TEDxAuckland: Tame Iti channels art as a force for good

By Jamie Joseph

Since Tame Iti's release he says he has been focused on creating art that represents a new direction in history. Photo / Supplied
Since Tame Iti's release he says he has been focused on creating art that represents a new direction in history. Photo / Supplied

Just over two years ago Tuhoe activist Tame Iti was granted parole after serving nine months of a 30 month sentence for firearms offences following the 2007 media coined "terror raids". Determined to make his time productive while on the inside, Iti harnessed his energy and channelled it into art.

Says the renowned fighter for Maori rights, "Being locked away is dehumanising and I had to be smart about using my time while incarcerated. Some of those early art works were affected by what was going on outside of jail. My art is a representation of what is going on inside of me, and it was a way for me to communicate with the other inmates. I was also able to barter some of my art to get more canvas and paint."

In 2012 artwork Iti created from inside prison was auctioned off to help him pay for his appeal. Because he did not have access to glue in prison, he had to make do with resources such as toothpaste. Other artists who donated works for the appeal fundraiser auction at Auckland's Bizdojo Gallery included Shane Cotton, Dean Buchanan and collaborative artists Cut Collective.

The auction raised $80,000.

Tame Iti recalls feeling very honoured and humbled by that experience, and felt that if there was one positive thing to come out of his situation at the time it was that it unified people, and for that he felt very grateful.

While he was behind bars, and in the lead up to Tuhoe's settlement with the Crown, Iti produced the cover art for New Zealand Geographic, which included a 40-page feature on the iwi. The painting reproduced on the cover depicted the rugged landscape of Te Urewera, hills surrounded by mist and ghostly figures upon the land, with the subtle glow of te ahi kaa, the long-burning fires of occupation.

A historic Treaty settlement passed into legislation last year gives the iwi a $170 million in compensation to address the brutal injustices of colonisation, and the settlement gives back more than 200,000ha of Te Urewera, removing the National Park status, creating a new legal identity and making the iwi governor and guardian of the land. Since Iti's release he says he has been focused on creating art that represents this new direction in history.

"Right now my art is about the relationship between me as a Tuhoe and my relationship with the nation, my connection to the river, the mountain, and my genealogy. It is a documentation of my beliefs that I can pass on to the next generation, to my hapu. I'm a late starter as an art practitioner, and in a way I feel that art has saved my life because it has enabled me the freedom of expression. There are many internal battles stuck inside of me, and I need to let these go, and so really my art is a mixture of the things I am most passion about, and a platform to provoke a conversation."

When we turn the page to on the ground street activism, Tame Iti agrees that a lot of this has been replaced by Facebook and social media, and this can be detrimental to the spirit of revolution. In partnership with a cousin, Iti recently opened Taneatua Gallery, and their hope is to bring together the ideas of a small community in the most northern part of Urewera.

"The gallery is a vehicle to paddle the waka using art as a form of activism," explains Iti. "It is a voice and a space to enable our local artists, and also to bring the international artists back into our communities by raising our social conscience and bringing together different opinions so we are not seduced by propaganda."

The first event at the gallery featured an exhibition and talk to local Taneatua artists by Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 until the Party disbanded in the 1980s. The lifelong activist for social justice created images that became icons, representing black American struggles during the 1960s and 1970s.

Tame Iti believes one of the greatest threats facing the world today is the global control of American imperialism which has been fuelling the fires of wars in the Middle East for far too long now through paranoia and hypocrisy.

"And this whole 'Big brother is watching us' is out of control," adds Iti. "I've been spied on, and that is an abuse of our civil rights. Now more than ever, people that have an opinion are becoming a target."

Tame Iti is featured on the 2015 TEDxAuckland line up taking place on Saturday 2 May. To check out all the details and read the full line up, visit tedxauckland.com. Tickets will sell out.

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