Half-blood is an exhibition that challenges the history and myths associated with both Māori and Pakeha identity through two playable digital artworks by graphic designer Johnson Witehira. The works, projected side-by-side in the gallery space, present two narratives; the arrival of Māori and the arrival of Pakeha in Aotearoa New Zealand. The audience are invited to take up the controls and navigate a Pacific or British character through the alien landscape, with each forced to overcome challenges in their newly-discovered worlds. For Māori this included taming the harsh environment; for Pakeha it was taming the savages.
Satire is put to use in these works to explore the darker reality of our shared history. The Māori-centred artwork asks questions about the accidental and deliberate destruction of environments and wildlife – while in the Pakeha artwork, we see Māori subjugated by the introduction of disease, religion and guns.
Aesthetically the works draw on influences including early Māori figurative painting (such as that seen in the whare Rongopai and Nga Tau e Waru), contemporary Māori art practice, and video game art of the 80s and 90s. However, the digital medium is also used in an attempt to engage new audiences, and extend beyond the gallery. The 2D graphic style has a nostalgic link to Witehira’s own upbringing as urban Māori, while connecting to the visual art and design associated with popular subcultures – such as comics, videogames and animation. While the forms seem simple, the content of the works is rich with meaning and complexity, forcing the viewer to confront a history that some would rather forget. Who are the winners here?
Johnson Witehira is a
designer and artist of Ngā Puhi (Ngai-tā-te-auru), Tamahaki (Ngāti Hinekura),
and Pakeha descent. He graduated from the Whanganui School of Design in 2007,
going on to complete his Masters in 2007. His interest in Māori visual art led
then him to Massey University where he completed a doctorate (2013) that
explored both the aesthetics and tikanga in customary Māori art. As an artist
Witehira’s work often explores identity and the space between cultures. He has
worked on a diverse range of creative projects, from solo and group
exhibitions, to public art including murals, light-box works and projected
light installations. In 2012 Witehira’s work was exhibited in Times Square, New
York in the first ever syncronised display of digital content. In his Land
of Tara (2014, Wellington) series Witehira worked created a series of
graphic representations of the capital city's ancestors including Kupe,
Whatonga, and his sons Tautoki and Tara. More recently Witehira was invited to
show his work at the prestigious Talente Munich in Germany (2015).