Bob Jahnke. Photographed by Norm Heke.
Bob Jahnke. Photographed by Norm Heke.

ArtOctober 3, 2019

Things I Learned at Art School: Bob Jahnke

Bob Jahnke. Photographed by Norm Heke.
Bob Jahnke. Photographed by Norm Heke.

In this instalment of Things I Learned At Art School, Bob Jahnke talks Māori identity, education and, on the occasion of the Tuia 250 commemorations, “getting Cooked”.

Bob Jahnke is the winner of the 2019 Wallace Arts Trust Paramount Award and an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Māori art. Not only is Jahnke a maker of beautiful, audacious, politically engaged art, he has inspired generations of contemporary Māori artists through his research and teaching at Massey University, where he founded a Bachelor of Māori Visual Arts, the Toioho ki Āpiti programme.

Tell us about your whakapapa

Ngāi Taharora, Te Whānau a Iritekura, Te Whānau a Rakairoa o Ngāti Porou. 

My identity has been constructed over the years and is still subject to slippage depending on the context that I am navigating. What is a given is self-identification as Māori and as a descendant of Porourangi. Taharora, our ancestral house in Waipiro Bay on the East Coast of the North Island, records our whakapapa connection to Hau, the eldest son of Porourangi. My research into my Māori genealogy over the years has led to a prioritisation of Ngāi Taharora as the most important sub-tribe, which essentially owed its formation to Māori Land Court disputes over the ownership of the Ohineakai Land Block in the latter part of the 19th century. Taharora is one of the few houses on the East Coast that acknowledges our connections to ancestors within the Pacific and in Europe with bronze medallions inside the house and painted imagery on the poupou in the porch; paintings by some of our most important Māori painters like Shane Cotton, Kura Te Waru Rewiri, Ngataiharuru Taepa and Saffronn Te Ratana.

This land is my land; this land is your land (2011), Bob Jahnke, from the exhibition Whakawhiti Aria / Transmission, Te Manawa, 2012.

I note with a certain amount of irony that those who write about me tend to include my multiple genealogical links (Samoan, German, Irish, Scottish, Māori) in spite of my privileging of hapū connections. I don’t have a problem with this as long as people don’t call me a ‘hybrid identity’. Ironically, for a while, a nephew of mine adopted an image from my painting IAM AHYBRIDIDENTITY, which demonstrated his own journey in constructing his identity. I have, of course, been accused of being an essentialist which I embrace because I am a fan of Indian postcolonial thinker Gayatri Spivak’s notion of ‘strategic essentialism’, which was realised in a painting Spivakian Speak [IAM ASTRATEGIC ESSENTIALIST] (2010). As one who navigates between Te Ao Māori and Te Ao Whanui (the wider world) I often have to don the cloak of essentialism in order to articulate a Māori world view outside of the confines of hapū and iwi sanctum.

What did you learn in art school?

That I had underestimated my capacity to study… My greatest learning experience was when I attended Ardmore Teachers College in Papakura in 1970. It was my first formal introduction to painting, ceramics and art history. I did not complete the year, much to the chagrin of my father and my Māori grandparents. The Ardmore experience taught me that I wanted a career in the arts. Intent on attending art school I worked in a furniture factory for two years attending night school at AIT doing life-drawing and designing and making clothes for my wife. My Elam portfolio was made up of drawings and my wife’s clothing…I was accepted and started the intermediate year in 1972 which comprised a mixture of Humanities papers including Maori studies, anthropology and art history. I was hooked. 

I learnt two major lessons during that first year.  First, do not take things for granted. Because I had been exposed to a marae environment on the East Coast I thought I could coast through a paper on Maori tribal culture; I was wrong; I almost failed but scraped through with a C-. Anthropology introduced me to a view of the evolution of humankind of which I was totally ignorant. It made me realise that I had been indoctrinated by Christianity which was exacerbated by my attending a Catholic Boarding School. The experience expanded my understanding of the constructed nature of truth that, more often than not, is ideologically grounded. Over the years, Christianity has been at the brunt of some of my most vociferous visual commentaries on unconscionable land deals by the Church Missionary Society in North Auckland in ‘Conversion 3.3R (1994), the debate over customary rights in ‘KOHA’ (1998) and the freezing works industry in ‘Alpha Omega’ (2000). 

