Lonnie Hutchinson (Kai Tahu, Ngāti Kuri ki Kai Tahu, Samoan) uses intricate patterns in her artworks to tell stories of her ancestors. Here at Britomart, she references the Ngāi Tahu creation story, which features not only Papatūānuku, the earth, and Takaroa, the progenitor of the oceans, but a third protagonist, Rakinui. Hutchinson’s work at Britomart, Aroha ki te Ora (Lover of Life) is comprised of two sets of three panels, with one panel representing each of the three characters in the creation story. Here, she speaks to Jeremy Hansen about the inspiration of her whakapapa, and the pleasures of creating public art. 

Jeremy Hansen: Lonnie, how did the idea for this piece come about?

Lonnie Hutchinson: It started before I even got to site. I sort of knew where you were talking about when we spoke on the phone. I mined the kaupapa for the Toi Tū Toi Ora exhibition, which is based around the creation story. All iwi and hapū have different or a few stories about how the world became, and I was really interested in sharing Ngāi Tahu’s narrative where there were three in the relationship. [In the Kai Tahu creation story, Papatūānuku, the earth, was married to Takaroa, the progenitor of the oceans. While Takaroa was away, Papatūānuku got together with his nephew Rakinui. They had many children, including Rehua, Tāne and the great voyager Paikea. When Takaroa returned and discovered the union between his wife and nephew, a battle ensued in which Rakinui was wounded.] This is a bit different to the creation stories of other iwi.  

Jeremy Hansen: So this is a work about your whakapapa, the whakapapa you share with your Kai Tahu relatives?

Lonnie Hutchinson: Yeah, it is. Whakapapa accounts for the way in which the earth, sky, oceans, rivers, elements, minerals, plants, animals and all people have been created. All things are linked through whakapapa, as well as having their individual place in the world. Ultimately, it is whakapapa that connects people to each other, to their ancestors, to the land, to the oceans and the universe. What I have created is informed by our Kai Tahu histories. 

Jeremy Hansen: What does it mean to create work like this outside a gallery?

Lonnie Hutchinson: Every approach is different because it’s contextual to what’s happening around it. In regards to materials, I was thinking I quite like that people can touch it. They can’t do that in galleries. Because it’s at human scale and the work is pretty much at eye level, this means there’s a more intimate relationship with the viewer and the work. I just find it really exciting that you can be able to stroll past and actually experience the work; you can have a meal at a restaurant and look across and experience the works. 

Jeremy Hansen: How do you want people to react?

Lonnie Hutchinson: I don’t want to dictate the response. There will be people who don’t notice it because they don’t notice much in their lives. It will be part of their journey to the train every day and they won’t notice it for weeks, then they’ll go, how long has this been here for? And there will be others that will notice and will look and start identifying markers in the work, and the development of an engagement starts. I’d love them to say, “beautiful”, or that they love that the patterning reminds them they’re from Aotearoa. Or it’s comforting to see within this urban shopping and eating precinct, the inclusiveness of cultural identity. For me it’s a privilege and honour to share some Kai Tahu narratives.  

Jeremy Hansen: What made you hit on cut-outs as an artistic form?

Lonnie Hutchinson: I was artist in residence at the McMillan Brown Centre at the University of Canterbury in 2000 and I was the first woman awarded it. As part of my research I started making drawings on builders’ paper with oil stick, trying to generate some ideas. It was late one night and I cut up a square of paper so I could concertina the paper. Next minute, I was working with kōwhawhai designs and cutting them out. 

Jeremy Hansen: Why did that approach work for you?

Lonnie Hutchinson: I saw it as a major breakthrough at the time. I studied sculpture under Warren Viscoe, we worked with hard materials mostly. Builder’s paper is soft and pliable and it’s not heavy. It was exciting and since then I have made a few hundred cut-outs out of other materials including vintage wallpaper and hard materials like acrylic, steel and aluminium. 

Jeremy Hansen: Can you talk a bit about the patterns in your work?

Lonnie Hutchinson: Most of my designs have a whakapapa, and over a couple of decades I have added to that whānau. I’m hugely inspired by indigenous histories, women’s histories and craft practice. I wouldn’t say I make kōwhaiwhai: I make designs that are informed by kōwhaiwhai design. I use the koru a bit because of what it represents: birth and life and living, it’s the human aspect. But what I’ve designed for Britomart is looking at what Papatūānuku represents: the earth and what it supports regarding nature. With [the panel representing] Ranginui, it’s more about the sky, the air, the moon and the planets and stars. Tangaroa [the other panel representing], that’s about the sea, and about underwater flora and fauna as well.

Jeremy Hansen: How would you describe your art practice in general?

Lonnie Hutchinson: Oh, a mess. I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to sustain a practice for 20 years. I’ve always been a maker of things, but I came to the arts quite late – I was at art school in my 30s. I actually wanted to be an architect first, but I got married and had a son and this whole other life as a sharemilker. I’m really interested in history, especially the history of my whakapapa. That’s a continual journey. My Dad is Kai Tahu and European, and my Mum is Samoan. I live in Auckland and travel frequently to Te Waipounamu to work and to see whānau. Every time I’m on the motu there are always a few good walks to do to re-enage with the whenua. I love it. I feel like the closest I’ll ever be to my ancestors of my Kai Tahu whanau when I’m down there. I just breathe it in, meditate, pray – whatever you want to call it – and have a kōrero with the whenua. I’m part of the Kai Tahu artists collective, Paemanu Charitable Trust, we work together on research and making through our shared whakapapa. As a ropo we often visit Kai Tahu sites of significance and connect with local whānau and hapū. I remember my grandfather saying to me that your great-grandparents looked at the same sky, and their grandparents before them. 

More about Toi Tū Toi Ora Britomart Satellite: To read about Charlotte Graham's work Te Hau Whakaora (the healing winds), click here; to read about Lyonel Grant and Tim Gruchy's work SCOUT: Wawata Hōhonu, click here; and to read about Shane Cotton's work Maunga, click here. Toi Tū Toi Ora Satellite is the first event of Auckland Unlimited's Summernova festival series, designed to wrap around Auckland's hosting of the 36th America's Cup and bring the entire region to life from December to March. Learn more at Summernova.co.nz