Laura Macfehin talks to Gisborne artist Melanie Tangaere Baldwin about her life and work.
A lot has happened in Melanie Tangaere Baldwin’s life in the last few years– two new people in the form of her beautiful babies, a move back to her hometown of Gisborne and a new vocation as an artist that is garnering her awards and plenty of deserved attention. I asked her some questions about the whole thing.
Tell me about your current art practise — what media are you working in? How would you describe the content?
I normally paint — build or sculpt stuff to paint on… but I’ve got two babies and it is pretty mad trying to stop my two-year old from touching my paints and messing with the brushes and I am still breastfeeding my little baby so I can’t really get into it without having to stop and feed or entertain them.
So I’ve recently started using my computer… taking studio photographs and making digital collages and animations. I’m really loving the speed and freedom of the digital world — just figuring out how to present the finished product is my current dilemma.
All my work is pretty focused on telling Maori/indigenous stories. I try to make my art accessible and relevant but always educational in some way. I want people to be able to learn more about what it means to be us.
Your current show is a group exhibition at Studio One Toi Tu, in Ponsonby, Auckland — can you tell me about?
It’s a show with my friends Riki Tipu Anderson and Sjionel Timu. We wanted a show in Auckland that celebrated mana Maori, mana wahine, mana Takatapui and decolonisation. Even though it’s a group show we separated the gallery into three spaces and all worked on independent but cohesive individual exhibits.
My works are based on Gauguin and his time in the Pacific and the perpetuated fantasy of the Pacific and the Dusky Maiden. The paintings and prints in this show are my attempt at creating the anti-Dusky Maiden.
I get really worked up when I think of these Primitivists and adventurers and their fantasy stereotypes and how people like Gauguin are lauded for their painting skills, when in reality they were monsters spreading disease and religion and destroying families and ways of life. The same goes for Cook and all those other heroes of colonisation. So I included mokomokai of colonisers in the show — with their heads painted with the flags of the people they screwed over.
Are you self-taught or did you study art (whereabouts)?
I learnt the basics of painting from my friends Elliot Stewart and Kristal Gallagher… things like you should wait for the first layer to dry before you paint on it. It sounds cabbage but stuff like that I had never really thought about.
I had never really thought about myself as an artist until I moved back to the coast and lived at my marae at Te Horo (outside Ruatoria) for a few months in 2012. I met these amazing weavers Jim and Kathy Schuster and they suggested I go to Toihoukura in Gisborne. So I did and now I have a Bachelor of Maori Visual Art and am currently studying towards my Masters, which I should graduate with next year.
What have been some of the highlights for you in your art practise in the last five years?
Pretty much my whole life has changed in the last five years — like I said I got my degree, and I’ve nearly got another one. I moved home, met a babe, had two kids, moved to the beach. I don’t think I made art before 2013 so there have been heaps of highlights.
Manu Bennett (superstar orc leader from the Hobbit) bought a massive painting I did of Papatuanuku and Ruaumoko and commissioned one of Ranginui. That was cool. I won the Te Ha art award last year. That was cool.
I’ve made and sold a lot of work I am proud of. My family is proud of my work, which is really my only aim in life. I’ve been in quite a few exhibitions with people I’m in awe of. My art bought our couch and our carpet and our tickets to Grace Jones in Queenstown. Art has been mean in the last five years.
Where do you make your art?
When I paint or make rugs it is normally in the sitting room so I can listen to the tv or nerd out to podcasts. Now I sit in the spare room at the computer next to the tv for playing spacies.
Have you always been arty? What were you like as a kid?
I was really obsessed with Archie comics when I was a kid and used to draw new characters all the time, that’s all the arty I can think of. I took art in third form and my teacher said I had no appreciation for art because I made a really crappy mask. So I didn’t take art again.
I was in a Vanilla Ice fan club called the Dolphins. I used to think 2LiveCrew were really funny. I used to love Married With Children. Revenge of the Nerds and Commando were my favourite movies. I used to get kutus heaps.
My cousins were like my brothers and sisters and still are. I grew up in Murupara and Botswana. My holidays were spent at Te Aute College, Flaxmere and Te Kauwhata. My childhood was awesome. My brother would say I was a show-off.
Where do you get your ideas/inspiration from?
My mum’s parents lived and worked at Te Aute College when I was growing up. The ceiling of the wharekai there is painted by John Hovell. I grew up staring at the panels in that ceiling. Trying to read and figure out the pictures. He was a great friend of my Papa so they had one of his paintings in their sitting room that we used to sleep under. I couldn’t understand what it was a picture of. I used to stare at it all the time. His paintings are beautiful and inspiring to me.
The most beautiful place to me though is Rakaitemania, our wharenui at Te Horo.
The art of wharenui is where I get most of my inspiration from. To be able to sleep within wholly painted, carved and woven surroundings is a beautiful thing. I don’t know why ceilings aren’t decorated in all buildings. It’s such a perfect place to tell stories. Wharenui are living and breathing whakapapa and stories. I am always inspired by wharenui. All wharenui are different.All the stories are different and told in different ways. It is my ultimate dream to create a wharenui.
All characters I paint use elements from the carved forms from my whare. The Maori way of storytelling is both simple and terribly complex. Traditional forms have specific meanings but everything is open to interpretation depending on context. I love that.
In the digital prints in my show at Studio One – And So we Pray, Sunset, and Breadfruit – the model is my mum. I painted and photographed her before messing with it in on the computer.
Both my parents are hugely inspirational to me. My mum moved back to Ngati Porou 20 years ago and has dedicated her life to our hapu and our iwi – she works tirelessly for the betterment of our people.And she will also help me with my work at the drop of a hat.
And my dad works 48hrs a week (half of those night shift) as an ambulance officer in Ruatoria – and he also helps me with any construction work i need with my art. They are both awesome and give so much of themselves to our family and community – sometimes its embarrassing to just be an artist.
What is some of the other making you do?
I like making babies, but two is enough… I want to sleep again someday. I also like making rugs, I find it really relaxing although tedious and time-consuming. I used to make videos… but I haven’t been into that for a while now. I like making crafty stuff.
I like to think about making line drawn animations, but I never get past the first few frames. I just like making stuff.
What do you do when you’re not making art?
Look after the babies, make tea, do the shopping, hang out the washing, go for walks, go to the beach, see my parents… my life is pretty sweet.
What’s coming up for you in the future?
I’m finishing my honours this year, so I have an exhibition coming up at the end of the year in Gisborne, then my Masters exhibition in July next year, then a solo show at Tairawhiti Museum in September next year… so that’s enough for now.
Also hopefully I will go for a holiday to see my cousins in Brisbane, and in my dreams a trip to Morrocco.