Tokerau (Toki) Wilson (Rarotongan) is the co-creator of the genre Māori/Pasifika Goth.
Defining Māori/Pasifika Goth was “kind of a joke when we made a video to promote the show. It was just me and Wairehu Grant (Tainui), talking to the camera, asking that question, ‘What is Māori/Pasifika Goth?’ but then just not giving any answer, kind of like a humorous ‘come along to the show’ sort of angle. Come and find out for yourself.” But Toki also believes the gothic genre fits the mythology and history of both cultures. “The mythologies hold a lot of tragedy and - not talking about colonisation here, just talking about the myths and legends - they’re really brutal, there’s death and destruction, lovers die horribly and then get a river or a mountain named after them. It’s just absolutely goth as.”
Another interpretation of Māori/Pasifika goth is, Toki says, “a little bit danker” Growing up Polynesian in New Zealand he experienced racism. “I experienced, I guess, everything that comes with a certain type of subtle racism, or an ignorant racism.” Over time, he says it has given him what he describes as “dank eyes”. Dank is “maybe a slightly negative outlook- a real connecting factor between all these people”. He says the artists in the Māori/Pasifika goth shows have been “put out by the experiences they’ve had throughout their lives,” contributing to them becoming “really cool people with, perhaps, a darker view of things. Which is also a reality that they’ve got to face, and I kind of hope that the show makes people feel a bit stronger about that. Even just that it’s ok to represent that view.”
“They’ve all got a bit of a message which is sometimes wrapped in humour - a sort of coping mechanism.” His Mum was a bit worried about him doing something that seemed so depressing, but, he says, “I think of this work as being about celebrating and expressing that energy rather than being a victim of it.”
Toki has always done drawings and cartoons, as well as animation, computer games, and sound art. He didn’t think of applying for funding as a Pasifika artist for a long time. “I’d always felt really adverse to that because I had a problem with being an ethnic minority, getting some help for that - I had a big grudge against it and I didn't want to do it, so I hadn’t done it.” He thought Māori or Pasifika art funding was only for people doing traditional or heritage artwork. “I kind of had to acknowledge that I am a Pasifika artist, that my art is representative, and that was a really good lesson for me.”
The first show Toki did three years ago was called Te Ngaru Hou, meaning The New Wave. Four artists exhibited. One of the first artists to join his group was Esta de Jong. “She’s another great example of someone who doesn’t see themselves as doing traditional Māori art. Her work is very contemporary, that sort of black-and-white, German nihilist vibe.” Toki realised they were as valid in the Māori and Pasifika art world as somebody doing traditional-style work. “It was kind of a turnaround for me because I, a), realised there were more people than just me, and b), realised this can work - I can represent for what I do.”
The second Māori/Pasifika Goth show, Te Pō, got a lot of media attention because of an unintentional controversy. One of the artworks in the show was a sculpture that looked like a homeless person sleeping on the footpath outside the Dunedin Community Gallery, where the exhibition was. Toki says an ODT photographer turned up, and “he literally wouldn’t take any photos of the show - he just wanted to take a photo of the [sculpture of the] homeless person out the front.” The council asked them to move the sculpture because they were receiving calls from people thinking it was a real homeless person. The police turned up and asked if it could be taken in at night, because people were ringing them and complaining.
Esta De Jong
Isobel Joy Te Aho White
“It’s clear there’s a problem with homelessness in this country. I learnt a lot from reactions to the piece, much of which was kindness, people leaving donations and food. It’s a strange feeling having so many people reacting to a fake homeless person when up north there are so many homeless, most people up here are totally desensitised.”
This controversy reminded Toki of Metiria Turei’s speech where she revealed she had committed fraud when she was a solo mother on the benefit. Toki said it felt “a little bit like a soap opera” and that “no one seems to be paying attention to the facts. Metiria clearly said that the reason that she came out about the benefits being harsh, and what she’d done, was because a woman called Wendy Shoebridge had committed suicide because she was being investigated.” Shoebridge got a letter saying she owed $22,000 and that she’d been committing fraud, and killed herself the next day, and then they spent $300,000 on lawyers. Then the person doing the investigation passed away, and they had to start again.
Toki believes Turei has donewell for herself in her life and career, but that other people who had a similar early life to her are potentially “completely ruined somewhere, disenfranchised, not doing anything good,” so comparing her to people like Bill English, who has experienced nothing but privilege his whole life, is unfair. “They should compare her to someone who completely dropped out, because that’s what she could have ended up becoming.” He believes racism and sexism influenced people’s reaction to Turei’s speech, too. “If she was a white male, it would be different.”
Metiria Turei stepped down as leader of the Green Party when Toki and I were talking on the phone. I texted him after I heard and he replied: “I am so devo. But proud of her! I watchd chkpoint yeah its crazy, controversy as fuk! An her family being hounded by media etc, omg.”
The latest Māori/Pasifika Goth show was called Wairua. This one had funding and was much bigger than the others, with 16 artists. Wairua, at a face value, means spirit or soul, but it can also mean a lot of things. “It’s our energy, Tapu comes into it - whether something’s sacred or not sacred. It’s good to think about translations as often being murky. Unless someone’s really knowledgeable, you might not be getting a very accurate translation.”
