Field Guide 2020: Keri Whaitiri
This Field Guide article sits within a series of commissioned essays, interviews, podcasts and artworks to be published over 16 weeks on designassembly.org.nz and culminate in a downloadable PDF publication which will be distributed nationally.
We are incredibly grateful to Creative New Zealand who funded this 2020 Field Guide, which actively investigates, celebrates, nurtures and challenges current design thinking, methodology and practitioners in the Aotearoa design community. The project is “a multidisciplinary exploration of New Zealand’s post-COVID design practice”. It is produced by five authors, six illustrators, with art direction, design, editorial, publishing and production support from the Design Assembly team & RUN Agency.
Supported by Creative New Zealand
The artwork to accompany this essay is by Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho a Takatāpui artist based in Tāmaki Makaurau. Huriana is a self-taught illustrator and designer whose work is primarily influenced by their Māori whakapapa, takatāpui identity, and political beliefs. They have produced work for Action Station, Auckland Pride, Pantograph Punch, Rainbow Youth, RNZ, Re: News, Te Rau Ora and Waikato University among others. Their illustrations are also featured in Maui’s Taonga Tales/He Paki Taonga i a Māui and Protest Tautohetohe published through Te Papa Press.
KERI WHAITIRI – AROHA KI TE TANGATA
Desna Whaanga-Schollum interview with Keri Whaitiri
Nga mihi nunui! This article continues an exploration into the ways that tangata whenua are drawing upon their ancestral knowledge and adapting the learnings to challenge the status quo.
‘Design-thinking skills are being employed in diverse fields of practice, weaving together tangata (people, community), te taiao (environment, place), wairua (spirit, intent) and mauri (energy, life-force). Moving beyond human-centred design, tangata whenua practitioners reference an eco-system of actors, and draw upon intergenerational knowledge. Social and cultural equity aims are served through the deployment of design tools.’
Keri is a self-described ‘professional Haututū’, a creative, explorative character who ‘tests the boundaries’. Keri’s diverse portfolio of mahi (work) spans architecture, intermedia, visual and craft arts, media, landscape architecture, Māori cultural strategy, facilitation and…and…. Yes. So she’s one of those phenomenally talented wahine Māori out there in the field, doing what(ever) needs to be done for tangata whenua, tangata tiriti. Keri is also a Co-Chair of Ngā Aho, Māori Design Professionals Inc.
It’s an honour to work, walk and talk with you sister, ka mau te wehi!
Whakapapa Mihimihi // An Introduction to Keri, by Keri….
Nō Ngāi Tahu
Ko Ngāi Tūāhuriri; Ngāti Huirapa; Ngāi Te Ruahikihiki ngā karanga hapū.
Nō Ngāti Kahungunu
Ko Ngāti Tū, Ngāi Te Ruruku, Ngāti Matepū, Ngāti Whakaari ngā karanga hapū.
Ko Takitimu te waka
Dad was born in Napier and grew up around Petane Pā in the Esk Valley. So, in Te Ika a Māui, we’re Ngāti Kahungunu ki te Whanganui a Orotu.
As a young man my dad moved to Christchurch and met my Dutch mum. So, as it turned out, my brother and I were born back to Ngāi Tahu under the mana of Ngāi Tūāhuriri. Born, bred and raised in Te Waipounamu, this is the whenua that I know, but the pull of Kahungunu is still strong.
We also whakapapa way back to Rongowhakaata. My great grandparents, Ani Pohio and Tuahine Riki Rangiwhaitiri, are where our three iwi of the Takitimu waka come together. I like to say that our whakapapa lies from Tūranga down to the Tītī islands.
“Whakapapa was not something that Dad has openly talked about, so it’s something that I have come to later on in life. It’s about understanding your place, your relationship to the whenua, to people around you, those before and after and so much more. A really important thing.”
I basically grew up as a little brown Dutch girl with a colourful mishmash of languages and songs and foods that I loved. Good strong family on both sides and lots and lots of love. I had these quite strong influences going on. So that’s a bit of my whakapapa, not your standard mihi mihi!
