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Be the Taniwha

Artists, designers, creators and couple Tai and Kaaterina Kerekere have turned Tairāwhiti Museum into a home dedicated to some of the East Coast's most important people.

The gallery is full of whakapapa portraits, with the subjects removed from their physical appearances and turned into taniwha.

“A taniwha can mean a lot of things. It can help you or it can destroy you depending on which way you go,” explained Tai (Te Aitanga a Māhaki, Te Whānau a Kai, Rongowhakaata, Ngāi Tai, Ngā Puhi, Rangitāne, Ngāi Tahu).

For the exhibition, the pair chose several important leaders in the East Coast community to put on to canvas.

“It ended up being about the people who were in those leadership roles. The people who built up our community,” said Kaaterina (Te Aitanga a Hauiti, Ngai Tāmanuhiri, Rongowhakaata, ​Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne, Ngāi Tahu).

“This exhibition is a tribute to leaders who challenged the status quo, who paved pathways of empowerment, breaking barriers by bringing issues to the surface,” reads the exhibition brief.

Dealing with such important people has its difficulties.

The most difficult painting for Tai was the piece for his uncle, John Ruru.

“He was so prominent in helping the iwi. He established the Mangatu forest with the Mangatu Blocks Incorporation and that generates money for our people instead of the land just sitting there unused.” As well as submitting the Treaty settlement claims for Māhaki, he also helped set up Te Runanga o Turanganui a Kiwa in 1986 to represent the interest of Rongowhakaata, Ngai Tāmanuhiri and Te Aitanga a Māhaki.

None of the artworks are for sale and instead have been gifted to whānau connected with the subjects.

“It's hard because you don't know how people are going to take it,” said Tai about his artwork inspired by Mr Ruru.

“But it's not an image of him. It's a taniwha.”

Kaaterina agreed.

Instead of complete representations of the subjects, they have “tapped into our insights and relationships” to create an interpretation on canvas.

An important piece for Kaaterina is of her aunty.

“One of my paintings is about my aunty, Ngahuia Ngata. She passed away recently after a long battle with cancer. She was tirelessly working for our community everywhere and in everything.

“One of her biggest sayings was, ‘to do nothing is not an option,' Kaaterina said.

“You can't do nothing, you've got to do something. Even if it doesn't do anything right now, there's no initial impact, there will be something that flourishes from doing something.”

Kaaterina said the people were chosen because of the impact many of them have had on the community.

“It's the people who govern those boards who have the key positions that can make a big change. Their voices are important.”

Kaaterina said with those roles comes responsibility.

“We have to make ourselves accountable for the seats we have at the table.

“We have to look after those seats, doing the work rather than being a seat warmer.”

She said it's not about being a yes person.

“It's about challenging the status quo to disrupt and make good change.”

But they acknowledge being the agitator in the room is not an easy job.

“It's hard work. But some of the whanau we have highlighted have done that for years until they were gone. They spend all of their time and energy and effort — everything — into making sure there are better pathways for our communities.”

Both Tai and Kaaterina went to Toihoukura, Eastern Institute of Technology's school of Māori visual art and design, in 1996. They were some of the first intakes at the school.

“We were only friends then and then we carried on doing our own thing. I went down to Wellington to do graphic design and then later on we connected and decided to be a family,” Kaaterina said.

To put bread and butter on the table the pair run KE Design, creative art and design consultancy specialising in Māori imagery.

After living in Wellington for years, the pair moved to Tolaga Bay where they have loved living . . . except for the weak internet connection.

In 2010 they finished their degrees at Toimairangi in Hastings with toi Māori arts icon Dr Sandy Adsett. Dr Adsett retired earlier this month.

Then three years ago they both got master's degrees at Toihoukura, but the mahi is not over. Kaaterina says she is looking into a PhD.

Tai and Kaaterina Kerekere's exhibition, Be The Taniwha, is a tribute to leaders who challenged the status quo, paved pathways of empowerment and broke barriers by bringing issues to the surface. Tairawhiti Museum, until March 20.

Tango Āhua: Kaaterina Kerekere's work titled, Tango Āhua, which is part of her Te Karanga o te wai series exploring the past.
TRIBUTE: Kaaterina and Tai Kerekere took on the task of highlighting some of Tairāwhiti's most important characters for their exhibition at Tairāwhiti Museum, Be The Taniwha. Picture supplied
moonlight: Tai Kerekere's work titled Light of the Moon - Whiti te Marama. The painting is in reference to Maramataka, the Māori lunar calendar. Pictures supplied