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Personal and political

Artists Shona Rapira Davies and Emily Karaka interviewed by curator Megan Tamati-Quennell


<P data-associrn="36334"></P> <P>Emily Karaka and Shona Rapira Davies are senior M&#257;ori artists who rose to prominence in the mid-1980s. A new show, <EM>Two Artists</EM>, showcases the differences between their individual practices, styles, and approaches. It also locates them together as contemporaries and as artists of determination, power, and vision.</P> <P>Emily Karaka (Ng&#257;ti Hine, Ng&#257;ti Wai, Ng&#257;i Tai, and Waihou) defines herself as an abstract expressionist painter. Her work is recognisable for its expressive intensity, her use of high key colour, and her gritty address of political issues related to M&#257;ori land rights and the Treaty of Waitangi</P> <P data-associrn="1370833"></P> <P>Shona Rapira Davies (Ng&#257;ti Wai) is a sculptor who also has a drawing and painting practice. Her work is introspective and often uses text to express vulnerability, pain, and a view into her private world. Though deeply personal, it is also political and speaks to the social impact of colonisation, particularly upon M&#257;ori women. It ‘reflects the time it is made in’, says Rapira Davies, but can also be defined by ‘the person viewing it’.<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP></P> <P>Karaka and Rapira Davies are part of a generation described by Dr Ranginui Walker as, ‘the first [M&#257;ori] urban-born intelligentsia; an articulate and eloquent anti-colonial voice which emerged to argue for a shift in nationalism to biculturalism.’<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> Both artists are associated with Mana Wahine M&#257;ori, a movement formed out of the momentum of the women’s or feminist art movement and the M&#257;ori protest movement. Lead by M&#257;ori women leaders such as the late Eva Rickard, Mana W&#257;hine M&#257;ori was ‘about making visible the narratives and experiences, in all of their diversity, of M&#257;ori women’.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP> Karaka and Rapira Davies were two of the first to embody issues of M&#257;ori women’s sovereignty within their art work.</P> <P><STRONG>Megan</STRONG>: When did you first realise you were an artist?</P> <P><STRONG>Shona</STRONG>: It wasn’t a conscious thing. I was maybe five. I drew on all the blackboards in the classroom. There was a glorious aspect to it. I drew in red chalk that wouldn’t come off. They were drawings of women on all the boards in the classroom. I also drew on Dad’s new wallpaper &#8211; enormous drawings of women.</P> <P>It’s always been a part of what I do, rather than something I thought consciously about. I thought everybody could draw. It didn’t occur to me that it would be any different for anyone else I loved the smell of paper and pencils. I spent my money on pencils, ‘Black Beauty’ pencils. I would keep drawing until I got the line right.</P> <P data-associrn="539501"></P> <P><STRONG>Emily</STRONG>: Probably when I was 11 or 12 at intermediate school. I was in Greer Twiss’s art class. I used to stay at the art class during lunchtime and just watch him. He was doing his sculptural work for Karanghape Road [in Auckland], which he actually made a miniature of. The miniature became the school art prize, which I won that year.</P> <P><STRONG>Megan</STRONG>: Was there a catalyst that compelled you to be an artist?</P> <P data-associrn="37226"></P> <P><STRONG>Shona</STRONG>: I stopped making things when I had my children. I got married. But when I was married I would wake up with terrifying thoughts of something disappearing. I would have been 22 or 23. My brain wouldn’t let go. I had to leave my husband and go to Dunedin. I was more driven by something than something being a catalyst. I went to Dunedin to get away, to develop my own original thinking, rather than ideas of whanaungtanga (family relationships). Nobody did any reading or thinking at home. I wanted more.</P> <P>I didn’t meet Rodin or Rembrandt or Michael Angelo until Dunedin. I did meet a Ralph Hotere painting. I married a Hotere, and there was a Ralph Hotere painting holding up the shed. I thought, ‘What the hell is that?’ It pulled me up by the hair. McCahon also made my hair stand on end. That was also before I went to Dunedin. I hated the McCahons; huge, dirty big things &#8211; and simple.</P> <P><STRONG>Emily</STRONG>: Certainly a major influence was Greer Twiss, and from there I was looking at library books. Picasso. I just fell in love with Picasso’s <EM>Guernica</EM> and the strength in that work. I think at that time I also realised that I was looking at things differently than most other people, I think that’s the bent. The family used to say, ‘Oh she’s happy with pencils and paper, just leave her with pencils and paper.’