Two Artists, One Car: Taika Waititi, Wayne Youle, and the Pulse of Contemporary Māori art

Taika Waititi and Wayne Youle have been subjected to considerable recent media scrutiny. Waititi has reluctantly been splashed over magazines and newspapers everywhere following the runaway success of his short film Two Cars, One Night (2003) on the international film circuit. Youle has been the subject of yet another heated arts controversy. His work This is not a Swastika or a Walters (2004) was deemed offensive by the New Zealand Jewish Council, especially as it was exhibited during the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Wanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery refused to remove Youle’s fusion of the swastika and koru forms.

Waititi and Youle were brought together in Manawa Taki: The Pulsing Heart at the Michael Hirschfeld Gallery.[1] The exhibition promised to ‘take the pulse of contemporary Māori art’, through documenting a collective strength among artists with local iwi affiliations. It ended up little more than a showcase or rollcall of interesting young artists. Beyond acknowledging a shared cultural background, there was no attempt to bind the artists or objects together in any meaningful manner. The exhibition read as a simple response to the recent success and visibility of young Māori artists, rather than an effort to engage with or foster the diverse range of practices on display.

Manawa Taki did provide the opportunity to consider the practices of Youle and Waititi in tandem, and specifically as contemporary Māori art. Both have ensured that this label does not always sit comfortably with their work. Their contributions to Manawa Taki were amongst those with less direct reference to Māori traditions and practices. It is also notable that Waititi and Youle refuse to use the published interviews to directly locate their practices within the cultural framework the exhibitionsets up. Both in this exhibition and beyond, Youle and Waititi each demonstrate a canny awareness and negotiation of the ways their work is presented, operates, and is received in relation to the expectations of the contemporary Māori artist.

Waititi’s switching between Māori and Pakeha surnames according to different modes of practice is one indicator of this awareness. As an actor and comedian he works under the name Cohen, while as painter, photographer, and filmmaker he goes by his father’s name. He explains this substitution as an attempt to avoid the potential for cultural typecasting as a performer, a pressure he presumably feels less acutely as a visual artist.[2]

Two Cars, One Night perfectly employs the short film format to tell an engaging story of small kids killing time in big cars outside a rural pub. With its characters and East Coast dialects and mannerisms, accentuated by the emphasis on language and communication, the film is heavily grounded in Māori culture. Waititi often draws on Māori experiences and stories as raw material. Tama Tai, his follow-up short film, explores relationships formed between the soldiers of the Māori Battalion. The Untold Tales of Maui, which Waititi wrote and performed as part of the Humourbeasts, reworked the legend in contemporary comedic terms.

Yet Waititi continually downplays these cultural connections. He stresses that while Two Cars, One Night is based on personal experiences, it tells a universal story of the rituals and bonds children form when cut off from the mysteries of the adult world.[3] The film can certainly be located within a cultural history of the representation of Māori that utilises similar set pieces, through Once Were Warriors (1990) to Noel Hillard’s novel Maori Girl (1960). Yet, in support of Waititi’s assertion, the film never slips into providing the slice of cultural exotica or sentimentalism that has shadowed the depiction of Māori in film, art, and literature. Two Cars, One Night was pipped to the Academy Award by Andrea Arnold’s Wasp (2003). Her film revolves around a working class British woman who abandons her children for the possibility of romance at the local pub— suggesting that this situation does operate within a broader cultural context.

This desire for the film not to be read solely on Māori terms echoes earlier calls throughout the cultural history of Aotearoa. Painter Ralph Hotere has been most vehement in demanding that his upbringing be viewed as incidental to his practice. Where Hotere is driven by modernist demands that his paintings operate on their own terms, Waititi is more interested in tapping into the potential of the storyteller to communicate across cultural, temporal, and physical boundaries. The ‘diamond ring’ given to Romeo by Polly in the film can be seen to symbolise this power. It both seals their brief connection and that forged between the filmmaker and his audiences over those eleven and half minutes.

