Ngāti Kahungunu artist Russ Flatt 'so humbled' by top award

By Te Ao - Māori News
Russ Flatt, Kōruru (Knucklebones)

Ngāti Kahungunu photographer and artist Russ Flatt has won a prestigious art award for a photograph that draws inspiration from his mother's whānau of nine who whāngai-ed a local boy in Wairoa, Hawke's Bay when she was a child.

Flatt said he felt "so humbled" to receive the Wallace Arts Trust Paramount Award for his photographic image ‘Kōruru (Knucklebones) earlier this week.

"My mother was one of nine daughters. She was brought up in rural Hawke's Bay in the small town of Wairoa.  Her family whāngai-ed a local boy they nicknamed Mickey. Mickey was my Uncle and he and my Mum were close.  He stood out in our Māori family because of his fair skin and flaming red hair," Flatt said in his artist statement describing the story behind the image.

"For us, being whāngai was not about losing your parents but more about the community and whānau coming together to raise you as one of their own."

Russ Flatt.  Photo / Auckland Art Gallery, 2016.

Flatt said he chose to include kōruru in the image as a symbol of friendship and connection.
 
"My photograph depicts a red-headed boy and a young Māori woman sitting together on a dirt floor playing Kōruru (Knucklebones).

"Kōruru was pre-Nintendo Nintendo. Although it was sometimes seen as a 'girls' game, it would probably be described in 21st Century terms as 'non-binary," the statement said.

"It was centred around the joy of friendship and the connections you could make as young people playing games together. It was a way of finding your tribe through play. It was also highly addictive and took skill and practice.

"Kōruru taught me early on that there were skills involved in being part of a group. It also taught me that extending your circle of friends depended on your skill for the game at hand."

The five judges who selected Flatt's work as the paramount winner said in their notes that the image spoke to matters of identity.

"Haunting emotionality - an image which returns scrutiny of it with an increasing sense of tension, as if the hard scatter of the knucklebones plays towards some vague event having just passed or about to happen.

"The composition of the two figures resembles a clasp, a hand within a hand, while evoking identities of motherhood, gender and ethnicity in some uncertain past."