</P> <P>I went on to Auckland Girls’ Grammar, because certainly Greer had discussed with my parents that I needed to go to a school with a good arts curriculum. So I was influenced by people like Elizabeth Mountain (now Ellis), who of course had just come out of art school and was very in favour of pushing me culturally at Auckland Girls. I was in Trixie Illingworth’s art class. A friend and I went to see Michael Illingworth’s painting. At that impressionable age, the door was opening.</P> <P>I’d met Colin McCahon at a young age through Greer Twiss at his house one afternoon. Plus my father was a close friend of Arnold Wilson’s. My father had gone to art school when it was up in Grey Lynn. But, having young children, Dad couldn’t afford to stay at art school, so he gave up. Arnold told me that after my father had died. Arnold befriended me when I was a young mother just going to weekly classes. He would come and bring me brushes.</P> <P>When I lost my father I found it very hard. I was pregnant, hapu, and the loss of your father … there’s your father with a korowai (cloak) over him. That catapulted me into self-examination.</P> <P><STRONG>Megan</STRONG>: Did you receive formal training as an artist?</P> <P><STRONG>Shona</STRONG>: Yes, in Dunedin, but really I had no idea what I was doing. The cultural difference was enormous in Dunedin. I came up against racism for the first time. I really had no idea of what I had stepped into. I was told by a tutor that M&#257;ori art wasn’t art, it was decoration. But I also met up with a whole lot of people who made sense to me. There were all these people who worked with material, colour, concept, and ideas in Dunedin. I found my whanaunga (kin). The Caselbergs would have been an influence in terms of getting to know the art and the literati in Dunedin. He [John Caselberg] was a writer. </P> <P>I did drawing in my first year, learning about structure, balance, and proportion. Drawing is thinking. I started with clay classes in the second year. I found clay glorious. I enjoyed it so much I could eat the bloody thing! I couldn’t do plates or cups; it was always people I would make. I put them in my garden and thought one day they would grow. In my last year in Dunedin, I was making life-sized nude figures. They kept breaking in the kiln.</P> <P>When I left Dunedin and went north, I found it very, very lonely, because there wasn’t that collection of artists so visible in the community.</P> <P data-associrn="40755"></P> <P><STRONG>Emily</STRONG>: I’d say yes, given my experience. It may not be training in the normal context of institutional training, but I think I have had equal to &#8211; more than equal to &#8211; with the exposure that I have had &#8211; liberated exposure, if you like &#8211; to the best [artists]. I was very influenced by clearly determined people living their life for their art.</P> <P>I first showed at the Pakuranga Art Society exhibition12 New Zealand Artists. Gretchen Albrecht won the prize. There was quite a line-up of established painters. The first public outing of my work was put in this line-up of 12 <EM>New Zealand artists</EM>, and Hamish Keith was the judge.</P> <P><STRONG>Megan</STRONG>: What informs your work and in what way?</P> <P><STRONG>Shona</STRONG>: I am process driven. I learn so much when it’s a failure &#8211; it becomes an experiment. I think the challenge of making drives me more than anything else. I like the challenge of the new.</P> <P>I also think what going to art school did for me was to open my eyes and ears to possibilities and thought processes that weren’t mine. The decisions about whether or not I accepted that way of working or thinking was also mine. I decided, really, that I would just do my own thing; I’d just go my own way, and it didn’t matter. I’ve never done work in order to please anybody. It’s never occurred to me to work that way.</P> <P><STRONG>Emily</STRONG>: My most intense period of painting, was when my marriage broke up, and I lived in Mt Eden with my children at the base of Maungawhau. Little did I know that that’s where my ancestral linkage was, as a direct descendant of Hua Kaiwaka. That’s who I am, and I was living right on the area which is the altar - up there by the mountain where he used to do his karakia (prayer). I think events in your life inform your work, as well as the people you associate with.