Waititi’s fascination with the ways his film plays out in different cultural contexts further demonstrates these ideals.[4] In some cases, however, the presentation and reception of the film indicates the clashes that can occur between the desires of the artist for their work and the cultures in which they operate, that seems particularly prevalent with Māori cultural production.

Waititi could clearly laugh off the films inclusion in the ‘Native Forum’ section at Sundance, despite being so at odds with his ambitions for the project.[5] His subsequent prank of feigning sleep as nominations were announced at the Academy Awards ceremony earned a mixed reception. To some this momentary fusion of Waititi the filmmaker and Cohen the performer was a brilliant gesture, straight from Romeo’s playbook and closely attuned to the spirit of the film. The negative reactions were often laced with distinct racist undertones. In arguing that the filmmaker would never fall asleep at a hui or powhiri on a marae, one letter writer indicates the difficulties Waititi faces in outflanking those readings of his practice on purely cultural terms.[6]

This is the disputed territory in which Wayne Youle operates. At the same time Waititi was been dressed down for his cultural irreverence, Youle was informed that he was ‘doing his race a disservice’ through exhibiting the swastika paintings.[7] Youle heavily figures the reception of his art into its production, an approach that can be read simply as a desire to shock, or as a testing of cultural boundaries and symbols. Youle’s dual cultural background is central to this approach, and is interrogated and tested as strongly as the loaded forms and symbols he works with. Unlike Waititi, Youle does not disavowal the label of young Māori artist that is regularly thrust upon him. He strategically deploys this identity, particularly exploring the possibilities it generates in terms of tackling cultural issues.

Even in the eyes of his own father this approach makes Youle a ‘Bullshit Artist’. Portrait of the Artist as the Old Man sees it (2004) is an embroided gang patch identifying the wearer on these terms. It also features a skull wearing a headband with kowhaiwhai patterns. The patch parodies the ways Youle is perceived and presented as a Māori artist. It points out his ‘gang’ allegiances, presumably under the leadership of Michael Parekowhai and Peter Robinson, artists Youle has been accused of poorly aping.[8] It also acknowledges a cynical response towards the prestige that the brandishing of a Māori cultural identity can be considered to grant the contemporary artist.

Youle’s referencing of his father, from whom he claims his Pākehā heritage, loosely echoes that of painter Reuben Patterson, who claims his Māori lineage through his father. Deidre Brown argues that Patterson’s kowhaiwhai paintings produced with glitter foster a connection with his father’s wairua. Subsequently Patterson’s painting offers a traditional Māori method of portraiture, despite its apparent distance from customary models.[9] Youle’s inheritance appears to be the scepticism and questioning towards both art and his cultural background that filters through to all levels of his practice.

He has not always played the Bullshit Artist. Rated, an exhibition of 201 potentially objectionable images trawled from popular culture and the internet, was designed to test the limits of visual culture. Youle came out with all guns blazing, asserting that it was his disgust at nineteenth century representations of Māori women that drove the exhibition. He presented the project as a young, angry, and defiantly Māori artist.[10] This strong, self-reflexive position is missing from his rather vague defence of the swastika paintings, that he is seeking to liberate the symbol from the baggage forced on it by the Nazi regime. Youle’s artistic statements in general have become increasingly simplistic and non-committal, further supporting this idea that he is a Bullshit Artist, or is adopting an ‘easy position’.[11]

Youle discusses Walters Park Wellington (2004), his contribution to Manawa Taki, in this manner. It is a model for a public space dedicated to Gordon Walters, dominated by a monolithic sculpture of the modernist painter’s signature stylised koru. Youle claims that he simply thought it would be ‘nice’ to see the park erected, and ‘great to sit under a one hundred and sixty foot Walters’ koru and eat fish’n’chips.’[12]

But characteristically this apparently simple act of homage knowingly generates a number of politically and culturally charged readings. Wellington already has a once highly contested sculpture park, Shona Rapira Davies’ Te Aro Park (1990-91). Youle’s diorama opposes Rapira Davies’ project on almost all counts. Her work utilises the form and symbolism of the waka at the heart of Māori culture, and is built into the earth to encourage consideration of earlier histories inscribed on the site.[13] Walters Park imposes a towering vertical Walters’ koru on the landscape, a form appropriated from Māori culture that subsequently came to embody an official concept and hope of biculturalism.

