In Tangata Whenua, esteemed artist Robyn Kahukiwa returns to themes of long-standing importance to her: mana motuhake, mana wāhine, and mana whenua. Her works speak out against colonialism and its ongoing effects, and advocate self-determination and sovereignty.
Incarcerated directly expresses an appalling statistic: that Māori make up 50% of the prison population in New Zealand despite comprising only 14% of the total population. The piece counters popular notions of New Zealand as a place of racial harmony and justice, and emphasises a devastating impact of colonisation in Aotearoa. The significance of the tattoos on the faces of the wāhine in many of Kahukiwa’s latest works is outlined in Survivor. Moko kauae express the mana and whakapapa of those who carry them; teardrop tattoos are often worn by people who have passed through the prison system in New Zealand. Cause and Effect draws a connection between homelessness and colonisation, which entailed horrific violence and resulted in many Māori being dispossessed of their land, and alienated from their culture and heritage. The tino rangatiratanga flag at the centre of the work serves as a symbol of endurance and reclamation. The paintings and drawings of the Sovereign series make reference to emblems of Māori sovereignty, such as the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand, and He Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Nu Tirene (1835), the Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand, in which rangatira asserted their sovereignty over Aotearoa. The series also includes motifs familiar from other recent works by Kahukiwa—for instance, the huia, which refers to rangatiratanga and mana, and the head-like maunga, which emphasises connections to whenua and whakapapa ties that are unbroken and unbreakable. Taken as a whole, Tangata Whenua is a testament to Kahukiwa’s unwavering commitment to uplifting and empowering Māori through her art.