ I do a lot of taniwha in my work, just as kaitiaki, so he said it would be cool if I could do something like that, because he wanted to focus on connection to the water. I was thinking about the mahi he was doing, and the mahi that I’ve seen so many other young people doing as part of climate activism and I just wanted to create an incarnation of them as a taniwha and show a staunch young person as a taniwha, doing the absolute most.

MW: That ties in pretty well with the tree giveaway as well, with that being a climate activation too. I was reading through your bio on Instagram where you describe yourself as an ‘angry indigenous bad bitch’, which I thought was pretty funny. There’s certainly no shortage of things to be angry about at the moment, but is there anything in particular that’s the target of your ire and maybe something you’re working through in your art right now?

PW: As a takatāpui young person, a lot of my mahi is focused on gender diversity so all the recent to-do about Posie Parker and trans rights, oh my gosh, that’s been really aggravating. [laughs] So I think probably next on the cards will be exploring something around that. I mean, all of my work – in my opinion and I’ve also been told – is a bit gender ambiguous, even when I’m not trying. But I’d really like to make some purposeful work about that, not just something that’s a default.

MW: Do you have anything coming out soon that people could look out for in particular, other than checking out your work on your Instagram and website?

PW: Nah, not really. I’m still in the process of setting up my studio in the new whare but once I’ve done that, I’m going to start cranking out some new paintings, because it’s been a while since I’ve gotten the opportunity to do that. Just kinda paint for myself, and maybe if they’re cool enough I’ll have the opportunity for an exhibition or something.