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September 11, 2017 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Fred Graham

Time is ever changing and we only have one chance at first encounters and yet with the lack of time there is ample opportunity to learn from them. Most Māori understand that it is one thing to meet someone new and another to meet someone from your iwi. When meeting another of your own rohe there is that unspoken alliance that comes into existence.

A few weekends ago I had one of the most unforgettable meet and greets at the Te Waka Toi Awards, which is an annual event dedicated to celebrating others’ excellences in Māori art. I attended the event to support my partner who was receiving the Ngā Manu Pīrere Award recognising him as a promising upcoming Māori artist. It was there where I met a man of kudos and grace who happened to be from the same rolling hills of my second home and the nest of my father’s people, the great lands of Waikato. When people harvest the ahikā of Ngāi Māori fluently in their work can we really ignore the trueness of folk wisdom? There is no fraudulence in the infamous whakataukī Waikato-taniwha-rau. He piko, he taniwha. He piko, he taniwha. In him and many more from Waikato there lives a fierce taniwha in their mahi and their heart, which cannot be overpassed.

Fred Graham is a renowned Māori artist and yet coming close to 89 years of living on Papatūānukānuku he is claimed to be one of the leading virtuosos of contemporary Māori art, and he does not stop there. In 1955 he was selected to be a part of the New Zealand Māori rugby team and he was a well-endorsed art teacher. He was not shy of sharing his connections when he talked about working alongside Tom Johnson, being a teacher to Nigel Brown, and attending teachers college beside the late Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu. He had a deep admiration for people and paying homage to those who supported him was a natural instinct of his and I cannot forget his wife because of the honorable love he shared about her loyalty to him. She was a delicate timid and rare kuia with cherry blossom cheeks who he had praised as being the backbone to his journey. For me Graham has an ingrained presence and an undefined placidness to every word he spoke. Kāore he kōrero Māori ia engari ahakoa tēnā ka hikoia e ia ngā tāringa o te ao tūroa. Pēhea? Nā te mea ka takoto te pono o ngā kaupapa Māori ki roto i ona mahi me ona kōrero ahakoa te aha.

The ceremony itself was fine dining, formal dress, and two wine bottles at every table. They had two huge screens to show each recipient’s short story and it caused a little ruckus between the men as they argued for one to be used for the All Blacks match, no joke. I met Graham first and his artwork last and I would not have it any other way. When Graham received his Supreme award and his story played, my hands gripped my partner’s side because I was struggling to come to terms with reality.

At first I was embarrassed to have no knowledge of his artwork but once that feeling surpassed I was completely inundated and transformed. He was a sculptor and paid close attention to the ideology of perspectives by creating third dimensional pieces that redefined the concepts of depth and curve. The way he carved his kōrero into the pieces really brought to light the contemporary soul of te ao Māori. The tail of his taniwha wrapping around and reclaiming our forms of communication was more than a pleasure to the eye. You could classify him as an environmentalist in a way because his artwork aimed to reorganise one’s appreciation for resources. You can see his art in public spaces, art galleries, and overseas. Through his art he can reconnect people to their whenua, he can touch people as tāngata whenua, and most importantly he talks to people as Māori.


Caption- Fred Graham, Tane and Tupai. 1975. Photo by Shaun Matthews.

Fred Graham, Tane and Tupai. 1975. Photo by Shaun Matthews.


Much like his artwork, Fred Graham graces you in various ways that requires the eye to look a little further than face value. Graham makes me look forward to the future because he has embraced the world in all its capacity successfully, and knowing a Māori from Waikato can conquer these extremes comforts me in the idea of growing and advancing in my years to come.

Nō reira, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa.


— Nā Te Wainuiārua Poa, Te Ātihaunui-a-Pāpārangi, Ngāti Māniapoto (Ngāti Rora), Waikato-Tainui

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