Robyn Kahukiwa (b.1940)
Tangata Whenua 1986
oil on stretched canvas, 2037 x 2860mm
Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection, accessioned 2009, formerly Wellington College of Education Art Collection
Robyn Kahukiwa is a leading Māori artist who has done much to raise awareness of contemporary Māori art. A staunch supporter of Māori rights and the power and prestige of Māori women, she has been exhibiting nationally and internationally for over thirty years and has works in major museum collections worldwide. Her work resides between high art and low illustration, between paintings of nationalist narratives and posters for everyday people, between stark message-making and a pedagogic empowerment.
Kahukiwa uses her art as a way to disseminate knowledge of Māori culture and as a means of strengthening identity. She gives representation of whakapapa in a visual form. Her central stylistic influence since the early 1980s has been the Maori customary art form of whakairo - carving - which in Māoridom is traditionally the preserve of men.
In the mid-twentieth century Pakeha artists like Gordon Walters, Theo Schoon and Eric Lee-Johnson took the iconographic patterns of carving and worked them into their paintings, while in the 1960s Māori male painters such as Buck Nin reclaimed these whakairo motifs. Kahukiwa has led the way for Māori women artists. She utilises the forms in Māori carving as a graphic based tool to shape her own style of figuration.
The Kahukiwa female face, with its huge lips, round staring eyes and fixed expression, become representative of Māori art and signalled Kahukiwa's central concern of affirming Māori female experience. Her women evoke the fertility goddesses, and the eternal feminine. Through her paintings and illustrations she celebrates the virtues of tribal collectivism and human continuum through a skilful rendering of affirming things Māori: building relationships to language, self-dignity and land.