Russ Flatt is a gay Māori artist – and he’s OK with that now. But getting there took a long journey, and a catharsis forged through an alchemy of memory, dream, and image. He talked to Dan Poynton.
“Now I’m very, very proud of who I am as a gay Māori man. And that’s quite empowering,” Russ says, his calm wairua warming the video call. “It’s taken me a long time to really feel comfortable with my cultural identity. And I felt like I needed to kind of get my head around my sexual identity.”
That journey with his sexuality pervades Russ’s work. There’s the yearning and pain, but also a vibrant celebration: men and boys are the heart of his images, in all their beauty, brotherhood, and eroticism. And there’s a gentle challenge to the idea of what it means to be a male.
Russ’s sexuality lay under cover as a child in the suburbia of Glenfield on Auckland’s North Shore. “You don't really know you’re different because there are no kind of words for it. That’s not until you get older and you reach puberty. You just are.”
Russ always wanted to be a marching girl. “Mr Whippy would come on a Sunday afternoon, and that was when the marching girls would practice. I’d always be on the side of the road, cheering them on because I thought it was just the best thing in the world.” Mr Whippy and the marching girls would reappear in his first exhibition, Perceiving Identities.
Another of Russ’s childhood passions not typical of your garden-variety Kiwi boy is transmuted in his Nationals series (cover of AZ #61). As an adolescent he donned sequins and threw himself into competitive roller-skating. “I loved every second of it. Absolutely!” Russ glows.
A young Māori boy, embodying Russ’s dreams and memories of himself, appears in these early series, but as a child his taha Māori was largely dormant. “My father’s British, my mother’s Māori, but we were brought up in a more British European way of thinking, so I was very disconnected from my cultural identity.”
For his Ngāti Kahungunu mother from Wairoa, she saw marrying a Pākehā Air Force officer as a “way out of feeling the oppression of being colonised”. She understood te reo, but didn’t speak it, Russ said. And Glenfield was very Pākehā. “There were maybe three people with brown skin at my high school, so it wasn't until somebody pointed it out to me that I realised I had brown skin. Because you’re young you don’t even know it’s a potential problem.”
At 15 he was sneaking out at night to the city’s gay nightclubs, where in the roaring ‘80s, “you had ID, but it was just a photocopy”. It was a sanctuary for his secret identity, though he saw two of his gay friends commit suicide there. These memories were all staged ritualistically in his Night Bus.
For a gay teenager afraid to come out, Auckland in the ‘80s was “a very small place”, and after school he ended up in London, where a new path emerged. “I would see things and think, oh, that’d make a nice photograph, so I just took the next step.” That’s a long story, but the unlikely result was a decade-long career as a high-end fashion photographer in New York.
Russ seems pretty Zen-cool about the glamour and glory of his past life now, but “it was amazing. It opened me to this whole new world of photography and what it meant.”
In 2008 his father died, and his mother and sister were both diagnosed with cancer. “It wasn't about me anymore – my whole life had been about me. It was time to come home.” Within two years his mother and sister also died, and Russ’s “dark night of the soul” began. “Recurring images came to me in visions and dreams. I’d often wake up screaming or wailing because I wasn’t able to disconnect from these visions. I felt the only way I could work through it was to make a visual reference to these specific moments.”
These images were to be his catharsis, and unintentionally his first body of work as an artist. “I never thought they might hang out on a wall or in a gallery. I made them for myself, as a way to process that loss and grief. I didn’t process the film for a year and a half. I just wasn’t ready to. I just wanted to park it and get on with my life.”
But a couple of years later, still shooting commercially and just hitting 40, Russ felt something stir. He gathered his images of catharsis together and used them to apply to Elam, where he did a postgraduate degree. “I wanted to shift into being an artist and making work that was meaningful. What better way to do that than to be taught by some of our most celebrated contemporary artists?”
These first photos were eventually exhibited as Paper Planes. We see a young Māori boy with a Pākehā Air Force father, weaving in and out of a vividly stylised late-‘70s suburban landscape. These fastidiously staged scenes are like looking through an old View-master – with a hallucinogenic intensity of colour and line. Hyperreality grazes the surreal, and we’re left wondering if it’s just a dream. “The interesting thing about recalling memory is that it’s really subjective. And it shifts and changes over time. It’s all around us, and it’s a fun place to draw from, but it’s not specific. I'm interested in making staged images look like moments that have just been caught. It straddles that fine line between tableau, documentary, and portraiture.”
Last year Russ won the Paramount Award at the Wallace Art Awards. Kōruru (Knucklebones) haunts like a Pietà from an alternate universe – is this a Pākehā Christ-child lying in the lap of a Māori Mary, knucklebone in hand? Its unlikely beauty seems like fantasy, except it’s not entirely. “My sister, my mum and I used to play knucklebones together. And my mother’s whānau had whāngai-ed (adopted) a Pākehā boy.” Russ and his husband Alistair have also whāngai-ed a Pākehā boy, Jules, who was the same age as the Kōruru boy when they fostered him.
Russ continues to reconnect with his taha Māori and is now studying Māori visual arts at Massey. “I want to contextualise my work within a Māori methodology. It’s heavy stuff, figuring out my place in that, and where we are as a nation, as a people, as Māori. But I’m energised by that and that’s a nice place to be.”
And this discussion – of tūrangawaewae around Russ – suddenly inspires a sort of silly question: Are you the happiest you’ve ever been?
There’s a long silence, and then Russ simply answers, “Yeah”. And it’s one of the more convincing “yeahs” you’re likely to hear.
Russ has exhibitions coming up at Tim Melville and Milford Galleries this winter. He’s also a judge for Capital Photographer of the Year, the exhibition is at Te Auaha Gallery, Wellington until 11 July.
Portraits by Diana Simumpande
Russ Flatt images courtesy of the artist, Tim Melville, and the Wallace Arts Trust
This story is available in te reo Māori. Read it here.