Robert Jahnke, Koha, 2001, (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2007

Did the way you learn moving from Auckland to California to completing your PhD while setting up a Bachelor of Māori Visual Arts Programme, Te Putahi-a-Toi, in Palmerston North change radically?

On reflection, the journey was always Māori-centric and therefore did not change too radically over time. At Elam, after originally studying Industrial design in the Bachelor of Fine Arts programme… wrong move… I switched to Graphic Design for the masters programme; illustrated an award winning children’s book with Ron Bacon ; worked for South Pacific Television with Peter Gossage [father of painter Star Gossage]; and created an animated film on the separation of Rangi and Papa with an animation company in Auckland. I decided I needed to go to the USA to learn how to create an animated film with which I would be satisfied…this was Te Utu the battle of the gods that is currently in a travelling moving image show in Christchurch – it did get me to CalArts intent on creating an animated film that elevated Māori figurative imagery beyond the Disney cartoon formula. 

It reignited my desire to return to teaching art; initially at Mangere College then Waiariki Polytechnic in Rotorua and finally Massey University in Palmerston North. It was important to me that any degree that I was responsible for setting up privileged Te Reo Māori, and a Māori art history where students came to understand their own art and the artists who created the art, not only within the contemporary era but also historically along with the Treaty of Waitangi… this is the Toioho ki Āpiti programme.     

You have said before “I am a Maori and it is coincidental that I am an artist”. Can you unpack that in terms of the way students learn?

The quote, which as you will be aware, is an inversion of Ralph Hotere’s famous line about being coincidentally Māori. It is a reference to my position, not only as an educator, but also as one charged with a responsibility for contributing to shaping how we understand Māori art. It’s a message to students to know who they are; if they don’t know who they are they cannot make a valuable contribution to Matauranga Māori. I like to think about the Toioho ki Āpiti programme as a journey in discovery of oneself and the contribution that one can make, not only to art but to culture. By learning who you are you are able to offer a pathway towards enlightenment for those who row towards a familiar horizon.

Installation view of Lamentation, 2019, Bob Jahnke, Hastings City Art Gallery. Image: Norm Heke.

Is there an early work that particularly means a lot to you? 

My ancestral house Taharora, that was refurbished with painting, carving and weaving from 1989 through to 2001. It was a journey in humility but also one enhancing the mana of Ngāi Taharora on the east coast as one of the few trans-cultural houses that acknowledges our ancestors from Te Ao Māori and Te Ao Whanui. It became a point of focus for my PhD in Māori Studies…The house that Riwai built.

Tell me about a time an idea didn’t work out.

Failure is the mother of success… One of my greatest failures was my inability to convince my kaumatua that the sexually explicit ancestral figures that I had carved for the back of our wharenui Taharora were a potent reminder of a tradition that had been suppressed by Christian moral values. Ngāti Porou carvings of the late 19th century have been emasculated. After initially being called back home to defend my actions the end result was my having to remove the carvings and to get rid of their genitals… Christianity won again. I had no option but to oblige. My kaumatua at that time maintained the role of ahi kaa, they kept the home fires burning by living there. I was a transient visitor who visited once or twice a year at most. And I needed to quell the accusations against our ancestral house from other hapū on the east coast that Taharora was a small house with a big mouth. While the comment might seem trivial the criticism was expressed in te reo Māori, and as such the term for mouth is an allegorical term for the vagina and by implication the male genitals as well, in the case of the carvings on the back wall. 

I reduced the size of the ancestral figures on the back wall as a reminder of the shame that my actions had precipitated and the need to whakaiti or to humble myself in light of my actions. I carved manaia in the pubic area of the ancestral figures assisted by Ross Hemera and Lyonel Grant. It taught the most valuable lesson that shapes my practice as an artist today:artistic licence,or arrogance,is a construct inherited from the West and has no place within the marae context or within the Toioho ki Āpiti programme. 

Installation view of Lamentation, 2019, Bob Jahnke, Hastings City Art Gallery.Image: Norm Heke.

