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Art waters the family tree

The Taepa family is an important part of Aotearoa’s contemporary art movement.

They are patriarch Wi, a renowned senior Māori clay artist, and his sons Ngatai, influential artist and Director of Māori Arts at Massey University, and Kereama, an award-winning mixed-media artist. Separately and together, they’ve produced work that has continued the canon of Māori visual culture.

Fairooz Samy talks to the extended whanau.

Wi Taepa, Parautanga plough, 2012. Collection of Wi Taepa

Wi Taepa, Whale Migration,1998. Collection of Pataka Art Museum

Art runs in the Taepa family. Ngatai and Kereama’s maternal grandmother is Mavis Newland, a well-regarded painter, whom both cite as their earliest art teacher. Growing up around Newland and with their artistically-inclined parents gave the siblings many opportunities for creative experimentation. One particularly inventive choice was Wi’s decision to wallpaper the boys’ bedroom with newsprint and to give them free rein to draw and paint anything they pleased there. “If I wanted to draw something on their wall, I’d ask them. I’d draw something, and they would copy it. After a while, we drew so many things that they’d ask me to paint some of the stuff out. Then they had a clean sheet to draw on.”

Art-making in the Taepa household never stopped. Kereama remembers spending school holidays in his father’s studio making bone-carvings, painting, or working with clay. His multidisciplinary practice reflects his father’s influence. “I sort of don’t have an artistic medium of choice. But a lot of that comes from Dad. Dad primarily works with clay but he’s done work of all sorts, from wood, to stone, to bone, copper. I’m probably more like him in that way.” Wi describes Kereama as a risk-taker, while Ngatai self-identifies as “the most conservative of the bunch.” His father’s life of artistry in action is what inspired Ngatai the most as a child. “Just being a practitioner is probably the biggest influence growing up, in a family where that’s just a part of what you do in your life, so it’s not just a profession for us, it’s a way of living, a way of being.”

All three Taepa men embrace te ao Māori in their practice, acknowledging their connections to whānau, other Māori artists, and Indigenous communities around the world. Ngatai articulates the sentiment thoughtfully. “The key influence is the way we think about our creative influence from a tangata whenua perspective, how that might relate to indigenous peoples around the world, and to our customary art forms as a continuum, as a continuation of our visual culture from a cultural perspective.”

Kereama Taepa, Tohorā, 2020. Public sculpture in Paraparaumu.

Kereama Taepa, Te Uira and kōauau, 2020.

“That’s quite important in understanding our whānau’s practices,” he continues, “that it’s connected and informed by many others in the Māori art world, and that’s been through Dad. I think we’ve been really fortunate to have been exposed to people who are Dad’s friends, not only here in Aotearoa, but friends from First Nations peoples throughout Canada, America, Hawaii, Alaska.”

Such connections reflect solidarity as well as the place of lineage in Māori visual culture. “From a Māori point of view, when you think of your tupuna, what they’ve done, your tribal affiliations and things like that, someone in there composed a lament or a song”, explains Wi, “and that’s how we know what they did.”

Ngatai’s partner is Saffronn Te Ratana, a leading contemporary mixed-media artist. Wi first encountered Saffronn at an art wānanga, bringing home one of her creations. “I met her work before I met her”, laughs Ngatai. When the pair finally met at Toioho ki Āpiti, Māori Visual Arts, at Massey, their familial similarities created an instant bond. “I think we were drawn to one another because her father’s an artist and her sister is an artist, and her grandmother, on her mother’s side, is a painter. We have identical art influences in our family background.”

Saffronn Te Ratana, Ngatai Taepa, Hemi Macgregor “Ka Kata Te Po” cardboard, fiberglass, 2013. Courtesy of the artists and Auckland Art Gallery. Photographed by Jennifer French AAG 2013.

Twenty-four years later, Ngatai and Saffronn share children and collaborations, notably Ka Kata Te Po with artist and friend Hemi Macgregor. The installation was a reaction to the unlawful and violent Urewera police raids of 2007, which affected communities that included members of Te Ratana’s family. She says the collaboration was about “needing to have a collective voice through our visual culture that supported the people who were immediately and most affected at the time,” but also took on a “wider cultural responsibility in providing a place for discourse outside of the media and the mainstream.” Years of cooperation, discussion, and debate have allowed the couple to find māramatanga in their partnership, and Ngatai describes Saffronn as, “the closest person I trust to give me feedback.”

Wi, Ngatai, and Kereama have exhibited together numerous times. After a lifetime of informal collaboration, Kereama says the process feels completely natural. “It’s very, ‘Hey, got some work? Yeah? Cool’, then we put a show together.” Wi agrees. “We pick a subject and we go away and do it. Because we’ve done it for so long and we’ve worked through things, we know what we’re going to do. We talk a little bit, but not much. Then we come together and bam! It’s finished.”

Thanks to the family’s immersive approach, their creative gene has been nurtured in its youngest generation. Kereama’s eldest daughter is already a budding artist and his youngest girl is enthusiastic. His eldest son enjoys anything hands-on, especially building. “They’ve grown up with my artwork all around the house, on the floor, on the couches, in the garage, and everywhere else, so it’s a normal thing for them.”

Ngatai’s children are similarly acclimatised. “When we’re creating for big projects, I’ve got many pictures of them falling asleep on the floor while we’re doing what we do in the studio.” For Ngatai and Saffronn, passing art on to their tamariki is a responsibility and a privilege. “Just as these gifts were handed down to us, we create that space to hand them on to our kids.” This means that generationally “Things are not separate or cut off or frozen, it’s a continuum.” The couple often include their children in art collective discussions. Ngatai explains, “it’s not necessarily a direct teaching, but it’s the immersion of the next generation in what we do that comes out later on in their creative journey.”

Ngatai Taepa, Mango-tu, 2013. Ngatai Taepa, Ka Marama, 2007.

Photos by Alex Efimoff. Images courtesy of Pataka Art + Museum and Page Galleries

In the spirit of kotahitanga, the Taepa family shares the credit for their successes with each other and with their teachers. “There have been many people who have helped me get to where I am, and that includes my sons and their mother,” says Wi. “It also stemmed from my parents and aunties and uncles, the way they brought us up, as a family.”

Kereama is bashful about his own contributions but immensely proud of his brother and father. “The years they’ve contributed to Toi Māori, as well as teaching young minds for many years. It’s quite significant and pretty huge. All I can feel is lots of pride.”

Ngatai is equally humble. “It’s a privilege to do what we do, and as a family, we’re quite conscious of that. What I hope we bring is a respect to the art form, to other practitioners, and to the community.”

Despite Wi’s trailblazing success as an artist, he is proudest as a father. “We used to have a ‘father and sons’ exhibition”, he says laughing, “now, I think we’ll have a ‘sons and father’ exhibition.”

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Oct 17, 2021

Ka mau te wehi, e te whānau o ngā toi ataata.

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