Keri’s journey with… Ngā Kura Mātauranga // Navigating Education Pathways
By the end of high school, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was in this class with a lot of people that were going on to do things like medicine, law, commerce. I thought, oh well, I might as well go to university. In 1989, I ended up at Architecture School in Auckland. I had no idea what it was, didn’t anticipate getting in, so went into a state of surprise and panic when I got accepted. In 1989, I ended up at Architecture School in Auckland. It was a shock to the system – one of those things where you just learn on your feet. I really enjoyed it in terms of the camaraderie of studio, I’d never done much like that before. I had to really bone up in terms of that creative making side.
There weren’t a huge number of Māori or Pasifika coming through but there were the likes of Rau Hoskins, Saul Roberts, and a few others like Andrew Tu’inukuafe. Rau had set up Whaihanga and a room was set aside for Māori students to work in. But because of how I’d grown up, I felt odd going in there, I was shy and didn’t have a strong Māori upbringing. Now I know that it doesn’t really matter, and actually that was the whole point of Whaihanga.
At that stage coming through I don’t recall there being Māori on the teaching staff. There was not a great understanding of what the issues might be for students that were coming through. You still see it now, these students in the design professions that are coming through are encouraged to get in touch with their cultural side, but they don’t necessarily have the support people in place to be able to do that in a culturally safe way.
When I came out of architectural training, I felt there was missing something, something didn’t sit quite right with me. Maybe it was because Whaihanga was niggling my brain, and I was trying to figure out ‘well, why do I feel awkward about this? Why aren’t I stepping up to the plate in terms of things Māori?’… I went back and studied ‘Intro to Māori Society’ with Ranginui Walker, Māori traditional and contemporary art, te reo Māori. I started get to grips with our histories, with the public upswell of Māori issues and protest in the 70s and 80s – the Land March, Bastion Point, Ngā Tama Toa, Kura Kaupapa movement, Waitangi Tribunal, Springbok Tour – incredible times. I was a kid at the time, young and oblivious to most of it, but in the 90s I began to see it all through new eyes
… I ended up doing things like sound art and video installations. Through that I could explore ideas in a spatial and interactive way. It was experimental and fun. I found that was a really good process to go through, in terms of teasing out what those uncertainties had been.
I later started an MA in Media Studies. That was really fabulous in terms of understanding cultural production and the politics of representation, how to read media – to question, analyze and critique. Leonie Pihama’s paper the ‘Politics of Māori Images’ was unbelievable, like Tino Rangatiratanga 101! There were just so many Māori who were politicised and aware and were teaching it. They knew the histories in a way that I was just starting to come to. I loved that environment.
I’m doing a Master of Landscape Architecture now but actually not doing it very well. I wear too many hats at the moment.
“I’ve always been interested in urban design, in the public realm. I love the experience of moving through space and thinking about how you tell stories or elicit responses from people and offer fresh perspective. That’s what motivates me.”
Keri’s professional relationship to…. Te Taiao // Environment, Place
In 2013 after the Christchurch earthquakes, everything was in a state of controlled chaos. Up to about 80% city had been demolished fairly quickly, some disappeared overnight without any warning… there was this overwhelming sense of loss, grief and disorientation.
In the early stages Ngāi Tahu had been pretty involved in discussions about the implications of recovery, particularly from a Treaty perspective… I got a call asking would I be interested in coming in and working on some projects that Ngāi Tūāhuriri were going to be involved in. The type of call you don’t say ‘no’ to!
… I ended up working with a freshly minted organization called Matapopore. The Matapopore kaupapa was to be the mana whenua cultural engagement entity within the Ōtautahi area for the earthquake recovery process… I was brought on as a cultural design consultant. I understood the project development process, what’s involved in taking a built form design from start to finish. It wasn’t so much a traditional designer role as one of advocacy and facilitation between these different contexts. Inputting into process and trying to make sure it ran as smoothly as possible while maintaining integrity for mana whenua.
There were a few of us that would feed into that process, people like Tui Falwasser, the mandated arts advisor for Ngāi Tūāhuriri. People like Tui are so important because she was embedded within the Ngāi Tūāhuriri community. Tui has an understanding that was way beyond what I had, and there were other cultural experts who we would work with. They had the knowledge and expertise, and I was a conduit to take that back into the project meetings.
I still spend a lot of time in meetings. There’s a lot of talking, a lot of writing emails and a lot more talking, but there’s not a lot of making – I miss that! I work with large project teams and interface between Te Ao Māori (the Māori world view) and Te Ao Tauiwi (the non-Māori world view). It’s creating space for Taha Māori (Māori identity) within developing designs, particularly within public realm designs that have a place within the city, accessible to all.
