by Robert Jahnke for SCAPE Public Art Season 2017
The aesthetic and metaphorical qualities of light, and neon light in particular, have long fascinated artist Robert Jahnke, who is based in Palmerston North. His practice questions and challenges established Eurocentric narration of New Zealand’s history, and champions Māori perspectives, experiences and narratives. KAOKAO is a tukutuku chevron pattern found in Māori tribal houses that signifies fortitude and virility. Compositionally it aligns with the haka stance assumed as a prelude to war or in celebration of victory. The kaokao chevron configuration is created by bringing two crosses together with a bilateral inversion of the chevron to create the ‘K’ figure associated with Polynesian art. It is a motif that also appears as an inverted ‘W’ pattern representing rows of headless humans, elbows on knees, on Austral Islands adzes. With the two ‘X’ shapes the Treaty of Waitangi is also referenced with many of the signatures on that document being denoted by crosses. Jahnke has recently been exploring the combination of neon, glass and mirrors to enable a reflection into infinity, the light appearing to both project backwards and forwards into time and space. This work, previously shown in outdoor areas with expansive vistas, is located within a dense urban context. The siting is intended to assert the importance of mātauranga Māori within the development of our cities, and to offer a connection between the work, with its feet firmly on the ground, and the rectangle of expansive sky above.
Primarily a sculptor, Bob Jahnke is considered one of New Zealand’s leading contemporary Maori artists. He works with a range of media including found objects, steel and lead. Of Samoan-German-Irish-Maori heritage, his work is typically based on political issues that face Maori people, the relationship between Maori and European colonisers and the impact of Christianity on Maori culture.