12 August, Kauri Hawkins, Hastings City Art Gallery by Ian Thomas
Kauri Hawkins is a young emerging Maori artist recently graduated from Massey University with a Bachelor in Fine Arts. He comes from Muriwai, Turanganui-a-Kiwa. Kauri’s ancestry includes Ngati Tamanuhiri, Ngati Porou, and family links through his mother to Aitutaki, Cook Islands.
I head along to see, and take part in, his work The Strong Silent Type which is part of the freshly opened East exhibition.
The installation, prominently sited in front of the main entrance, is a work-site complete with road cones, high viz clothes, and barriers. At the centre is a custom made chess board. Players sit on twenty litre buckets to play. There’s a game in progress between Kauri and a youngster, thirteenish years old. A small group watch on. Pieces are moved around a board which is made of black, white, and yellow squares, all of which are the stuff of road signs. The youngster has some chess skills but is no match for the now well practised Kauri. A shake of hands signals the game is over. I take my place on the bucket and ask Kauri about his work. As we chat we play chess.
Hawkins works in various media including, sculpture, paint, film and performance art. Much of his recently exhibited work is political, thought-provoking, and damning of colonial and post-colonial outcomes for tangata whenua.
Arriving in Wellington to study Fine Arts he observed that the majority of Maori and Pacific Islanders in central Wellington wore High Viz gear. They were road workers, scaffolders, builders. Predominantly men, who worked physically for a living in bright orange. This observation triggered a clever, creative thought process that ultimately led to The Strong Silent Type. I ask if he believes that the work is controversial. After a long pause for thought he says yes. So how does a game of chess express a possibly controversial, certainly political message? Firstly there is the barrier to entry. Then the warning cones that liberally pepper the modern world and the lives of the kaimahi in fluoro orange. Cones that guide, channel, and funnel. Whilst the game board resembles a chess board the pieces do not. They are purchases from the dairy. Purchases that the brightly clad people may buy to bolster them through the day. The king is the most valuable piece, a packet of twenty smokes. The queen, a Bic lighter, is there to light up her king. The brave knights are flagons of beer. Steiny classic for the red team and Speights for the blue. Likewise Pepsi and Coke supply colour coded bottles as the bishops. High octane energy drinks occupy the castle’s squares at the four corners of the board. The front rows are coins. The ten cent piece for the blue team. Koruru side up. Eight Maori pawns facing eight of Cook’s ship Endeavor, the fifty cent piece.
Here we sit on plastic buckets playing a game with pocket change and legal highs. “Weapons” Kauri says referring to the game pieces. “None of them any good for you.” I nod. I’m hugely appreciative of meeting this young, fresh-faced, intelligent, expressive, creative, driven person. I’m saddened at the same time by the undeniable realities in his work. The pawns of the Endeavor and Maori carved head during colonisation are now the foot soldiers of a corporate royalty. Capitalism and consumerism are the controllers positioned on the back rows of the board. The ultimate game of strategy and tactics reflects the maneuvering of Maori from occupation and subjugation by a foreign court into orange overalls of a, often, foreign corporation. Not the yellow fluro vests worn by engineers, contractors, architects, police officers, but orange overalls of the strong, silent working class. For even within the Hi Viz wardrobe there are hierarchies.
Hawkins reflects that since colonisation Maori and Pacific Islanders have worked for others. That so often they are the working class. That pathways for young Maori to work for themselves are difficult and well hidden. This work is certainly Fine Art. It draws the observer and player into a multi layered story that is adroitly told. As one becomes attuned to Hawkin’s thought patterns parts of the message are revealed, bit by bit. The glare of Hi Viz and treats from the dairy are juxtaposed with social and socialist commentary via the chessboard. Our game goes on a little longer than the previous lad’s as I distract Hawkins with questions. He tells me that the game took six months from inception to its first iteration. It started as a degree project for a group but Hawkins successfully petitioned to be allowed to work on his own. In the two years since he has performed the piece galeries and performance spaces in Wellington, including Cuba street and now in Hastings. He aspires to take his work to the world again, having exhibited a sculpture in Tasmania last year at Hobiennial. The game ends. My last ten moves have simply been an effort to avoid inevitable defeat. Moving my pack of ciggies away from his lighter and flagon of piss has bought a little time.
If this work is controversial, and I’m not convinced that it is, it’s because it controversially tells a very plausible version of the living truth of a strong, silent group. Disenfranchised by a succession of power mongers, themselves played by the system in its various guises.
It’s a powerful work that strikes nerves. Kauri Hawkins is one to watch.
East runs until 11 November with the Hastings Chess Club running The Strong Silent type.
Other works by Kauri can be found at these links
Kauri’s website Bro-casted