</P> <P><STRONG>Megan</STRONG>: Are there elements from those beginning stages that still influence your current practice?</P> <P><STRONG>Shona</STRONG>: I actually don’t have a clue, because I am not my own art historian. <EM>Ng&#257; Morehu</EM> is what it is today because it was halted. I am not sure what would have happened if I had had more time. It could have morphed into something completely different is what I am saying. There’s no beginning and ending to anything, it just goes along. You get to meet extraordinary people on the way, and that’s when I know that I am actually doing something in the right direction.</P> <P><STRONG>Emily</STRONG>: Oh, they’re always there. I feel very confident in the act of painting and knowing what I am going to paint. There is a real ecstatic joy you get when you can pull off a painting, when you can actually get something to work in paint, because paint is just a fluid mix. But when you pull off an image, and it comes to life in front of you, obviously it is a relationship that is pretty sacrosanct &#8211; it belongs somewhere else.</P> <P><STRONG>Megan</STRONG>: Do you have artists who you admire in terms of their work and practice? Artists you have been influenced by?</P> <P><STRONG>Shona</STRONG>: Oh, Ralph [Hotere]. Definitely Ralph, because the work is so extraordinary. And he is so extraordinary. He was an amazing man. The work was part of his life. He lived it. There was a seamless nature to it. He was as much working when he was playing golf or went fishing &#8211; it was all part of his work. And that’s how I see my life, like going with my kids or going to work; it’s all part of what makes the work. Everything informs everything else.</P> <P>Ralph never said, ‘Oh, you’re a great painter or a great artist’. He just said, ‘Don’t get a job; this is your job’. It’s things like that that are inspirational.</P> <P>Jeffrey Harris. I think his work is just extraordinary. I think it’s the spiritual content: disembodied people and crosses. I can go with that, because there’s a whole lot of that over the centuries. You can trace where that comes from and think about it. And I just love the application of paint.</P> <P>Rita Angus, Chris Booth. Chris Booth was ‘an anything is possible’ kind of man. Like, anything!&nbsp; He did a lot of exploration. He did things I found fascinating: slicing off rock. Why do you want to drill holes in rock? Challenging the whole concept of art.</P> <P><STRONG>Emily</STRONG>: Definitely Gretchen [Albrecht] for the love of colour. And she was very clear it was instinctual. That’s what I was drawn to in her early painting: her fervor for colour and how there was no fear in putting this colour with that colour. If it does the job that you’re trying to portray, then it works. So I am lucky I had that from her. </P> <P>Phil Clairmont in terms of expressionism. But also in terms of the figurative, him and Tony Fomison. I watched both of them paint for hours. And Allen [Maddox], as well, I‘ve seen execute work. That handful of people was it all it took really to make me feel confident as a painter. </P> <P>Internationally, Frida Kahlo. You’ve got to admire her stamina. Definitely all the German expressionists. Definitely Jackson Pollock. </P> <P>[With] McCahon, it was that father thing, like Arnold [Wilson], I think both of those men in particular, filled that role. Very silent, very private. Not many people know the relationship I had with both of them; it was so special. I think they picked up me missing [my father]. Tender souls, they were.</P> <P data-associrn="396532"></P> <P><STRONG>Megan</STRONG>: Do you think your work gives voice to M&#257;ori women?</P> <P><STRONG>Shona</STRONG>: I have no idea. I don’t make work because it gives something to someone else. I do remember the feminist movement was on the rise, and I met up with people like Miriama Evans and all the women that were in the Haeata collective. That is when I met Robyn [Kahukiwa], because she was part of Haeata. </P> <P>I remember once, after <EM>Whakamaemae</EM> opened, this M&#257;ori woman came up to me and gave me this huge lecture about the work and how bad it was to write the things I wrote on those figures, so I was in tears. Keri Kaa said to me, ‘Just because someone is a fluent speaker of M&#257;ori, it doesn’t mean that they are intelligent.’ I hadn’t thought that far, as I was so hurt.</P> <P>But I remember, when I went down to art school, one of the things that was a searing realisation was that there were no reflections of myself anywhere, and I think that, more than anything, drove me. There were no reflections of me; no reflections of Ng&#257;ti Wai, Ng&#257;ti Hine &#8211; there were no reflections of us anywhere.