Maori designer and artist Johnson Witehira (Tamahaki (Ngāti Hinekura), Ngā Puhi (Ngai-tū-te-auru), Ngāti Hauā) first came to our attention a couple of years ago, when he launched his graphic Maori Alphabet Blocks. Johnson is fast becoming one of NZ’s most recognised Maori designers, with a strong aesthetic that comes from combining traditional Maori form and pattern with ideas from contemporary graphic design practice. As Arts Advisor Katie Taylor-Duke describes, “his work is high impact, accessible and proudly asserts our cultural history”.
His work has been seen in Wellington galleries and Times Square, New York… and now it can be in your home – because the endemicworld catalogue now includes two limited-edition Johnson Witehira art prints.
Johnson with his artwork The Land of Tara; Johnson’s Maori Alphabet Blocks – available here
You created a huge piece of art which displayed in Times Square, New York. How did that come about?
The whole New York thing was a whirlwind experience, from creating the mahi to being in New York. It was a digital art contest run by Chorus. At the time I heard about it, I was teaching English in a tiny town in northern Japan. I spent my lunch-breaks creating the animation for my entry and a few weeks later I was in Times Square. The reaction from New Zealanders back home was, and still is, really positive. In terms of the audience there, people on the street seemed to be pretty fascinated. It was the first time that the screens in Time Square had ever been synced up like that, so that was enough to have people interested.
Johnson’s artwork lighting up Times Square!
You work in a lot of disciplines/media – what is your favourite?
I think anything with type. Whether it’s designing letterforms or creating typographic compositions, I find time just seems to disappear when I’m using type. My favourite media though is probably pencil and paper. I still work in A4 visual diaries for everything, you know the ones with the black covers you use at design school. I find it’s still the easiest way to develop my ideas.
Johnson created an original contemporary Maori typeface – Whakarare – creating new character forms from the ground up, while bringing in Maori typographic preferences (such as the irregularly high x-height).
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just recently finished 3 projects, the Waituhi mural for the Wellington City Council, a series of window designs for The New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts and a book cover for Auckland University. I think working in a variety of media and contexts is important if you want to develop as a designer because each new project has very different challenges.
Initial sketch and digital design refinements for the new Waituhi mural (in Wellington City)
Johnson (and team) at work on the Waituhi mural
In terms of right now, I’m working on quite a big pasifika/Maori health project. The main challenge here is that I’ve had to extend my knowledge into the realm of pacific pattern and symbolism. As a health project, it’s nice thinking that the work will make a difference in some people’s lives. I’ve also been trying to develop Maori wallpaper with Massey, some new typefaces and a few exhibitions.
Who do you look up to creatively?
For the most part, I’m inspired by a number of Maori carvers and painters who have long since passed away. This includes Raharuhi Rukupo (Rongowhakaata), Natanahira te Keteiwi (Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki), Hone Taahu (Ngati Porou), Tene Waitere (Ngati Tarawhai) and Wero Taroi (Ngati Tarawhai). I’m moved by the level of sophistication in their work, the way they integrated new ideas and concepts into it, and the way that they combined Pakeha and Maori technologies to enhance their art. They set the precedent a long time ago I guess for what I’m doing now.
I’m also a huge fan of Robyn Kahukiwa. Her aesthetic is bold and the content is often in your face.
I saw an artwork by Lisa Reihana recently, in pursuit of venus, which also blew me away and made me realise I have a long way to go.
Fave music to paint/draw to?
When I’m designing, its drum and bass cranked up on a thousand. It might sound weird but I think the noise helps cancel out all the other thoughts going on in my head. When I’m drawing or painting it’s probably something like Donny Hathaway or Fat Freddy’s Drop. Something I can sing (badly) to.
A row of lightboxes exhibiting Johnson’s work stand proud along Wellington’s Courtenay Place.
Tell us about a dream project you’d love to work on (in any discipline)
I’d love to make a Maori/New Zealand fighting game. Growing up in the Sega/Nintendo generation I’ve always had a fascination with these games, though I don’t have time to play anything these days. I’ve already started mapping out the game with all the characters and their stories. To make it how I imagine though would take millions of dollars. Who knows, maybe I’ll just be able to sell my ideas and have someone else make it – though I’d still want to be on the creative team.
Could you tell us a little more about the two endemicworld prints you have released – the Kuramarotini work, and the Tautoki work?
The prints are from my Land of Tara exhibition currently installed in the light boxes along Courtenay Place. Essentially, I was trying to illustrate the whakapapa of Wellington on the streets. Kuramarotini was the wife (or mistress in some stories) of the navigator Polynesian navigator Kupe. While Tautoki was her great-great grandson. Considering that our ancestors were Polynesian I created the works so that they progress stylistically from Polynesian to Maori. Elliot and I had been in talks for the last couple of years about getting some work on endemicworld so it was nice to finally get these up.
Johnson’s Tautoki and Kuramarotini art prints (limited edition of only 30); beautiful graphic details tell a story
See more of Johnson’s work and projects on his website, or shop his art prints on endemicworld here.