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When Your Whakapapa Doesn't Define You

Close up of Charteris's toi. Photo: Ben Journee.
Close up of Charteris's toi. Photo: Ben Journee.
Chris Charteris speaking about his toi on display at Tākiri: An Unfurling. Photo: David St George.
Charteris's mahi on display at New Zealand Maritime Museum. Photo: David St George.
Charteris's mahi on display at New Zealand Maritime Museum. Photo: David St George.
Can you choose your own roots? One New Zealand artist on his passion for Māori toi despite a family revelation.


The New Zealand Maritime Museum’s doors are once again open - and it opens a final opportunity to experience Tākiri: An Unfurling in which the artists explore early Māori and European encounters some 250 years later, continuing on from the nationwide Tuia 250 commemoration.

The exhibition runs through until Sunday 7 June - and to celebrate its return after lockdown, Jessica Thompson-Carr discovers the meaning behind the work of Chris Charteris.

Identity Dilemna 

When Chris Charteris was a child, there was a rumour in his adopted whānau that his father had Māori roots. 

Charteris grew up feeling a deep connection with Te Ao Māori, and chose to explore his heritage through the art of carving, jewellery making, and sculpture. Surprisingly, Charteris later discovered that he was of Kiribati, Fijian and English descent. This put him in a truly unique position, in which he worked to create art revolving around universal emotions and concepts. 

Charteris had learned te reo Māori, carving, weaving, general toi in Dunedin, and when he finished his courses, he became a tutor and teacher. In 1995, he established Te Whare Whakairo Gallery and Workshop.

“When I left Dunedin and came back up to Auckland, I was more serious about my practice and there was pressure to make ends meet. I worked hard and continued to produce a lot of work. The whole process of finding my blood family was definitely an identity crisis in terms of what do I do… now I’m not Māori?”

Connecting to Culture

Charteris was confronted with a conflicting situation, in which he had to reassess his entire life. 

“In terms of my being and my heart, I felt I had an affinity with the forms I was using, but after I met with my blood family, I had to revisit what I felt more comfortable with in terms of my own culture, and what I could express and own… that changed my work.” 

To be true to himself, Charteris explored what his cultural heritage could bring to his art. Regardless of such revelations, he still feels a connection to the Māori world and is grateful for his training. Māoridom, as well as Kiribati, Fijian and English influences, affect his work to this day.

“Now I quite like finding common ground/design elements that are universal throughout the pacific and world. I look for forms that we can all own.”

Method to his Mahi

Chris Charteris speaking about his toi on display at Tākiri: An Unfurling. Photo: David St George.

One can see this in his mahi installed in the Tākiri exhibition at the Maritime Museum. 

“My mahi in there is a taonga based on waka forms. The work itself is called Ngā Waka, and it talks a bit about universal form and things we can all own. 

“It represents people and a mode of transport, migration and it’s about not just the past or present, but the future as well… a discussion about the people who migrate to this land. The material part of that work is quite important.”

Close up of Charteris's toi. Photo: Ben Journee.

Charteris’s Wake is made from the jawbone of a sperm whale, the most prized part of the whale you can get, aside from the teeth. His whale is from Scotland, and it represents navigation and migration. The waka are strung together on a chord called Muka - a fibre extracted from a type of flax- which represents the essence of everyday life binding people together. In between the waka sit beads of pounamu, sourced from south Westland.

“The material is very much of this land, this place. It is about people coming together in New Zealand. I didn’t want to get caught up in the (Captain) Cook thing. That’s just a small part of the story, the bigger story is still going on. Inside the waka are leaves of gold. They represent the richness of culture, the richness that everyone brings to this world. It’s a bit of an affirmation, this work.”

Charteris believes the exhibition is incredibly significant to this time and encourages necessary conversations.

“We need to talk about how we got here, go over the good as well as the not so good history. Before the exhibition, we had a hui at Ōrākei marae, where we discussed how we felt about Tuia 250. I know many of us felt quite vulnerable, but the kaumātua at the marae helped us feel safe, and talking amongst ourselves, sharing our feelings, was encouraging.”

Charteris believes that feeling safe in such environments means knowing what your intentions are, staying true to yourself, doing karakia, and keeping an open heart, “use your work as a path.”

Is Toi for Everyone?

Charteris's mahi on display at New Zealand Maritime Museum. Photo: David St George.

The question of non-Māori practising Māori toi is a particularly significant topic in this day and age, with more people calling out cultural appropriation and theft in art galleries, museums, and on social media.

“It’s quite a big debate that one,” acknowledges Charteris. “If people are doing this mahi, and they’re putting their heart into it, that can’t be a bad thing. That energy and level of depth makes the world a better place. 

“So long as there is sincerity and respect for the form, an understanding of what tools they’re using, and a knowledge of the history and significance.”

The Unfurling exhibition is a space for dialogue and discovery. Visitors can expect to encounter complex and refined ideas around the history and present of Aotearoa. 

“Tuia 250 is all about people maturing. It’s a reminder that we need to pull it together as a nation. We’re quite a nasty parasite on the planet, but there’s hope. At the end of the day, whether māori or pākehā, we all have to live together and get along, as humans. It’s awesome that we’re all so different, and I feel like this shows in the exhibition.”

This story is written in partnership with the New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui Te Ananui A Tangaroa. Tākiri: An Unfurling is free with museum entry until 7 June 2020 in the Edmiston Gallery.

Written by

28 May 2020

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