An Interview with Israel Tangaroa Birch

View PDF

Israel Birch , 'Taniwha Kamuramura', 2014. Lacquer on stainless steel
75 x 250cm. Courtesy the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney.

What Next: Israel Tangaroa Birch

Can you tell me about the body of work exhibited with Martin Browne Contemporary at Auckland Art Fair?

The last time I had a show with Martin Browne Contemporary I got to visit the collection of Elizabeth Laverty where there was lot of Aboriginal art. I was overwhelmed by the colour scheme and the use of pink in the works. Particularly Helicopter Tjungurrayi’s work. There was a pink work that I couldn’t stop thinking about and wanted to make a connection. I began to think about the different colours of Australia and New Zealand. The works at Auckland Art Fair are explorations of a new colour scheme, and an extension of the works I have been doing, which are made by painting with light.

Can you take me through the process working with steel, lacquer, and mirror polish to create your work?

The process is etching and grinding and shaping stainless steel. My father was a carver, he carved buildings and boats or waka so that is my background, but I engage with it in a contemporary way. However, I’m still using those same methods of repetition and pattern and engaging with light, shape and form and using the same tricks of bringing something to life.

Your namesake “Tangaroa” means “God of Water” and much of your work relates to the ocean. Why do it keep returning to this subject matter?

Most of my works are about the issues that we are currently facing around water, the spirit of water and our relationship with it. New Zealand is not as pure as we would like to believe. I live next to the Manawatu-ūRiver and in 2011 it was classed as one of the top 10 worst-polluted rivers in the western world. There are lots of water quality issues here. If the water is polluted, then we are polluted. We are all connected by water. Although the sea may have many names, it is one ocean that we are all connected to.

Customarily, taniwha were regarded as guardians, appearing as heralds of death or danger. Can you explain your inclusion of the taniwha in some of your works?

We are always taught that taniwha are monsters, but I never really thought about them like this. Taniwha are things in the environment that guide you. When our ancestors travelled from Hawaiiki to Aotearoa, they were guided by a body of knowledge that can be likened to the map of stars, the birds and the way the ocean moves. It is a very abstract thing to describe, but it is there to guide you to a destination. When you grow up your parents like to joke that there is taniwha in the creek and it will eat you. They are things in the environment that you have to be cautious of. The ocean is a taniwha. In New Zealand it takes so many lives, it is the most dangerous recreational activity that we do. These are incorporated into the latest works in that they still warn to be respectful of the environment. We have a saying in Maori that man is impermanent but the land will remain. The land is stronger than us. Whatungarongaro te tangata, toitute whenua, or as man disappears from sight, the land remains. This demonstrates the holistic values of the Ma-ori and the utmost respect of Papatuanuku, the mother of the earth.

How do you balance your teaching and artistic practice?

My practice moves slowly as teaching fills up much of my time. I have three main priorities: being a good dad, a good teacher and a good artist, in that order. I teach contemporary Ma-ori visual arts at Massey University on the Toioho ki A- piti – Bachelor of Ma-ori Visual Arts program. I have to be very strategic about my time and stay honest with everyone around me to manage shows, parenting, teaching and other projects.