Language played a part in a lot of the artwork in Wairua. Toki himself is not fluent in a Polynesian language. A piece in Wairua by Sepasitiano Machiavelli (Tongan) depicts a taniwha saying, “Oku ke lava ‘o lea faka-Tongan?” which means “Do you speak Tongan?” Toki says, “It’s like a lot of this art - it’s quite bitter sweet. It’s him talking about how he doesn’t speak Tongan fluently, asking that question. The language holding the spirit of the culture and how he doesn’t have that strong connection to understanding Tongan fluently.” One of Toki’s favourite works is by Samoan artist Leafa Wilson. It is from a series of white ink works on black paper. A woman with sunglasses looks up into the distance saying “Kefe,” the meaning of which “is actually pretty differing when I look online, ‘fuck’, ‘bitch’ or one person on a blog said it meant ‘foreskin’, so when you say it it’s like you are cutting the person off, like a circumcision!” Then underneath it says “bad words” or “bad things”. It was done like a comic. That work I love. I actually have it somewhere. It’s sad, but it cracks me up. It’s that moment when you’re really angry - they sort of captured that perfectly.”
Toki’s own works in Wairua are some his first explorations with colour. His works are massive ink drawings which he then paints over with watercolor. Each depicts a figure. “I don’t know how to describe it, but they all had that thing I was talking about earlier. They had a bit of a chip on their shoulder, a bit of a darkness, a brooding-ness to them.” One work, Dinosaur Boy, is based on a real dinosaur obsessed kid who reminds Toki of himself when he was little. “I had a kind of realisation, remembering back - and I know this happens to everyone - how weird it is, how as children, in school or in any situation, you just want to move round, you want to be loud, you want to do things, grab stuff, make stuff happen, and you get told over and over ‘don’t do that, stop, shush, be quiet,’ and all of that builds up.” He was reminded of the “subconscious messages going on in my head over my whole life”.
Another work depicts a totemic figure sitting in a Cook Island log drum. “It’s cause I’m part Cook Islander - there’s fish in there, and they’re touching the fish with their hands, but it’s actually as if they're having a psychedelic experience. The figures are actually playing music on a keyboard, but they’re seeing it all as kin of nature - there’s water coming out of a fountain out of their head and pouring into a log drum that they're sitting in.” He feels the work was “really blessed. I totally drew that with no idea what I was going to draw, it just came out of my head.” Did a fountain come out of your head? “Well, I guess maybe it did.”
Other works include Esta De Jong’s subverted religious imagery and Lance Strickland’s (Māori/Rarotongan) distressed black and white photographic portraits. Some artists had more tongue-in-cheek social commentary. Toki mentions the work of Dave Roil (Māori) from Wellington, an “anti-fashion fashion artist” who sews different pieces of jackets and other things together, to make “these kind of grandiose things that Prince would have looked good in.” Auckland label Good Winter made stock especially for the show; a range of black leather handbags, each based on a Samoan fan. Lyttleton dwelling Niuean animator Justin Taulu did a three minute animation Toki describes as “sci-goth. It had a lot of humour in it. There was a being that had a teapot thing on its head that was pouring drinks out of its own head. Weird cool stuff like that.” Toki describes another artist, Jessica “Coco” Hansell (Ngāpuhi/German/Samoan) - “she’s the hard out dank-memes wahine. She did a picture about gender - it’s a very pink picture with stuff written on it like “forever is a feeling of duration, orientation is a window, gender is a lens, in many cases the lens is changing. It’s about being queer and being gender fluid.” The definition of goth was loose. “I think other people like me were kind of colourful and maybe modern, more futurist goths. Other people were more black and white, your classic goth. There were quite a few types of goths in the show.”
Esta De Jong
I asked Toki whether he associated the gothic genre with the Romantic and Victorian periods in Britain, and that period’s association with colonisation. “Colonisation is a real huge one and I don’t think I can go into it briefly. It’s all part of what I said at the start, which is why Māori Pasifika might have a chip on their shoulder, the dawn raids, lack of representation, being tokenised as exotic - all these things are things that might lead someone to being kind of gothic.”
He doesn’t think about colonisation in his own art, “but all the artists have their own influences. Someone’s influences might be the African-American plight and feel strongly aligned with that, as a Pasifika/Māori person, whereas someone else might like poetry and wearing black eye-liner, wearing all black, and representing that kind of romantic side of things. Wairehu Grant was definitely, when I met him, it was like meeting a true, classic goth, but a Māori one.”
“I think that I’m really open minded, so when it comes to gothic, I’m open to any kind of gothic. The goth memes. I’ve seen those videos with the techno goths dancing. My experience coming up in New Zealand is that goths were really really nice. Goths have always been nice to me, they’ve embraced me.” Toki says that to him goths represent “this anger with society, anger with the church often, and a sort of rebelliousness against that. It’s different from punk or hip hop, it’s goth, and it’s classic goth.”
Doing a large funded show like Wairua has been really validating for Toki, “I feel like this is what I’m meant to be doing. I’m meant to be doing art. It feels right.”
“I’m grateful to Creative New Zealand for funding my work and the Puaka Matariki Festival for hosting the Māori/Pasifika goth exhibitions for the last three years. I’m currently in Auckland, planning a series of shows by Māori Pasifika experimental sound and music artists. I’m buzzed out to be up here now, cause there is some inspiring mahi going on, like FAF SWAG, or listening to that BrownBoyMagic; it’s my Maori/Pasifika futuristic goth dream.”