Matt Tini, re-coding the native

16 February - 11 March 2023
For the first solo exhibition of 2023, Jhana Millers presents two recent bodies of work: the sitters and untitled nudes by Pōneke-based artist Matt Tini (Waikato, Ngaati Tiipa, Ngāti Rakaipaaka, Ngāti Kahungunu). Matt is an early career artist and recent Masters of Fine Arts graduate from Massey University Wellington.
A quick image search of 'Māori people' online reveals photographs of dark-skinned
individuals dressed in traditional attire, faces adorned with intricate tattoos, frozen in time through black and white or sepia tones. Alongside these are high-resolution, coloured photos of similar people performing customary Maaori waiata and dance. However, in everyday life, one is more likely to encounter Maaori people dressed in modern clothing and engaging in contemporary activities. This disconnect between historical representations and contemporary realities is what Matt addresses in re-coding the native.
The conventions of late 19th/early 20th-century New Zealand studio portrait photography are referenced in ‘the sitters’. These refined black and white portraits simulate the aesthetics of photographs of tuupuna (elders) taken by European settler photographers such as the Foy Brothers and Elizabeth Pulman. They are printed directly onto aluminium panels and have a sleek reflective quality.
In ‘untitled nudes’, Tini appropriates artworks by Western Orientalist painters such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and François Boucher and positions his fair-skinned, Maaori, male, and Queer body against the exotic female nude. These photographs were taken with a mobile phone camera during the 2020 lockdown in the back room of his parents' house. In contrast to the studio portraits, these coloured photographs are playful, grainy and over-exposed in areas.
In ‘re-coding the native’, Matt challenges cultural codes and notions of authenticity that restrict contemporary expressions of identity. The exhibition questions colonial ideas of Indigeneity and agency, and asserts the realities of a contemporary Maaori identity outside of colonialism's limiting parameters.
Installation Views
Press release

Excerpt from ‘RE-CODING THE NA(rra)TIVE’ 

A quick Google image search of 'Māori people' will yield faded photographs of dark-skinned people dressed in woven cloaks and grass skirts, faces tattooed with spiraling, dark lines, their image locked by black and white and sepia tones to a time long past. Amongst these images of antiquity are higher resolution, colour photographs. Similarly dressed, these people look fierce, eyes bulging and tongues blaring in performative song and dance. These are not the type of Maaori you will see in public spaces, though. This is merely a simple search engine result generated by popular, albeit misaligned, perceptions. The Maaori you are more likely to find are dressed in nylon and polyester, carried by American branded sneakers through shopping centres and driving Japanese cars to their suburban homes. 

Throughout my life, it was between these representations that I searched for my Maaori self. The 'authentic' Maaori and the rest of us 'Plastics'. Standardised by a specific, limited scope of Maaori experience, my criterion of cultural authenticity did not include myself, leading to continuous feelings of displacement. While the standard has shifted over my life, subconsciously reassessed through evolving situations and contexts, the feeling has remained constant. When one is repeatedly reviewing themselves against a criterion of cultural authenticity determined
by essentialist ideas, they will find themselves, or others,
as outsider.1 

Making art has been a mode for exploring these questions and experiences of displacement. Through my art practice I have considered what constitutes contemporary Maaori art, and in turn, a contemporary Maaori identity. Looking to the representation of Maaori in dominant (Western) art history, I have found myself continuously displaced by imagery that is either generated from the distancing, objective colonial gaze, or a subjective experience that doesn't articulate my own. Where paradigms of identity are deliberated, notions of authenticity arise, operating on a set of inclusionary/exclusionary factors. Regardless of what the identity is, limited representations will always leave people sitting uncomfortably at the margins.

These are not a unique set of experiences, but the complexity of a contemporary Maaori identity, one that is experienced within a history of political struggle and dynamic, and oft times radical, adjustment. Environmental, Indigenous, and human rights advocate Tina Ngata (Ngāti Porou) states that, "To be born Indigenous is to be born into a political reality"2.  To be Maaori is to be political, to actively resist colonial narratives and forces. Operating within White heteronormative male-dominated spaces, which is the reality for many Maaori, demands satisfying a vast array of at times contradictory requirements. Without dwelling on the negatives, it can be, in short, draining. This is, however, what it means to be Indigenous, so for many
it has also become second nature.

My art is a consideration of identity politics, primarily concerned with colonial notions of authenticity and cultural essentialism. The need to position myself and express my identity as Maaori and Queer is what compels me to make art of this nature. Through my artworks I question and disrupt colonial narratives, reworking representations of Maaori to assert my experience and identity as tangata whenua. Our representation through painting, photography, and film/moving image has been dominated by stereotypes coded with a set of signs that uphold colonial ideologies of the Other. Generated and maintained via a complex, incestuous history of European artworks, it is difficult, and I argue fruitless, to isolate the source. Colonial ideas are bred and inbred, their degenerate spawn copulating and producing further corrupted concepts manifest in the canon of Western art history. Their reach is widespread, from the North African 'Orient' to the 'South Seas' of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. Deeply entrenched and virulently prevailing, these signs create and maintain the notion that there is an authentic type of Maaori and whatever that looks like, this author is not one of them.

This is an excerpt from Matt Tini's exegesis for his Master of Fine Arts at Toi Rauwhārangi, College of Creative Arts, Massey University, completed November 2022.

1. Sissons, Jeffrey. First peoples: Indigenous cultures and their futures. Reaktion Books, 2005.
2. Ngata, Tina. Kia Mau: resisting colonial fictions. E-book, Kia Mau Campaign, 2019. 


untitled nudes, 2020

Confronting colonial stereotypes through playful disruptions, this series of artworks challenges the aesthetic cultural codes and notions of authenticity that restrain contemporary expressions of cultural identity. Artworks of Western Orientalist painters such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and François Boucher have a strong hold in the colonial imagination, signifying their subjects as the Other. Appropriating artworks by these artists, I challenge the signs that have coded Maaori and other Indigenous people as exotic objects of the colonial gaze, relics of the past sidelined from the developments and advancements that Western civilization allows itself.

Taken with a mobile phone camera during the 2020 lockdown in a back room of my parents house, these photographs displace the originals, opening them to recontextualisation and resignification. Positioning my body - fair-skinned, Maaori, male, Queer - against the exotic female nude challenges colonial notions of Indigeneity. With careful consideration of the outward signs that code one's identity, I am attempting to recode the native body, a reminder of the complexity, agency, and dynamism of Tangata Whenua. 


the sitters, 2022

Referencing conventions of late 19th/early 20th century New Zealand studio portrait photography, these images are embedded with signs that code them within a time long passed.  They simulate the aesthetics of photographs of tuupuna, such as those shot by European settler photographers the Foy Brothers and Elizabeth Pulman. Their incompleteness leaves wanting for suggestions of personhood and familiarity, the signs they are coded with being the sole landmarks in navigating their identities and our relationship to them.

The signs, however, are but a trap. Anachronisms fracture the disbelief of the image's location in time, bringing it jarringly into the present and contrasting colonial notions of an authentic culture against contemporary realities. Intersecting with Trickster consciousness, these images hold seemingly juxtaposing ideas comfortably within the same subject. They sit to provoke, challenging rigid ideas of a cultural identity, opting for a broader, more expansive view.