Through May, in association with Auckland Writers Week, our Pavilion Panels will feature the words of four young Pacific poets, writing about how climate change is affecting the islands. The panels were designed by Samoan New Zealand graphic designer Aitken Hawkins. We talked to him about the ideas behind his work.


MELINDA WILLIAMS Hi Aitken, and thanks for talking to us today! Let’s start with how you first got started in graphic design.

AITKEN HAWKINS I had a really good teacher at college, St. Patrick's College Silverstream, Blair Hungerford, who was quite open in his thinking within what was a pretty strict school. He made me realise what creativity was and showed me new ways of thinking – that you don't have to sit down and do math all day. I was also just playing around on Photoshop, making semi-satirical images and silly business, really. I guess I come from a more expressive background as opposed to using design as a tool for communicating.

MELINDA After school, did you go on to study design further or did you get straight out into working?

AITKEN I studied design down in Wellington at Yoobee School of Design. Had a great teacher there as well, Logan. After that, I took a break for a bit, did a bunch of other things and then fully put my head into design.

MELINDA How did you come to be involved with the poster project for Streetside: Britomart?

AITKEN That was through Geoff Matautia [@southsides] … shout out Geoff! He put me onto it, which is cool. I was pretty stoked to get asked to do something close to home in a cultural sense and close to my passion for creative writing and expressing thoughts through visual language, text.

I’m really interested in what language does. What a refracted story can do to someone’s own personal thought patterns. The idea that a message doesn’t have to be complete in meaning. Can a single sentence provoke a memory like a nostalgic image might? 

MELINDA What’s your connection to the Pacific?

AITKEN I’m Samoan but I guess I've only been going on that journey recently, just learning the language and finding out a bit more about the culture and meanings behind certain ideas or ideologies. Maybe figuring out why I'm always late to stuff I guess, the concept of time, things like that.

MELINDA Haha… so, for Streetside: Britomart, you've created 14 different posters, each featuring excerpts of poems by young Pacific writers about climate change's effect on their Pacific island homelands or motherlands. Could you talk through the process of how you approached turning the poems into poster artworks?

AITKEN Yeah. I guess the first thing is that it's a pretty bleak topic. I mean there are silver linings, but the undertone is bleak and a little bit disastrous. Figuring out how to have an impactful visual of that is still bleak. I didn't want to glorify anything or have things seem happy because it's not, so that was a bit of a challenge. Pacific culture is so loud and vibrant and happy, so it was like, well, how can a Pacific voice be represented through this brief?


Some of my thought processes were that, for me, these voices are just screaming into the void or the abyss. They're out in the middle of nowhere in the grand scheme of things, surrounded by no one. Their neighbors can be quite far, and it just feels like maybe these voices aren't really being heard. I mean, we're conscious of it, but there's still a contradiction. So, I think the biggest thing was showing that contradiction. These voices are essentially disappearing, but they're also screaming at the top of their voice. 

MELINDA Right, so I can see that in the faded-out texts of the poems, sitting behind the big, bold pull-out extracts that sit over the top of them.

AITKEN Yeah, yeah. I was trying to just harness that contradiction. It’s overwhelming, these ideas and problems. The words are presented simultaneously, in what is hopefully an overwhelming manner. There isn’t necessarily a distillation towards a single idea. 

MELINDA The posters also feature a repeated motif of tiny birds, which are gogos, or noddy terns, right? Can you talk a bit about them?

AITKEN I guess for a lot of Pacific cultures, the gogo was a symbol of hope or safe return. And so it was nice to incorporate that in a very minute. It's hard to show how there is hope. Is there hope? I don't know. I guess that was the tumult that I had thinking about the project. There are no answers really, no solutions. But those cultures will always thrive at the end of the day, I think. If some of these islands do go underwater, the cultures are only going to become more prevalent in all of society because that's just the nature of Pasifika. You see a group of Pacific people and they're laughing and they're loud and they're taking over the space in such a positive way. 

MELINDA Those terns are a very migratory species, right? You find them everywhere across the Pacific.  

AITKEN Yeah. Yeah. So they’re hopefully provoking thoughts of hope and movement and migration and thriving and colour.

MELINDA The tern motifs are in different patterns on each of the different panels. Was there anything in particular behind those patterns, or were you just reflecting the words and the layout of the page?

AITKEN There’s a harmonious relationship between the text and the terns. They're all moving up, they're all pointing up, and there's a semi arrow shape to all of them. 

MELINDA And their colours of them are based on the flags of Pacific nations. Do the colours relate to the specific nations each poet hails to, or were they more a general reference?

AITKEN Again, with the contrast thing, Pasifika is so beautiful and colourful and this was just contradicting all of that.

MELINDA Were there any particular lines from the poems that jumped out at you or got caught in your head? 

AITKEN The one about “seeking deep pockets in pocket-sized valuables” [from Serene Seas by Luani Nansen]. I think it just puts you in your place about materialism, commercialism and excessive purchasing. Everyone's a sucker for it and it's hard to escape it, but I think that was just a nice moment to be like, stop, and check what matters. What am I spending my money on, where is this money going? Pulling myself out of that. 

MELINDA Lastly, is there anywhere else around town right now where people can see your work if they’d like to check it out? 

AITKEN Just on Instagram [@aitkenhawkins], I guess. 

Voices From the Pacific is on show at Britomart all through May in association with the Auckland Writers Festival, and with the support of the British Council. Photos by Geoffery Matautia.