“My purpose is to advocate for tikanga and for mana whenua traditions, aspirations and values, and navigate how to bring those into a project. I’m not a cultural expert. There are a lot of people around me who have that expertise – I’ve just been fortunate to be around them. It’s how you take that forward – that’s really what I’ve been doing in this work.”
I understand drawings and schedules, I understand buildings, spaces, integrated design and art and the processes that sit behind. Being able to anticipate the various steps ahead is helpful. Within that mahi, I’ve had the opportunity to engage really deeply with Māori values, in Māori ways for my iwi and rūnanga. I learnt how to sit between these different contexts and am incredibly grateful to Ngāi Tūāhuriri for that.
Keri on being aware of…. Wairua // Spirit, Intent
Ngāi Tūāhuriri identified five values that are really key to all of the work that they do. The first one is Whakapapa – it’s number one, the overarching kaupapa. Mahinga Kai, Manaakitanga, Ture Wairua and Mana Motuhake follow closely. These kaupapa are really helpful for the projects. They become the thing that you gravitate back to all the time. Usually there’s one key one that you’re bringing through within a project. Say, with Tūranga (the central library) whakapapa was strong there – it’s embedded in everything. Right from the concept design – in the configuration of form and space, to whenua orientations, to the creative expression of iwi artists, through to naming – Tūranga is Ngāi Tahu whakapapa.
“There were many levels of thinking that went on behind engagement. What is indigenous knowledge? What is mātauranga? How do we bring that into an institution with roots in Western traditions? How do you bring a Māori knowledge systems sensibility into that space and do it in a way that is Māori, that doesn’t ‘describe’ it as Māori, but actually is. There were many good people working on it, but for me it was a hard and rocky project.”
Ideally, engagement in the design process is iterative – you’re part of the project team and are involved in various meetings, creative inputs and critical points that go on over the life of a project. The more involvement there is, the more consistency comes through, the better integrity is maintained.
In working on these projects, you are working alongside a lot of really amazing people. One of the key projects that I worked on was ‘Ngā Whāriki Manaaki’, a series of paving intensities dotted throughout the city along Te Papa Ōtākaro. They were conceived and developed by two Ngāi Tahu women, Reihana Parata – Aunty Doe, and Morehu Flutey-Henare – Nanny Mu. I feel very lucky to have worked alongside them.
‘Ngā Whāriki Manaaki’ was one of the first projects to be planned for Te Papa Ōtākaro. It’s a statement of mana motuhake and mana whenua first up, but also coming from a mana wāhine base is really unusual in an urban landscape.
In design exchanges, we can work in quite difficult environments that are sometimes a bit culturally challenging! So, I can be a bit of a hot head as well, I can tend to get frustrated when I see something is not right. So it can be quite hard, sitting in some of those meetings when you are the only Māori in a sea of tauiwi. And you have to get across your point without putting people off-side, and keep your cool – I failed a few times!
But, I suppose the thing that I’m trying to live by now, which Reihana and Morehu steer me towards, is ‘Aroha ki te Tangata’. It’s a phrase that resonates across Māoridom. It’s a really important one, particularly when you’re working in quite challenging situations. If aroha informs how you move into a meeting situation, there’s always that intention to do the right thing, to look after other people, to be considerate and to try to engender aroha in others as well. It is also reiterated in the pepeha ‘Kia atawhai ki te iwi’ – Care for your people (Pita Te Hori, 1861). A duty of care has become part and parcel of the rebuild of the city.
It’s tricky territory when you’re integrating cultural dimensions within non-Māori projects. It’s not just about aesthetics, it’s about bringing in meaning and integrity for the people you’re working with. It’s about opening up understanding for others. It’s the responsibility of working with taonga, collective knowledge. There’s a lot of navigating and negotiating, understanding the dynamics of what you’re doing in relation to wider contexts – cultural, social environmental. It’s sometimes acting on the fly, sometimes making mistakes. And every new project has a new project team dynamic.
Keri considering… Mauri // Energy, Life-force
I’ve done Te Reo so many times through different methods. It’s something that I keep coming back to. Now I need to stick with it because it’s just so critical to what we do, how we engage with others.
