Shane Cotton (Ngāti Rangi, Ngāti Hine, Te Uri Taniwha) is the creator of Maunga, a permanent artwork that now covers the western wall of Excelsior House. The basis of the artwork is a series of 25 works on paper created by Shane in response to Britomart’s commission. He and artist Ross Liew collaborated on the translation of those works into the five-storey-high artwork that now occupies the corner of Customs Street East and Commerce Street. Here, Shane talks to Britomart’s Jeremy Hansen about the creation of Maunga, his use of the pot motif, and his participation in Toi Tū Toi Ora. 

Jeremy Hansen: This work you’re creating is for a big wall on the side of Excelsior House, which is out the back of the Britomart Transport Centre and visible from the corner of Queen and Customs Streets. How did the site shape the work you’re creating for it?

Shane Cotton: It’s a space that the public is using and walking past every day. I thought about Auckland and how people come from out of town, how the big city draws you in. Then I started thinking about places outside the city. That's when I started thinking about different mountains and landscapes and how when people come here, they bring a piece of that with them. So I thought, maybe I should represent something along those lines. That's where the idea of the pot came from. The pot as a motif is an image that I've used before. I could rejig and theme it, so it's connected to the landscape and particular places beyond Auckland. This way places around New Zealand could be represented through the pot. 

Jeremy Hansen: How did the size of the wall factor into it? Is this the largest work you’ve done?

Shane Cotton: It probably is. [But] I didn't actually think about scale at all. I just thought about a collection of pots and within each a reference to a place or mountain. 

Jeremy Hansen: You have used this motif of the pot a few times in your works, particularly back in the 90s, partly as a reference to the way this image pops up in painted meeting houses, at a time that Māori artists were responding to new materials and traditions they were exposed to after contact with European settlers. What made you want to double back to it now?

Shane Cotton: I've been doing some of those types of paintings recently. Re-examining and exploring the motif in various ways. I love the origin of the image of the pot and the way it featured in the wharenui that were built in the 19th century. The way that the pot becomes this little vessel of dirt that you take care of and allow plants to grow in. You become sort of a miniature guardian. I just like the ideas associated with it and all the visual history that it contains.

Jeremy Hansen: I read in an essay for an old exhibition of yours at City Gallery Wellington that the pot was also something European or English colonists might brought with them to New Zealand as a way of transporting their belongings. Is that part of it too?

Shane Cotton: I'm not sure. There are lots of different narratives that are associated with the image, but the narratives that I'm most aware of are those that relate to Te Kooti and the Ringatū faith. Painted scenes of fauna, trees, and people going about their business on the land, very western in terms of the depiction but with a very strong Māori kaupapa at play. It was such a unique way of looking at something that's European in essence, like the idea of putting plants in your house. I think it's kind of a European idea that some Māori decided to adapt visually into their art form and into their own narratives and beliefs. But yeah, I'm sure there are lots of different readings, colonial and post-colonial in nature also. Plant forms and pot forms feature in lots of different houses – they've all got their own stories; they mean specific things to those communities. As a generic Māori narrative and idea, I’m drawn to re-represent it. Transcribe it in different ways. 

Jeremy Hansen: What interested you in the fact this is a post-contact form of Māori art, a hybrid form of artistic tradition?

Shane Cotton: It's definitely hybrid. A lot of the imagery was very much about the hybrid nature of the times. New materials, new ideas and new visions, all expressed in unique and unfamiliar ways. A lot of that work, for me, has a beautiful freedom about it. There's a sense that it’s not contained by any tradition, it's just found in the moment, a response to the moment, pure expression in a way – that’s what I like about it. Also, it speaks about what's ahead, the future, this idea that Māori and modernity are a thing that can happen. There's a sense of purpose, hope and aspiration embodied in the imagery. To celebrate something that is new and not be totally bound by the past.

Jeremy Hansen: So, you see it as those artists adapting to the times, but also looking ahead into an unknown future and charting it themselves. 

