Interview by Angela Bevan

Photos by Tracey Tawhiao

Tracey Tawhiao is a mother, an artist and a good friend of the family here at The Department Store, and we have watched with wonder her collaborative residency project with fellow artist George Nuku at the Kaoshiung Museum of Fine Arts in Taiwan.

Their vision of creating a “space age Maori world” in a foreign land came to life during a month of painstaking work, with the final result being nothing less than a jaw dropping installation that succeeds in letting the philosophy of the Maori world shine in the world at large. I was honoured to ask Tracey to tell the story of the project in her own words and pictures.

– How did this project begin?

This project is in a line of a series of shows George Nuku and I have been collaborating on. About 15 years ago we started inventing the works we are now doing. Long hours of hanging out and talking, talking and more talking. We had no formal art training … although George had gone to carving school … and I did a law degree… our plan for shows came very much from a desire to make the Maori World and Philosophy of the Maori World shine in the world at large. Through reading and talking we discovered an entirely perfect world of thought held in Maori Philosophy and it inspired us so much we decided to dedicate our whole life to making art about this world. In the early days our imagination was the main tool. We decided we could do anything if we could describe it in great detail to one another. And so we began dreaming of Maori houses we would build and what each part would mean.

We knew we were really building dreams and aspirations in materials that were not normally used…but that was part of the overall concept. To bring yesterday into today and call it the future. It’s very much the walking backwards into our future concept in Maori. He carves polystyrene and perspex and I paint on plastic with a graffiti pen … we also use natural materials and are currently concepting a whale bone cathedral.

So this particular project in Taiwan is one of many been and to come.

We were invited to do a joint residency at the Kaoshiung Museum of Fine Arts. We were given a healthy budget; something we never usually have … and so we finally got a chance to make a very large scale house all in one month. It was quite funny as they gave us the room with partitions for us to hang our pictures and carvings on …both of us hate partitions and segmented space so George ordered the whole room to be gutted before I arrived. When I arrived the room was a huge basketball-court looking space. As soon as I saw it I knew it was going to be our biggest house to date and George set immediately about carving the ceiling.

– Who was involved?

Mei Chen Tseng was our main museum contact … she took care of everything for us and is the senior researcher and has been with the museum longer than anyone else… she is so incredibly efficient and productive it was inspiring. She also has a great passion for indigenous art … she helps a lot of artists and made our trip a very big experience. We had a tight deadline so it took almost everyone in the museum to help us do the last few days of carving.

It took a month and the finished result was supposed to reflect a space-age Maori world .

– How would you describe being involved in this project and living in a foreign place?

It was a great honour to be invited to another country to do our art. We were invited to do a joint residency at the Kaoshiung museum and then I went on to do a solo show in Taipei at the Pulima Indigenous Arts Festival.

Living in Taiwan was fantastic. First, the food there is world famous .. and so cheap. We were eating the best food all day for $10 a day – in the artist’s world this is very good. The Taiwanese are medicinal about their food .. and they trained my palette. Language is a big barrier but I tend to go mute and communicate in any way besides verbal… it’s so good not to talk for a while … I generally love it. I picked up more French words when I was in Paris than I did Taiwanese or Chinese in Taiwan. We went to an incredible wedding between chiefs in an indigenous village the tribes were Paiwan and Rukai … it was traditional and something out of this world.

– What were your backgrounds prior to this project?

I am a mother of two young women Ruby and Awhi. I have a degrees in Law and classical studies … George is in over 30 Museum Collections in Europe and he did that in five years … he is a workaholic. We are both Maori .. he is Ngati Kahunungu and I am Ngai te Rangi, Tuwharetoa and Whakatohea. We both have Scottish Ancestry and I have Irish and he has German … George is based in France and I am based in NZ, we meet twice a year in NZ to plan our shows and then we start immediately executing them … there is a lot of risk … but in art risk is the essential element … without it you are not doing anything life-refreshing. It’s very much about having faith when everything looks like it can’t happen … then it almost always happens better than it could have any other way.

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