This has to do with Practice. I mean, Reo always has been about reclaiming identity. But also, on a practical level, you go into meetings, and you can’t not open up with a karakia and close with one. It doesn’t feel right when you just launch in. That’s one way that you can quickly set a Māori context within environments where it doesn’t usually exist.
“I love the way that karakia timatanga focuses everything. Everything suddenly is drawn into that moment, and it becomes the platform for then expanding into whatever kaupapa you are dealing with. For me being able to bring tikanga into those sorts of situations is really important. I don’t ever expect to be a gun speaker but I still want to be able to feel that I can hold my own in a simple way.”
It is important to be able to bring that tikanga in if you’re talking about things Māori within your work. You also need to be able to find ways of unpacking that for people in a way that’s meaningful.
Architecture school was an interesting time. There was a thing called Vernacular Architecture which was all of these different cultural examples from around the world all smushed into one. Vernacular wasn’t considered architecture proper. These are the kinds of biases that are still encountered in spatial design. The term ‘vernacular architecture’ was a way of positioning Western architecture as “legitimate”, rendering other cultural forms as “Other”. This is a fallacy that Māori, indigenous and First Nations peoples need to fathom and actively dispel.
We have to be aware of the power dynamics at play within architecture and space and the ways these are constructed.
When you walk into an environment as an inquisitive young person, say, into a museum, and you’re confronted with your culture as imagined by someone else, how do you fathom that? Items that aren’t labelled and odd bundlings brought together by whim or imposed taxonomy. In this context, objects can be treated more as curiosities as opposed to the taonga that they are. You have this immediate ‘WTF’ moment when you’re standing there trying to understand yourself in relation to what’s there in front of you, it’s confronting.
Such issues come along with certain environments and their surrounding ideologies and practices. So any project, before you get into it, you’ve got to figure out the context. What your relationship is to that particular project, what it is that you might bring to it. Whether you should, in fact be engaging in it or not. There are all these questions that come up for a Māori designer, even before you’ve stepped into a room. There are power dynamics that sit around cultural knowledge and difference. These can seem really dense and complex or even almost invisible.
These kinds of situations come up, unintentionally, all the time. Like when you’re walking around trying to see yourself in your urban environment, and you’re not there, that’s pretty disaffecting. We’ve got well over 80% of Māori are in urban environments, and if we don’t see ourselves in those environments, it’s not healthy. So that’s why I do what I do, seeing the mahi of people like Reihana and Morehu come into those public spaces in a permanent and cohesive way. They do this beautiful job of telling our stories within these urban spaces, in a way that is seamless and non-confrontational, but assertive and enduring.
“That’s what I love about working in the public realm. It’s about effecting social and cultural equity, within the everyday urban spaces that we all move through. Māori, and non-Māori, we can come to appreciate diversity and difference and come to understand our cities in very fresh ways.”
Keri setting the Wero // The Challenge for Designers
It’s being aware of your own cultural position and how that influences your perspective and approaches. There is this inherent power dynamic in the design process, so it’s important to understand that and run an open process. If you are leading it can be hard to let go of control over creative output, to genuinely share that. Embrace advocacy, facilitation and collaboration, and model that for the other professionals around you.
And, become a champion for self-determination for the people that you’re working with. It’s finding ways for them to gain trust and engage in the process, and be allowed to interpret their own creative expression of their knowledge, even if that sometimes it doesn’t align with your aesthetics. And remember that indigenous knowledge holds collective intellectual property. Open acknowledgement of that throughout a project and especially after its completion is important.
There’s a lot of learning and relationship building that happens through cultural design engagement. There is a dialogue of understanding that happens through the design process and we all have something special to bring to that. None of these projects ever end up in a place that you would anticipate, and that is the complete beauty of it. The synergy that comes of robust whanaungatanga in the design process, it’s worth it. It’s worth the hard work. It’s worth putting in the time to take things through.
These are big questions, idealistic imaginings.
And the last wero? Whakapapa – its never too late (nor too early!).
 Whaanga-Schollum, D. DESIGNING MĀORI FUTURES – SYSTEMS DISRUPTION. Design Assembly Filed Guide series. 2020.
 WHAKAPAPA: Identity and connection to place.
 MAHINGA KAI: The knowledge and values associated with customary food gathering places and practices.
 Ture Wairua: Being able to exercise spirituality and faith.
 MANA MOTUHAKE: Being able to act with independence and autonomy – being ourselves in our places.