Red Vs Blue

30 March-23 June 2019, Kauri Hawkins, Holt Gallery, HCAG
By Rosheen Fitzgerald

Two hundred and fifty years is a decent amount of time over which to evaluate a social experiment. This year, in October, we, as a nation, are faced with the prospect of looking back on a quarter of a millennium of European occupation. Half a century ago, in 1969, things were simpler. Celebrations centred on Gisborne, the conurbation closest to Cook’s landing site. There was a parade, with a reproduction of the Endeavour and an oversized effigy of the great man’s head at its zenith. There was flag waving and a commemorative stamp and coin. Pākehā lined the streets to pay homage to the Great White Hope and the murmurings of Māori that Cook’s arrival (which in the first instance, cost several locals their lives) might not be a cause for universal celebration, were largely ignored.

Oh how far we have come. The government has thrown millions at the commemoration. The word ‘celebration’ or anything vaguely evocative of balloons and confetti has been carefully expunged from the lexicon. Within the Tuia 250 kaupapa there’s a firm commitment to having an honest, inclusive conversation about where we’ve been and where we’re going – tentative first steps in coming close to making good on the promise of partnership, participation and protection supposedly enshrined in our founding document.

Kauri Hawkins has stepped up to the plate to claim his piece of the pie. Though he has not yet reached a quarter of a century, by virtue of the body of work he leaves in his wake the young artist is more than qualified to comment. Red vs Blue, installed in HCAG’s Holt Gallery, packs a powerful punch. In just six discrete pieces, displayed on three axes, Hawkins manages to shake us up, dress us down and leave us with a healthy dose of questioning.

Marked on the floor in black vinyl is a basketball key, its circular point inscribed with kowhaiwhai patterning, each koru ending in an arrow, a directional mark. On the wall behind, a back board on Hawkins’ signature day-glo road signage echoes similar motifs, wrought in greater detail. The hoop’s net is of shining steel, evocative of shackles.

To either side a pair of spectrally incomplete New Zealand flags face off, stitched together from bandanas, red mirroring blue. Suspended from the ceiling are a pair of NBA singlets, the type favoured by the kind of kids who wouldn’t be let in the door were they wearing bandanas similar to those displayed on the wall.

The red is emblazoned with ‘Cook 1769’ on its back. Its front has a stencilled image of the man himself, recognisable by his ponytail, half in shadow, looking every bit the rakish pirate that he was. Just to drive the point home his face is surrounded by the word, whakaekenga – invasion.

The blue features the term wā kāinga – ancestral home – and a red star rising over a cliff that might be Young Nick’s Head, the first landing site, or generally symbolic of the whenua. Its back is inscribed ‘Pawa’, perhaps a reference to the legendary figure who purportedly brought kūmara to New Zealand, had a run in with the giant Rongokako, and who gives his name to the Waipaoa River that enters the sea in Poverty Bay. Below is the number 35 inscribed in the orange shield instantly reminiscent of the state highway signage. The 35 runs down the East Cape, Hawkins’ own stomping ground, coming to an end not far from where Cook first put down anchor. The blue strip is steeped in tūrangawaewae, displaying a deep connection to this guiding principle of Te Ao Māori.

There’s a lot to unpick here. Hawkins frames the conflict between tangata whenua and Pākehā as a game, one with a home and an away team. It’s a concept so ridiculous that it cannot but draw attention to the blatant unreality of how this narrative has been told in the past. It would be convenient and comforting to depict the Land Wars and our bloody path to nationhood as a fair contest with a finite beginning and end and enforceable rules. But this isn’t 1969 and we can’t lull ourselves back to sleep with such fairy tales.

It’s pertinent that Hawkins has chosen basketball – not cricket or kī-o-rahi – as his arena of choice. In doing so, he adds a veil of cultural colonialism – that insidious tool of hegemony more effective than any number of marines with AR15s – into the mix. In doing so, he comments on how indigenous youth are subject, not only to the disenfranchisement of the colonial past, but of cultural dilution in the form of the great grinding media machine.

Yet another layer is added with the twin bastardised flags. As a municipal building, the standard rule of ‘no gang patches’ applies, so to mount Mongrel Mob red and Black Power blue on the walls feels inherently radical. To co-opt these in the form of the national flag, itself containing the hallowed symbol of the union, is wonderfully subversive – punk rock at its finest. In doing so, Hawkins muddies the waters between high and low art – questioning what we expect to be shown in a gallery versus what we expect to be painted in blood in the streets. He nods to the classic colonial tactic of divide and conquer – effective in the initial invasion, where tribal factions were exploited, and so-called loyal Māori co-opted to fight for the crown – and explores how it plays out today in ghetto-ised gang warfare. Throw on top of that the political aspect – Labour versus Nats, Republicans versus Democrats – and the mind boggles. It’s a dynamic piece in which conflict is king and war is never over.

In all, Red vs Blue is a thoughtful, multifaceted installation that consciously builds on Hawkins’ previous works. You can almost see his mind ticking, his process unfolding as he monkey branches from one work to the next, developing themes, building on techniques, stripping away, refining, moulding the future into one in which people like him will have their voices heard and acknowledged, at long last stepping out of the shadows and into the light.

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