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Liam Brown, Kahu Kutia, Hāmiora Bailey and Fern Ngatai. (Photos: Supplied; additional design: Archi Banal)
Liam Brown, Kahu Kutia, Hāmiora Bailey and Fern Ngatai. (Photos: Supplied; additional design: Archi Banal)

ĀteaMarch 3, 2022

Takatāpui artists on what it means to be Māori and queer

Liam Brown, Kahu Kutia, Hāmiora Bailey and Fern Ngatai. (Photos: Supplied; additional design: Archi Banal)
Liam Brown, Kahu Kutia, Hāmiora Bailey and Fern Ngatai. (Photos: Supplied; additional design: Archi Banal)

As part of Auckland Pride’s inaugural celebration of takatāpuitanga, public art from Māori queer artists has placed rainbow tangata whenua front and centre. Reweti Kohere spoke with four of them about what it means to be takatāpui.

The legend of Hinemoa and Tūtānekai is a tale of love overcoming adversity – of the noble Hinemoa, a chief’s daughter, and Tūtānekai, a suitor of illegitimate birth; of Hinemoa’s people hiding waka to stop her from uniting with him on Mokoia Island in Lake Rotorua; and of her ingenuity and persistence in crossing the body of water at midnight and then deliberately masquerading as a man to lure him into her arms.

But in one of the most romantic, heterosexual love stories of te ao Māori, what isn’t so prominent is the presence of a third person. Being Māori and queer myself, I only discovered recently that while Tūtānekai may have loved Hinemoa, his heart belonged to Tiki, whom he called “taku hoa takatāpui” – his close male companion. Centuries later, after takatāpui academics rediscovered the term and the Māori rainbow community reclaimed its use, Auckland Pride is celebrating for the first time its takatāpui community as it too celebrates 50 years of pride in Aotearoa.

Over 20 Māori artists are participating in Te Tīmatanga, a public art and digital festival that includes an art trail along Auckland’s inner city waterfront until March 6. The overall offering, which will last for the rest of the month, is as much about the rainbow community as it is about tangata whenua. “My goal is to build haporitanga so that we can be cemented in this idea of being proud of who we are, outside of the context of pride,” says Auckland Pride kaiwhakahaere takatāpui Hāmiora Bailey.

‘E nekeneke ki tōu ake ao’ by Hāmiora Bailey. (Photo: Supplied)

That identity is informed by colonisation and protest, visibility and excellence, spanning tīpuna and their mokopuna, says Bailey, a reminder that the gender binary has conditioned us to think of other things as polarities too. Sharing his whakapapa, Bailey, whose artwork ‘E nekeneke ki tōu ake ao’ is on display at the Viaduct, mentions Ngāti Porou ki Harataunga, Ngāti Huarere and other iwi he has connections with, explaining that because Māori hold these genealogical touchstones we understand ourselves in multiple ways. Each maunga, awa and moana he belongs to influences his way of being – and the same is true in understanding the nuances of being takatāpui. “To look at ourselves as disparate things, we’re then weakening ourselves because we’re not ever broken,” says Bailey. “We are whole.”

Even if artist and tā moko apprentice Fern Ngatai (Ngāti Porou and Tainui) could separate her queerness from her Māori identity, she wouldn’t want to. “It runs through my blood,” she says. They are one and the same, she says, each traversing the other, distorting like the whakarare pattern that makes up her artwork in Wynyard Quarter’s Karanga Plaza. Stand at either end of it and you’ll notice how the lines curve into one another or stop and separate from each other. Then, as your eye travels the length of the piece, those gaps suddenly morph into continuous straight lines. Figuring out one’s identity is confusing, with detours left and right, and pathways that continue, veer off, and even end.

‘Whakarare’ by Fern Ngatai. (Photo: Supplied)

The whakarare pattern captures the fact that “nothing is ever really straight or black and white”, she says. Traditionally seen on carvings, whakarare, which means to distort or befuddle, is made up of alternating rows of carved ridges called “haehae” and a type of triangular notch called “pākati”. The haehae lines traverse the pākati to form continuous hooks. “The haehae are almost like the grey area, where I like to sit in,” she says.

Seen another way, takatāpuitanga is like a river, says Liam Brown, the Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa and Tūhoe artist behind ‘Te Tīnana’, currently on display in Britomart atrium. The metaphor reflects the fluidity of thought that our tīpuna had about gender and sexuality. Māori queerness is ever-shifting, “a way of living as opposed to a label that I will attach to myself for people to know who I am,” they say.

Takatāpui is at the centre of Brown’s artistry. With 40 or so nude self-portraits on display, the irony isn’t lost on them that they are showing the “cracks and crevices” of their own Māori, queer body that they hide every day. But with that vulnerability has come much-needed representation for others – and liberation for Brown. “It’s a sense of freedom from everything that I used to know as normal,” they say.

“Te Tīnana” by Liam Brown. (Photo: Supplied)

What was once normal was Brown not knowing they could be both Māori and queer, and religion has played a huge part in that belief. Brown tells me that, during their time at a “very white” all-boys Catholic school, they remember the students were called “St John’s men”, urged to uphold the saint’s values of service, justice, manaaki and respect – otherwise they weren’t good “men”. Brown says: “It was that reinforcement of, in order to be a ‘man’ you need to follow these values and habits of treating people with kindness and common sense in the guise of the Bible.” Much has changed for Brown in the last five years – when the 20-year-old moved to Te Whanganui-a-Tara to attend university, they had a “movie star breakdown moment” when they discovered the kupu takatāpui. They are smiling as they talk about it. “It was comforting to find that out.”

In contrast to a lot of Pākehā queer culture in Aotearoa and abroad, where queerness encompasses more of their identity, Tūhoe artist Kahu Kutia says being takatāpui is to redefine your sense of self, a “superpower” informed by your whakapapa and wherever on the spectrum of queerness you sit.

“Te Pō / When we were erased we came back here” by Kahu Kutia. (Photo: Supplied)

While takatāpui have always existed, there’s never been kōrero tuku iho of what it meant explicitly to our rainbow tīpuna, she says. Her artwork, ‘Te Pō / When we were erased we came back here’, explores that space. Hatred towards all of us appears in many guises – bullying, erasure and, in too many cases, violence – but it originates from a single dark place, capable of clutching us in the closets of shame and self-loathing we sometimes return to. But to Kutia, who grew up in the valleys of Te Urewera, the darkness offers a space for takatāpui to retreat to, find safety and solace in and reimagine their sense of self. No one can withhold takatāpui from you, just as much as they cannot deny that takatāpui are tangata whenua. “It’s there for you if you want it. And if you don’t want it, kei te pai.”

Ultimately love is love. Ngatai says she likes whomever she likes, “male or female, whatever, not even. I’ll be keen.” The legend of Hinemoa and Tūtānekai tells us the love of a man and woman triumphed in the end – and that Tūtānekai’s heart belonged to another man. That’s the whakapapa that takatāpui grasp.

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