Shane Cotton: Absolutely. Many Māori leaders understood that change and adaptation were essential if Māori were to survive as a people in a future New Zealand. I think the art forms of this time record and reference these shifts with incredible clarity and beauty. They’re art forms that are challenging for Māori and European. 

Jeremy Hansen: What aspects of history were they responding to?

Shane Cotton: A lot of upheaval and change came out of the Land Wars. That was a big disruption and the traditional societal norms were broken apart. Maybe you didn't have a carver in the community anymore; maybe someone had passed on or maybe that person disappeared as a result. The knowledge base concerning traditional practices and laws were affected. So how are you going to put art in your house? Paint it! Painting became a substitute art form for carving, the default art form, but produced some incredible, amazing results.

Jeremy Hansen: So it wasn't coming from a place of optimism, was a reaction to changing conditions?

Yeah. Not entirely coming out of a place of optimism, depending on the time and location of the house, but there’s no doubt, when you look at some of the imagery, that it is aspirational in terms of a future. You've only got to look at Rongopai and go to that house and see the complexity and beauty within. It's a kaleidoscope of colour and imagery, the full spectrum! So that's why I like the pot form and I keep coming back to it. Because as a Māori artist I can look to a generation of Māori artists that were painters, that expressed imagery in a very unique, idiosyncratic way. That's why I like it so much, that's why I go back to it time and again.

Jeremy Hansen: And there's no easy fixed reading either, is there? There are a lot of layers.

Shane Cotton: I think so. I think there are multiple readings and interpretations at play and the narratives are numerous for obvious reasons. The underlying currents tend to be ones that are related to land, and to your place in the world, how you fit into the world, between Ranginui and Papatūānuku. What is our place in it? 

Jeremy Hansen: How are you choosing the name of the maunga that are featuring on the pots in the mural?

Shane Cotton: That's really a difficult one. Which ones do you put in there or reference? So what I've decided to do is place maunga/mountains that I've had some kind of personal relationship to. Be they places that I've visited, or places that I have imagined – I haven't physically been there, but at some point their presence affects you. The representation of Ruapehu and her relationship with Taranaki, how she and another maunga had a moment, so Taranaki decided to separate from her. I love that story and the way it describes the landscape through that narrative. So I've included Taranaki and I'll include Ruapehu. And because, most of my life I've had many occasions to view them both you reflect on their distance and the way they dominate our landscape. You can get some beautiful views of Ruapehu and Taranaki from Manawatu, which are absolutely sublime. As an artist finding ways to represent this is challenging.

Jeremy Hansen: What's the connection, if any, between this work and the boat that you're painting that's also going to be in the Toi Tū Toi ora exhibition inside Auckland Art Gallery?

Shane Cotton: Well the connection is the idea of the vessel. The way that the pot is a container, the boat is also a container. I want the pot idea to be a reference to the boat, and vice versa, and this notion that they can carry things, ideas, beliefs and deliver narratives, they can carry you. How these forms interact with the environment, how they inform your surroundings. They’re helping you do things, to navigate to and fro, from place to place, and between people. 

Jeremy Hansen: What's your feeling as you participate in this big show of contemporary Māori art? Your place in that world, the sense of this group of artists all collaborating on a single project. I don't know if it feels like kind of sense of a community, gathering in one place for a certain number of months to express a variety of viewpoints. Do you take that stuff into account as you're creating all these works? 

Shane Cotton: I am looking forward to the show, to see the diversity and expanse that is Māori  art today. It’s been a long time since a gathering of Māori artists on this scale has happened, so it’s going to be really engaging. There is definitely a sense of community in the contemporary Māori art world. A sense that we are all on the same waka, driven by a purpose that is connected to our identity and narratives.  

Jeremy Hansen: You've taught quite a few of them too. 

Shane Cotton: Yeah I've taught a few in the show from when I worked at Massey. Many of them continue to practice very successfully, teaching and working in the mainstream art world, so it’s pretty cool to be showing with them in this exhibition.

Maunga was commissioned by the Britomart Arts Foundation in collaboration with Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki as part of Toi Tū Toi Ora, the landmark exhibition of contemporary Māori art.