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George Nuku: A Maori Sculptor in Paris

An interview with Maori sculptor George Nuku, who is currently displaying his work at the Church of St. Roch in Paris, France.

Maori sculptor George Nuku makes art; he will tell you, though, that the art is what made him. “The stone, the wood, carved me,” he says. “It was not me carving them, but the repetition of their carving, that gave me a way of life.”

He talks of stone and wood, but these days he's just as likely to carve polystyrene and solid latex—the transparent plastic poly(methyl methacrylate) that is known under the brand names Plexiglas, Lucite and Perspex. Though clearly done in a Maori style, his art is always evolving—as is the artist. “I am a work in progress,” he says.

Nuku was born in Hastings, New Zealand, and grew up in Omahu, a small village on the east coast, and later moved with his family to Napier. German and Scottish on his father's side, he comes by his Ngati Kahungunu and Ngati Tuwharetoa tribal affiliation through his mother.

Nuku attended a school with a shared Maori and English program, and took to drawing at an early age. He had his first art show at fifteen. He attended Massey University, where he studied art, sociology, geography, and Maori studies—and decided his main interest was art, particularly sculpture. He has shown his sculptural work in the Netherlands (2000), Tahiti (2002), Telluride (2003), the Native American Community House in New York, and at the Third Permanent Forum of Indigenous People. Currently, his work is on display in a chapel in the heart of Paris, the Church of Saint Roch, at the initiative of the Yapa gallery. The works are traditional Tupuna, (sculptures of ancestors) made of polystyrene—a 21st century take on an ageless artistic form. “I take the tradition, and innovate!” he say excitedly.

What made you come to France?

The first time, in 2001, I was invited by the French magazine Vogue. This time around, I was invited with my friend Tracey Tawhiao to show in the chapel. We thought about it carefully, and we've created a body of work that speaks to the theology, ideology, and philosophy of our ancestors, and to the ideology of Christ. How can we make divine connections? Our answer is, through light: It is light that gives birth to love and all of the positive aspects of life.

Does this exhibit have relation to your Venice Biennale show in 2009?

Yes, It is very similar; it is a connection between ideas , beliefs, my culture, and the divine, in relation to the Christian faith. What is the divine? Today, Maoris are Christians; they have taken on the Christian beliefs in church, which sit by side by side with our ancestors' beliefs. But they hold on to their beliefs.

What were you doing in England before arriving in France? You mentioned a preference for France versus England—why?

I am settled in Auckland, New Zealand, and in London, doing projects in various parts of Europe. I was invited by the English Vogue, and the department of anthropology-archaeology of Cambridge University, to have a show, in 2006. And I recently returned to London, to prepare some work for the Olympic games, representing New Zealand. Being in France is a multi-level challenge—starting linguistically. And it is exotic. England is not: I know the psyche of the English, since we were colonized by them. It is not “better” in France; but new, different, fascinating. There is more value placed on art, music, creativity in France, than in England, or New Zealand. Food is seen as art here—and I cannot say this about the food in England!

Are there any major differences in how Maori art is received by the French and the English?

The reactions are quite different: In France, there is a tendency to focus primarily on the aesthetics of art, the beauty. Your art has to be sublime, beautiful, and hopefully please the audience. If not, you are in trouble! In England, there is a stereotypical view of New Zealand, from the days of the British Empire. There is a focus on rugby, and cultural aspects around the sport, there are clichés about New Zealand being part of the empire, a former colony of great Britain.

The British have a romanticized view of us due to the conduct of the Maori soldiers during the wars, and combined with the propaganda of the nation building machine. Rugby and other symbology has been used to create a “Kiwi identity”, in which we are locked. It is complex and paradoxical. In France, it is more exoticized: We are seen as noble savages, powerful indigenous people! And our cousins from French Polynesia are seen as exotic beautiful flowers!

The role of people like myself is to improve those perceptions: We are a vibrant, living, dynamic culture. We are not dead, and in museums! We are facing our past, but also our future.

Do you find any common points between Native Americans and Maoris?

I have some experience of Native Americans having visited Colorado, New York, California, and the United Nations permanent forum for Indigenous people. And the relation between me and the native Americans is one of cultural solidarity, and an attempt to learn from each other: They have been colonized for four hundred years, and we, Maoris, for two hundred years. So I have an opportunity to see what I will be in two hundred years, and the same for them. We are striving for equal society opportunities: Equality under the law and in the society. In all aspects of the society, Maoris are engaging themselves.

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Are you involved in teaching?

Yes, I teach teenagers, in schools, jails, community centers, residential care. I explain to them that the rules for art are the rules for life: To be in the moment, keep your mind in your heart, draw every day, and believe in what you do!

Is Maori art growing today?

Indeed it is. Maori art is very active, and has become corporatized to an extent, to provide a market for Maori artists to survive. It is difficult for a Maori artist in New Zealand: The market is so small, and there are so many of us. But it is exciting. There are lots of Maori initiatives in museums and galleries, within New Zealand but outside as well.

Have you maintained any relationships with American Indians?

I do a bit, with the community house in New York, but not much, as I spend most of my time in Europe, traveling. My work is on permanent display in Anvers, and Holland. I have recentIy been invited to the Vienna ethnographic museum.

Do you consider your work ethnographic?

I call it “contemporary ethnographic”!

What about the tattoos covering your face and body—do they refer to this notion of “contemporary ethnographic “?

The tattoos are a choice, but you are chosen at the same time. Regarding tattoos on the face, the women are leading this renaissance. As it is difficult, socially, in New Zealand, to walk around with your face tattooed, without facing prejudices. But not in Europe. Tattoos are, as we say: “Globally hot. Locally not!”

The moko (traditional tattoo) wears you, and helps you, it informs you about your conduct, the way you speak, your behavior, to be generous and understanding. That is what creates bridges between people; and I wish to connect with people, to grow, to continue to learn. The job of the artist is to create a true reflection of life now: that is why I use polystyrene, a material of this time. My ancestors came in a world of trees, and did everything from the trees: houses, canoes. We continue to use it, but we do not live in a world of trees anymore! Ours is a world of plastic. So looking at plastic, you look at yourself.

What would be your final statement to our discussion?

The role of the healers, artists, dreamers, and creative people has never been more important than it is now. We represent the antidote to the globalization of mediocrity in the name of money.

We show the world a different form of wealth: something you share. It is an antidote for the poverty of spirit which is killing us slowly. And this idea of getting everything as cheap as possible: Nature does not give us a cheap sunrise, it gives us a complete sunrise ! Her love for us is unconditional. She shines her light on you, on me, on everybody.

So the role of artists is to remember this, and the divine communication of human nature with nature.

Our role is to keep this communication healthy. We, the artists, have to travel all the time: between the inside and the outside, the living and the dead, the sacred and the profane, the night and day, men and women. This in-between space is where the artist must be.

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Interior of the Church of St. Roch in Paris, with installation by Maori artists George Nuku and Tracey Tawhiao. Photos by George Nuku and Tracey Tawhiao.