Wellington’s role in government and policy enhances this reading. It is tempting to read Walters Park as a monument to a set of values and agendas that still may hold sway in contemporary politics and culture. In invoking Te Aro Park, the diorama also reminds us of the bitter debates that surrounded the project, and that the issues Youle addresses are not new ones. Rapira Davies was quickly branded the difficult and controversial Māori artist, a label recently pinned on Youle.

Or perhaps I’m being too heavy handed in my reading of Youle’s work. I’m always left wavering between feeling I have read too much into it, or not given it enough credit. Even though this text rejects the idea that Youle adopts an easy position, it still likely plays into the grand ‘Cunning Stunt’ it takes as its subject. Youle gives visual form to this concept in a diorama closely related to Walters Park.

In Cunning Stunt (2004) a toy car with a Tino Rangatiratanga flag emblazoned on its roof prepares to race up a ramp and leap over or smash through the monolithic koru. We are encouraged to envision Youle behind the wheel in full Evil Knievel mode, wearing his gang patch. The diorama poses all the questions underpinning the presentation and reception of both Youle and Waititi’s art. Is Youle undertaking this act of extreme bravery or stupidity on his own volition or has he been forced into the car by art institutions, labels, and the cultural expectations of the young Māori artist? Should we strap ourselves in for the ride or pull the handbrake? Will Youle complete this spectacular stunt or limply peter out? Who is been taken for a ride here?

Illusions, 37, Winter 2005, 47–49

[1] Manawa Taki: The Pulsing Heart, Wellington: Michael Hirschfeld Gallery, 8 April-15 May 2005. The exhibition included Chelsea Gough, Hemi Macgregor, Matthew McIntyre Wilson, Rachael Rakena, Ngataiharuru Taepa, Taika Waititi and Wayne Youle.

[2] Gordon Campbell, ‘Taika Waititi’, New Zealand Listener, vol 192 no 3324, January 24-30 2004, p.10.

[3] Ibid

[4] See Steve Kerr, ‘The untold tales of Taika’, Staple, no 7, October/November 2004, pp.54-56.

[5] Campbell, p.11.

[6] Trevor W. A. Morley, ‘Lets have Marae manners’, Letter to the editor, Dominion Post, Friday March 4 2005, p.B4.

[7] Derek Lessware, quoted in Sean Hoskings, ‘Swastikas Stay’, Wanganui Chronicle, 24 January 2005, p.1

[8] See Philip Matthews, ‘For Arts Sake’, New Zealand Listener, vol 197 no 3378, February 5-11 2005, p.1. Matthews describes Youle’s ‘easy position’ as ‘a reduction of the complexity of two Maori artists who directly preceded Youle: Robinson and Michael Parekowhai’. Robinson’s swastika based works of the late 1990s are described as ‘cynical’ and ‘funny’. Youle’s practice should more productively be seen as consciously navigating a position after these artists and the debates that are played in, around and through their work.

[9] Deidre Brown, ‘The whare on exhibition’, in Anna Smith and Lydia Weavers (eds), On display: new essays in cultural studies, Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2004, p.68

[10] For a discussion and critique of this position see Peter Ireland, ‘On the offensive’, New Zealand Journal of Photography, July 2001, pp.8-9.

[11] Matthews, p 1.

[12] Manawa Taki: The Pulsing Heart, Exhibition pamphlet, 2005, unpaginated.

[13] See Rangihioroa Panoho, ‘Waka in unchartered waters: the work of Shona Rapira Davies’, in Shona Rapira Davies, Wellington: Bowen Galleries, 1994, pp.9-15.