Reflections in neon

PROFESSOR ROBERT JAHNKE - Whiti o Rehua School of Art, College of Creative Arts

As Professor of Māori Visual Arts at Massey University’s Whiti o Rehua School of Art Robert Jahnke wears many hats: historian, teacher, researcher, writer and advocate for Māori and indigenous arts nationally and internationally.

Considered one of New Zealand’s leading contemporary Māori artists, his practice straddles design, illustration, animation and sculpture, using a range of media including found objects, steel and lead.

Professor Jahnke’s work is typically based on political issues that face Māori, the relationship between Māori and European colonisers, and the impact of Christianity on Māori culture. For example, a series of text works uses the phrase ‘I am’, to which additional terms are added. The piece I am a strategic essentialist is a case in point. ‘Strategic essentialism is rather a nice phrase because we as Māori have to operate in a kind of a dual world,’ Professor Jahnke explains. ‘Quite often we have to don the cloak of essentialism or of culture, of being Māori, and at other times we have to take that cloak off. It’s a strategy we employ in order to get traction for Māori issues and Māori politics. When Māori come to see the work, with an inherant sense of whakapapa as a genealogical continuum, they can’t help but see it. It’s fortuitous, and I capitalise on that.’

Professor Jahnke sees his research and his practice as working in synergy with each other. ‘The things that I write about are articulated into the work that I create — I take elements associated with my research and translate those into exhibitions. It’s an interesting dynamic which goes the other way as well, where I create a body of work and translate that into the written form. I find that by engaging in both research and practice, possibilities open for further development.’ This dynamic can be seen in his research into the evolution of tukutuku within the meeting house context, and its translation into contemporary art, particularly into digital imagery. This led to the creation of a series of neon works on the theme. One of these, Navarro Tukutuku, used text and mirrors to create the illusion of infinite reflections of the word Tuku. This played on the ambiguity of the word tuku, which means to bequeath or to hand on, and tukutuku, which means to unfold or latticework.

Strategic essentialism is rather a nice phrase because we as Māori have to operate in a kind of a dual world.


The neon works culminated in a large sculpture, Kaokao, a 2.4-metre work comprised of two x-shaped structures that form a diamond cavity, fitted with neon lighting. Created for the 2017 headland Sculpture on the Gulf exhibition on Waiheke Island, the work was subsequently exhibited in the Lux Light Festival in Wellington, and the SCAPE Public Art exhibition in Christchurch.

With major public works including window and door designs for the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, wall reliefs for the High Court Building and Bowen House in Wellington, and the sculpture for the Sky Casino entrance in Auckland, Professor Jahnke is also in demand for commissioned work. A recent piece for the courtyard of the new ASB Waterfront Theatre in Auckland is a 6.4-metre carved pou, Pou Whakamaharatanga mo Maui tikitiki a Taranga, which references Māori folk hero Maui Tikitikia-Taranga entering the world through his birth mother Taranga and meeting his ultimate fate in death through his great-grandmother Hinenuite-pō. Another is Nga Huruhuru Rangatira, ‘the feathers of the chief’, a 6.4-metre-high archway in The Square in Palmerston North. Crafted from 3000 kilograms of ground stainless steel, it features three feathers on one side and two on the other, representing a coming together of Māori cultural references and Western knowledge. Cutaway sections on the columns are in the shape of huia birds.

Teaching is another area where Professor Jahnke’s innovation has become evident, having set up Massey’s Toioho ki Āpiti, Māori Visual Arts programme, including the Bachelor of Māori Visual Arts, which was the first Māori visual arts degree in the tertiary sector. The programme, now running for more than twenty years, also includes a Postgraduate Diploma and Master of Māori Visual Arts. Beyond this graduates can enter the PhD in Creative Arts offered through the College of Creative Arts. In 2017 Professor Jahnke was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Māori art and education.

Currently, Professor Jahnke is writing a book, Māori Art: From carving to sculpture, which is a chronological scoping of pre-European carvings through to contemporary sculpture, looking at seminal moments in the continuum of Māori visual culture over time.