Korero with Kelcy
Artist and educator, Kelcy Taratoa weaves history, culture and modern-day themes through his artwork. And if you go to one of his exhibitions, he might just ask you all about it.
“It’s my hope that something I say today will resonate with you. It’s my hope that I can plant a seed in your mind and heart — a seed that will grow over time. There are seeds in my mind others have given me that have flourished, and there are others I’m still figuring out. I’m here today because I was once like you.”
Whether he’s addressing a room of people or creating magic with a paintbrush, Kelcy Taratoa is a natural when it comes to self-expression. Turns out he’s a natural with youth, too. When the local artist presented to a group of year 10 students at Mount Maunganui College recently, the room was silent for a solid hour (which any teacher will tell you is no easy feat), while he spoke candidly about his “humble beginnings” in Otaki and his journey to becoming an industry name.
“I would go into every school if I could,” he says. “I really enjoy it — it’s my way of giving back. I hope students can connect with me... that they take something from our kōrero that enables them. I want them to think, ‘Maybe I could have a career I enjoy.’ I love what I do, and I feel very fortunate to be where I am today, but I’ve worked really hard to get here. If I can get these kids thinking about their passions, talents and skills, they might believe they can do anything they set their mind to — which they can.”
Kelcy’s work is in the art and design curriculum across New Zealand secondary schools, so he often gets asked by teachers to come and speak to students. He’s also a tutor at Toi Ohomai, where he teaches visual arts as part of the Bachelor of Creative Industries.
“I feel very fortunate to be part of my students’ journeys,” he says. “Some are very apprehensive at the start, so seeing that growth over three years, and seeing their friends and whānau stand up and congratulate them at the end is amazing. This degree is a solid foundation they can stand on to achieve great things.”
Kelcy says part of his drive for helping students comes from his own experience at college. “At the time, I didn’t appreciate education. I left college in year 11 without being able to confidently read or write. I wasn’t a naughty kid, but I couldn’t connect with my teachers. The importance of education wasn’t something we talked about at home, so it wasn’t until I’d left school that I started thinking about my future and the importance of learning.”
Kelcy has always been creative. When playing rugby league, he was known as the guy who’d bring colourful pens to map out moves and strategies. “Even sport became an art form,” he says. “Art has always been my space — it feels natural to be here.”
In the late 90s he signed up for Massey University’s “groundbreaking” Bachelor of Māori Visual Arts degree (he went on to complete a Masters). It was the first, and is still the only, university to offer such a degree. “The course was challenging at times because I needed to understand aspects of Māori culture I was unfamiliar with. I was confronted with existential questions about what it meant to be Māori, and as the years went by I realised there was so much more to it than having brown skin and a Māori surname. My studies shaped my thinking to a large extent and gave me a thirst for knowledge, particularly around history, culture and identity.”
“During my exhibitions, I like to interact with people. If they ask me what a piece is about, I like to flip the conversation...”
Eager to learn more, Kelcy started delving into his own heritage. His childhood was divided between Levin, south of Palmerston North and New Plymouth, but he identifies tribally with the Bay of Plenty (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui and Ngāti Raukawa). “My tupuna [ancestor] Henare Wiremu Taratoa was a prominent figure during the land wars here,” he says. “Henare was a political activist and educator. He was progressive, inclusive and well educated — he would’ve been at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. He wrote the code of conduct for the battles at Pukehinahina and Te Ranga, where he was unfortunately killed. I’m really interested in history and leadership, so to have Henare in my personal heritage has been enriching.”
Beneath the Surface
Kelcy describes his art style as “flat, graphic and hard edged.” His works are handpainted with a brush, which is hard to believe because every line is so perfect.
“As you can see, my art is colourful!” he laughs. “It’s often vibrant and it’s hard to pick up brush marks, which is intentional because I’m asking questions around our perception of painting. We’ve been conditioned to recognise a painting by evidence of paint being pushed around a surface by a brush, so if you remove that evidence, is it still a painting? Is it a print? What is it? There are questions of hierarchy and value which I also like to explore.”
A lot of Kelcy’s work relates to universal ideas such as identity construction. “I’m interested in this process because it’s inclusive of everyone, regardless of culture,” he says. “It’s been really rewarding trying to understand how everyone shapes their own identity, because it’s something that’s never really fixed. We shape our identity over time. I also enjoy exploring the notion of the hero — who they are, what they do and what it takes to be a hero. And ideas around crisis, isolation, privacy and surveillance. There’s a lot of ambiguity in these spaces.”
There are some beautiful traditional references in his work too, such as tukutuku patterns. “These patterns are an art form you’ll find in the whare tupuna [ancestral meeting house]. They’re often woven into boards and sit as panels between carvings. They have an interesting function, as all our art forms do, as containers of knowledge and markers to initiate dialogue around important topics. Deconstructing these art forms and looking at their potential has been a journey for me.”
Who am I?
Kelcy’s held an exhibition at the Tauranga Art Gallery in October 2019, which featured his breakout series of work called The Who am I? Episodes. The worked looks at identity and how we make sense of the world we live in, and featured old-school arcade games and well-known characters like Wolverine.
“I’ve always loved comics, but not for the same reasons as other kids. I was more interested in the psychology behind the characters because even superheroes are flawed. Wolverine, for example: he’s cynical, angry and wants to die but can’t. There’s a lot more to him than meets the eye. The arcade game references relate to life itself — we’re taught to ‘win’ as individuals, which contrasts with the collective values of most indigenous cultures.”
Kelcy was also commissioned to design the gallery’s three towering atrium walls, which featured his signature tukutuku patterns. “I’ve had shows all over New Zealand, which have been highlights, but that exhibition was an opportunity to look back over the past couple of decades and see how far my work has come.
“During my exhibitions, I like to interact with people and get their thoughts on the ideas behind the work. If they ask me what a certain piece is about, I like to flip the conversation and say, ‘why don’t you tell me?’ I like that awkward moment. There seems to be a certain pressure on the viewer to know something, which causes a bit of anxiety, but this is where we can start making art more accessible. I simply engage them in an exercise of asking questions. I’ll be friendly and start with something small, like colour; I’ll ask them what colours they like, then what they think of the colours in the painting. From there, they start opening up and we get on a bit of a roll. Sure, I’m a painter, but it’s these deeper conversations about art that I love more than anything.”
Story published in issue 23 of Our Place magazine.
Story by Laura Tuck
Photography by Mattea McKinnon