Artists Tame Iti and Owen Dippie have collaborated on an exhibition that focuses on cultural unity, they tell Ali Ikram

"Have we met somewhere before?" is Tame Iti's first question on arrival at the Karangahape Rd gallery where his latest exhibition will soon be shown.

The correct answer is no, but in a life devoted to the theatre of modern day activism, New Zealand has seen every square centimetre of his diminutive, tattooed frame and watched him play every role from the accused under the so-called anti-terror laws to a fairy in pink tutu and wings for a Breast Cancer Foundation fundraiser.

Over the decades, he has been many things, even on this same street. Today, in the new OD gallery at number 545 K Rd, Iti is here to talk art. Last decade, we could have dined next door at 553 on premium pork and puha or pickled pikopiko relish with chili at his cafe specialising in gourmet Maori cuisine. And had we stood on the pavement 40 years ago, he would be leading a march against the Vietnam War, dressed in combat fatigues and beret.

Our meeting happened on the Monday-ised public holiday afforded after Waitangi Day fell on the weekend. Little traffic passes outside. The news is still full of the Prime Minister's decision not to attend commemorations on Te Tii Marae. Iti also did not go, nor has he travelled there in recent times. This perhaps most radical, departure has been largely unnoticed.


"It's time for me to move on to the next step. Waitangi has always been the zone of political consciousness from 1971 with (activist group) Nga Tamatoa, I didn't go till 1972. It's become the place of conversation. Where the politicians go around there to show their faces. Right up from that time in 1972 until not very long ago. I think that will do me, I'll hang my coat. Art is where I'm going. Art is a good place for me, to take the work to another level."

Hine, a portrait by Owen Dippie of his friend Tania, is on the side of an Upper Queen St building. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Hine, a portrait by Owen Dippie of his friend Tania, is on the side of an Upper Queen St building. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Ko Koe Ko Au (You and I)

, his collaboration with internationally renowned street artist Owen Dippie, is his latest project. As we talk, four works lie rolled out on the floor. Dippie has contributed the photorealistic images of identifiable living Tuhoe, while Iti has painted the backgrounds of faceless generations indivisible from the landscape and the mist sweeping down the hillside.

One is the portrait of kuia Hokimoana Tawa. It's a smaller version of the large scale work the pair completed in November on a wall in the small Bay of Plenty town of Taneatua. The mural is intended as a powhiri, welcoming travellers entering Te Urewera, the first of a series Iti hopes will be placed in locations in the ancestral lands, as the iwi look to the future after recently settling their grievances with the Crown.

This April will mark 100 years since the arrest of the prophet Rua Kenana and the ensuing shoot-out that claimed two lives, including Kenana's son.

Just how far official attitudes have changed can be seen in the apology and 2014 legislation recognising Te Urewera as having "all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person".

In the brief seconds as cars pass, the kuia's image has to embody everything; loss, struggle, Tuhoetanga and restored mana.

"Owen's work captures the mauri (life force), the spirit which is in the eyes and the face," says Iti of his collaborator who has developed a following overseas and at home - in Christchurch for the ballerina on the Isaac Theatre Royal and in Auckland for the towering face of a Maori woman overlooking the motorway.

"It's a universal language, especially when you travel and paint murals outside. You may not even be able to speak the same language as the person viewing it but you can share a connection. That's what drew me and Tame together," says Dippie, who recently returned from spraying Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie on a wall of a vacant Melbourne department store.

As they pose for photographs, it is difficult to think of what else, other than the line of art might have drawn them together. However, both began their journeys towards their respective inspiration in the same town, in the same year: Kawerau, 1988.

"I was 4 and would have just started reaching for the crayons," explains Dippie. Around the same time, Iti was sacked from his day job maintaining the railway track at the town's mill.

Another imposing face may well be found watching over that community in days to come.

"It's important we put it out there," says Iti. "We need to show the idea we are building destinations. We're not just having Coca-Cola (signs) in our township or KFC. We want to show the faces of the people who are part of the community.

"These are the people who will build this nation. This is just the beginning, not the end."