The artworld remains far in the majority Pakeha-led in terms of its directors and curators. Yet there are artists you’ve taught, like three of the four who make up the Mata Aho Collective, gaining a lot of attention. Are Māori artists still on the outside? Or is it more about how and where they choose to show their work? 

I would say that the majority of Māori artists are still on the outside. This is particularly the case with kaumatua artists like Fred Graham and Sandy Adsett whose work sits within the toi whakawhiti or trans-customary paradigm of Māori art practice where there is a visual empathy as opposed to visual correspondence with Toi tūturu or customary practice The new generation of practitioners of Toi whakawhiti or trans-customary practice are left out in the cold because Pākehā curators have problems in accepting a practice that continues to revere and reference customary Māori models. From their perspective the practice is seen as regurgitation of past models devoid of innovation. Consequently, it is left to Māori organisations like Toi Māori Aotearoa to support this practice through the bi-annual Māori Market event in Wellington and Māori curators, like Reuben Friend’s forthcoming retrospective of Sandy Adsett at the Dowse Museum. Many Toioho ki Āpiti graduates are doing well. Kelcy Taratoa has a retrospective at the Tauranga Art Gallery and, hot off the press, Bridget Reweti will be the next Francis Hodgkin’s fellow.

Your work has been consistently political in dealing with identity, colonisation and its impacts. Is the current generation as fired up, or has the conversation changed?

The conversation has changed. However, there are still a few artists who are continuing to voice their concerns over the plight of Māori within both historical and contemporary society. At the forefront is kaumatua artist like Robyn Kahukiwa and Tama Iti. Brett Graham continues to translate his engagement with cultural issues relevant to Māori and other indigenous peoples. 

Grouind Zero, 2019, Robert Jahnke, Corten steel plate, aluminium and glass and neon, Sculpture on the Gulf.

What role do you think art plays or could play in current movements like Ihumātao?  

What is foremost in the minds of many artists is the 250 year commemoration of Cook’s visit to Aotearoa. The current exhibition at Pataka Museum is testament to this. It is an exhibition that began in Gisborne as a protest against a historical clash of cultures that resulted in loss of lives and an inappropriate naming of the region by Cook, led by Tina Ngata. I created ‘Ground Zero’ for Headlands Sculpture on the Gulf in Auckland with the commemoration in mind and a potential exhibition at Paulnache Gallery in Gisborne entitled ‘Cooked’… it never happened. I also created ‘Whenua Kore’; a minimalist version of ‘Ground Zero’ for Paul Nache at the Auckland Art Fair and the ‘Lamentation’ exhibition… in retrospect I should have entitled the work ‘Whanga Kore’ to commemorate Cook’s inappropriate naming of Turanganui a Kiwa Poverty Bay. While ‘Whenua kore’ may be translated as landless, in reference to the loss of land through colonisation, ‘Whanga Kore’ references a bay with nothing to offer. In time, Ihumatao will have its hour in the sun.

What inspired your new series at Hastings City Art Gallery Lamentation?

The project was developed as a way of voicing concern over the problems humanity faces in light of global warming, pollution of our waterways and oceans, and the waste crisis. I took a leaf out of Ralph Hotere’s book and decided to commission six indigenous writers and poets to compose poems that lamented the state of the planet. I had been contemplating working with stacked fluorescent tubes for a while because they form a repetitive vertical pattern alluding to roimata toroa; the tears of the Albatross which became a fitting visual allusion to lamentation.

From Lamentation, 2019,, text by Selina Tusitala Marsh, Bob Jahnke. Image: Norm Heke.

Light and text have been consistent interests in your work. Why as a sculptor have you reached for them?

I was aware of the use of text in Māori wharenui as early as the 1840s when carved text was used to identify carved ancestors. So text became a vehicle to engage viewers in the work. Initially text was used sparingly but increased in 1998 with the KOHA exhibition when chocolate fish were used to create the word koha in caps and textual statements relating to customary fishing rights generated slogans like ‘This is not snapper this is a Tamure’. While object/image and text shared the stage for a number of years text reigned supreme in the IAM series of painted text on stainless steel, examining the construction of identity. Interestingly, the body of work that I created during this period fell on deaf ears.

What’s the one thing you couldn’t live without…

Being Māori…


Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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