Māori artist - "We’re not just a ring in"

By Kelvin McDonald
Ngāti Whātua artist Graham Tipene says Māori designers draw on knowledge that goes back thousands of years and project teams should recognise them as more than "just a ring-in". Photo/File.

A Māori artist annoyed his design work was not given the recognition it deserves earlier this year is "really stoked" he's finally received an invitation to an awards ceremony for the bridge he helped design.  Ngāti Whātua artist Graham Tipene, who gave the Tirohanga Whānui Bridge in Auckland its distinctly Māori look, says it's a sign "someone is listening" and an acknowledgement that Māori designers are more than "just a ring in".   

"We got an invite!  Yay!," Tipene posted on his Te Wheke Moko Design Studio Facebook page. "Someone is listening."


Background - Māori consistently overlooked 

In May, Te Ao drew attention to Māori artists' concerns their work on construction projects is consistently being overlooked at awards time and, in particular, Tipene's frustration that his contribution towards the design of the Tirohanga Whānui Bridge had not received the acknowledgement it deserved, something he says happens all the time to Māori.  Since then, another example has emerged of Māori designers seemingly being ignored, this time in Christchurch.

The Tirohanga Whānui Bridge in Albany, Auckland which Ngāti Whātua artist Graham Tipene gave a distinctly Māori visual identity. Photo/NZIA.

Back in May, Tipene told Te Ao that he only found out the Albany pedestrian and cycling bridge was up for a prize at the Auckland Architecture Awards when a friend at the ceremony messaged him to say it had won and asked where he was. 

As it turns out, Tipene was not at the ceremony because the architectural firm, which put the bridge forward for the award, had not invited him, a situation they later apologised for.

At the time, Tipene said project teams involved in developments such as this do not pay adequate respect to Māori design input.

"Of course, those people don't see any connection between cultural design and architecture or engineering, which is why we weren't invited I'm guessing."

Acknowledgement, finally

So, it's not surprising that this time around, Tipene is really quite pleased his design efforts have been acknowledged, through an awards invite to the CCNZ Hynds Construction Awards.

"I’m really stoked that they’re getting their heads around it,” he says.

Tipene's invitation came from the Northern Corridor Improvements Alliance (NCI), which is heading the overall northern motorway improvements project, of which the Tirohanga Whānui Bridge is one part.

He says NCI is onboard with his whakaaro about recognising Māori design input and is ensuring his mahi is not forgotten by including him on the invite list.

"The NCI team were definitely making sure that it was all sorted," says Tipene.

Source: Aurecon/YouTube.

The Ngāti Whātua artist says NCI were not directly involved in the design of the bridge and, therefore, did not have input into whether he was invited to the earlier architecture awards.

"The bridge was outside their scope so it wasn’t their problem, it wasn’t their raru, it was just the other group [tasked with building the bridge]."

Mana whenua - 'I feel aroha for them'

Tipene says that although the invitation came from NCI (which includes the development team of NZ Transport, Fulton Hogan, HEB Construction, Opus and Jacobs), mana whenua played an important role in ensuring his contribution, particularly as a Ngāti Whātua artist, was properly recognised.

"When the [Te Ao] kōrero came out, a member of the mana whenua table rang me and said he was going to be talking to the NCI project team."

Tipene says mana whenua have a lot on their plate and he appreciates all that they do, including advocating for this design work.

"I feel aroha for the mana whenua table," he says, "The mana whenua table have got a hard task already. You've got 19 iwi trying to uphold the mana of their own entities and then they’re having to battle a non-Māori perspective on architecture, on engineering and art as well," he says.

"So, they’ve got it twice as hard, whereas the projects- they're coming in, 'we’re building a bridge' and that’s as far as they’ve thought it through.

"Whereas, the mana whenua table are saying, 'what’s the kōrero going to be for this mahi, whose kōrero is it going to be, what will the repercussions be of having this kōrero public?'  They’ve got to think about all of these things, and then they’ve got to think about battling through non-Māori perceptions, non-Māori ideologies and racism sometimes, it’s just blatant racism." 

'They want to make it right'

Tipene says that after the mana whenua representative spoke to the NCI team, he followed up with a call to NCI's project leader Andrew Johnson who he says confirmed they would put him on the invite list for the next awards.

"The big project lead is always trying to figure out how to make sure that they’re doing things right," Tipene says.

"NCI, they’re the ones that want to make it right.  I just want to make that clear.”

A spokesperson for NCI says, "We were very happy to extend an invitation to Graham to the Hynds Awards dinner this Friday." 

NCI says they have also sent him an invitation to the Hirepool Construction Excellence Awards dinner in Rotorua on 2 August, which they have entered the bridge into, and they are "happy to say he has just accepted."

Tipene says, "It’s good that these kōrero are happening often now." Photo/NZIA.


Tipene says it's a positive step to have the conversation out in the open.

"It’s good that these kōrero are happening often now.  The more we do it the easier it becomes and we can figure out how to navigate through these spaces more safely and easier.”   

He says the recent example, in which the significant Māori design input into the new Christchurch library Tūranga was overlooked, highlights the breadth of the problem.

“It’s definitely widespread and it’s definitely time for change. You know, we can’t just accept it anymore," he says.

"Aroha to Christchurch because not only are they having to rebuild from scratch, because we’re just adding to infrastructure [in Auckland], but they had to rebuild their infrastructure from scratch and then they’re asking Māori to help, but not acknowledging the input that Māori are giving on top of what’s already happened.”

Listen to Tipene discuss how Ngā Aho (a national network of Māori design professionals) are able to help influence change and the need for project teams to shift away from thinking of 'Dial-a-Māori' designers. Source/Te Ao.

Tipene says that it's way past time project teams realised Māori designers are more than "Dial-a-Māori".

"We’re not just a ring-in, add-on, slap a sticker on a nice thing.  We’re actually part of a team and our knowledge goes [back] thousands of years." 

He says that not everyone who has heard his whakaaro is onboard with it though.

"There was a bit of a backlash, like some people saying 'why the hell do you need it?'  I was like, 'no, no we don’t need it, it’s just our perception of teamwork is different to theirs'. If you’re part of a team then we’re part of a team,” says Tipene.

"It’s just the noise from non-Māori can be overbearing sometimes and we have to sort of figure out when to speak up and when it’s just safer for us to pass on that fire to someone else to hold.”   

'Pity I can't go, but that's not the point.'

As it happens, Tipene isn't actually able to attend the awards ceremony that he's been invited to this weekend, "Pity I can't go" he posted on social media.

Instead, he is set to experience a deeply important moment in his life, a facial tattoo.

"I’m getting my mataora that weekend."  

Tipene says whether he is able to attend the awards ceremony or not isn't what's most important in this conversation.

"That's not the point.  It's not about the award, it's about the recognition of all involved in the project and the roles we all played to make something awesome happen."