In conversation with Emily Karaka

Emily Karaka has been painting and exhibiting for over 40 years. She is of Ngāti Hine (Ngāpuhi), Te Kawerau a Maki, Ngāti Tamaoho, Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki, and Te Ahiwaru (Waikato) affiliations, with whakapapa to Puketāpapa and Ihumātao from her father John Mita Karaka, named after his great grandfather, Mita Karaka, who went to England with the Māori King to address Treaty of Waitangi concerns in 1914.

Karaka’s works explore aspects of te ao Māori, and political and environmental issues. With her current show ‘Four Paintings’ at Visions in Auckland, she continues to demonstrate her importance both as an artist and as an activist. We speak to her about her career and the some of the meanings in her work.

Interviewed by Adam Bryce

Photographed by Sam Hartnett

Tell me about your childhood? How were you initially inspired to create art and how did you learn?

I grew up in a family of five children (dad called us his five pennies). My older brother and I lived with our parents in Airedale Street and on the farm at Karaka in Papakura. Then we moved to Glen Innes, where three more siblings were added to the whānau. I still live in GI by our maunga, Te Maungarei a Potaka, and the Tāmaki awa. Music was always heard in our home. Dad was a musician, and my oldest brother founded the band Herbs. At Tamaki Intermediate School, I was initially inspired to create art by Greer Twiss. I would stay in class at lunchtime to marvel at his skill in creating intricate bronze figures and puppets. I also remember being strongly influenced by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937).

Your work has always been heavily influenced by Māori issues in society. Has your approach to how to send messages through your work changed throughout your career?

My work as a Māori woman painter has always been either a kind of self-portraiture or about heartfelt Treaty issues.

Would you consider yourself an activist as much as you do an artist?

Activism to bring political or social change is not far from my mind when I paint. I like to discuss and, if necessary, confront matters that I consider need discussion or redress. I do not and cannot separate my painting from my moral and ethical motives. They are one and the same. They (ideas, values) feed into each other when I work, giving me the platform to express being a Māori woman in New Zealand.

How would you say your style of work was formed?

I have determinedly evolved in the practice of painting. From early on, I admired the work of 20th-century artists who opposed war and explored its effects. I was impressed by the energy of the abstract expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, and the voice they gave to human struggle. I also admired the work of Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere, Philip Clairmont, Allen Maddox and Tony Fomison. They definitely influenced my formation as a painter.

As we enter a new decade and, with it, a very changed world, what are the biggest issues that need to be addressed in promoting mātauranga Māori?

Te reo Māori was made an official language of New Zealand in 1987. The fact that the mother language of Aotearoa is still not compulsory in schools is a reflection of systemic racism and the clear lack of willpower to address mātauranga Māori in New Zealand society. Given the intent to teach New Zealand history in schools, the gap is glaring. Language and tikanga should naturally be taught.

When I made He Kākano Ahau (2014/15), shown in my Mana Whenua: Fields of Stone exhibition, I intentionally chose to paint a waiata to advance the learning of te reo and Māori culture. It was reproduced to raise funds to build the first Māori contemporary art gallery soon to be opened in Whangārei, adjacent to the Hundertwasser Art Centre.

Tell us about the messages at the heart of your new works on show at Visions?

Te Ahiwaru are the mana whenua at Ihumātao. I am a descendant of Te Arawaru Toone. The laws and historical confiscations of land enacted by the Crown at Ihumātao are the root cause of the protests, which underpin the works currently on show at Visions. After a very public social media campaign, the Māori King was asked to intervene to quell the growing unrest. The historical Treaty claim lodged on behalf of Te Ahiwaru is now listed to be settled with Waikato-Tainui and the Crown, with the tribal representative vilified by some during the protests now setting the tikanga for the negotiations to resolve the dispute. My response to the situation has been to record my frustrations in my painted works.

What’s next for you?

I will soon complete a commission for the North Atrium for Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki’s 70-year survey exhibition of Māori art, Toi Tū Toi Ora, which opens in December. Next February, I take up a McCahon House residency in order to produce new paintings for consideration for inclusion in the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT10) at QAGOMA, Brisbane, and new work for a solo exhibition at Visions.

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