</P> <P data-associrn="39931"></P> <P><STRONG>Emily</STRONG>: I think it does, because just recently, actually, I have had a lot of young M&#257;ori women come up and be really excited to meet me. They are really enthralled to meet me. And I am quite blown away. Here I am in my humble little being, but it’s nice to be appreciated. I think the fact that you matter to these women means that it must have some relationship to M&#257;ori women.</P> <P>It’s hard slog for M&#257;ori women. We are at the bottom of the spectrum, the political rung in this country. And look at our girls &#8211; it’s still there. The situation is still there.</P> <P>I was involved very much with Sandra Coney and the women’s group here in Ponsonby. With Ng&#257; Tamatoa, I was around, skirting the edges of all that. I gave talks with Donna [Awatere] and Ripeka [Evans] in the late 1970s, early 80s just to try and educate people about the cultural difference. And this was at Rotary clubs. We used to give talks as a group of three women.</P> <P>Formalised protest was starting to happen. We’d had the Land March, Bastion Point and Ng&#257; Tamatoa. I think the dawn raids really made us realise we weren’t that far away from being subjected to that sort of behavior, even though we’d come out of it. </P> <P><STRONG>Megan</STRONG>: How do you feel about this show?</P> <P><STRONG>Shona</STRONG>: It’s going to be very interesting together. We’ll be okay in the same room. It’s quite nice putting the two of us together, because the treatment is so different from each person and it also emphasises, again, the idea that we are very diverse thinkers and very diverse people, that we don’t all think the same!</P> <P><STRONG>Emily</STRONG>: Well, I think, when you look at both of us, we are both pretty affirmative and dogmatic. We will achieve what we need to achieve. I don’t know whether it’s our bloodlines or what it is, but certainly no one will stop us. And even having our children … we are still going to do it.</P> <P><STRONG>Megan</STRONG>: What would you be if you were not an artist?</P> <P><STRONG>Shona</STRONG>: [laughs] Dead. I can’t imagine being anything else to be honest. I really can’t. Even in the years I haven’t been doing anything, like when the kids first came to me, and it was quite difficult. It’s even difficult now. It’s like missing home. I miss home everyday that I am here.</P> <P><STRONG>Emily</STRONG>: A clown. I’ve got enough satire in me now. What would I be? No, there’s no picture there. Shona’s answer is a great answer; it’s true. I’d be pretty empty. I’d be lost. </P> <P><BR>This interview is based on excerpts from two separate interviews. The interview with Shona Rapira Davies was held in Wellington in the artist’s home on 13 February 2015. The interview with Emily Karaka was held in Auckland in the artist’s home on 2 March 2015.</P> <P><FONT size=2><STRONG>Endnotes</STRONG></FONT></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>Shona Rapira Davies in conversation with Megan Tamati-Quennell, 13 February 2015.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>Ranginui Walker, <EM>Ka Whaiwhai Tonu Matou: Struggle without end</EM>, 1990, Penguin Books.</FONT></LI> <LI><FONT size=2>Johnston, P & Pihama, L (1995). ‘What counts as difference and what differences count: Gender, race and the politics of difference’. In K.Irwin & I Ramsden (Eds.), <EM>Toi wahine: The worlds of Maori women</EM>, pp 75&#8211;86, Auckland, Penguin.</FONT></LI></OL></P><P>&nbsp;</P>
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Emily Karaka, The painted dream garden, 1991, oil, acrylic & pastel on 2 sheets of paper, abutted,
Purchased 1992 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Shona Rapira Davies, Nana he horihori katoa, he wahi hoki te hau, 2013, oil on canvas,
Purchased 2013.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Emily Karaka, The Tamakimakaurau Claims I, 2001, mixed media diptych on construction paper,
Purchased 2001.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Shona Rapira Davies, Tangi, (Say goodbye to your brother...), 1984, pencil, crayon on MBM paper,
Gift of the artist, 1992.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Emily Karaka, Rangitoto eruption, 1988, oil on two unstretched canvases with modern wooden lintel,
Purchased 1988 with Ellen Eames Collection funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Shona Rapira Davies, Enough is enough, 1997, lazer cut acrylic
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Emily Karaka, The Treaties, 1984, oil and paper on hessian, wood,
Purchased 1992 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz