Artist and Lecturer - Ngāti Rakaipaaka, Ngāi Tūhoe
Story by Himiona Grace
Hemi Macgregor didn’t have an identity crisis while growing up in Levin. “My brothers and sisters are a lot older than me. They grew up in the 1960s when being Maori wasn’t cool. It was something to be ashamed of. But I didn’t really question being Maori or Pakeha, I grew up in both worlds. It wasn’t until I went to art school and I was asked the question, ‘What are you about?’.”
This led Hemi on his own journey beyond the usual ‘self discovery’ and back to the values of whanau and community. “My mum started teaching Te Ataarangi (a learner friendly method of teaching Maori language and customs) when I was young, so I grew up in that environment. My sister was an artist too. She is older than me but we spent a lot of time together. She worked on her school C while I worked away on my art, it was the way of our household.” This solid foundation provided the answer to that question “I found myself dipping back into this space, the environment I grew up in.” It was this place rich in concepts, knowledge and aroma that provided the basis for his works.
Te Pu 2010
Hemi studied art throughout his years at Taitoko School and Waipoehu College but even after attending Whanganui Polytechnic and studying Fine Art he still wasn’t thinking about a career. “At the end of high school I knew art was where I my strengths laid. I originally went to study graphic design because that was a career. We were told over and over, you’ve got to get a job. I wasn’t a very good listener. I went on with what I loved.”
His first few years as an undergrad in Whanganui he learned the many practical skills in making fine art but the work of a particular friend inspired his next decision to study further. “His work was conceptual based which made me look at his work and talk about it. It pushed me to think about my own work, that’s partly what propelled me to do an MA in art at Massey.” That and the prospect of studying under Bob Janhke, one of Aotearoa’s leading contemporary Maori artists.
“I learned a lot studying Bob’s work. I could see the change in his work from early years to after he studied at California Institute of Arts. [It was so] inspiring.”
Hemi exhibits as a solo artist and as part of collective groups. His work varies and he doesn’t like to put labels on it. He trained as a sculpture, he paints, works with timber, multi-media mixed and has even incorporated film into his work. There are no limits when it comes to his creativity.
“In the early years I was trying to do everything I could. You can create a lot of busy work but get nothing done. [But when] you understanding what you’re taking on you learn that one art work is almost as much work as doing eight”.
So he became tactical with his time and energy. And as he matured as a person and artist he became more aware of quality over quantity.
“You can get enamoured with stuff, materials and the things you can do with it. You might find material and start playing with it and something comes out of that. Other times you have a concept and need to ground it in something tangible so you start searching for materials and things to answer that question. As an artist you have to be able to start anywhere.
Ka Kata Te Po
For instance, instillations can be site specific. To me they are about engaging the space, thinking about the space and filling it.”
The age old question of ‘what is art’ can be a tricky one to answer. Hemi believes the idea of art in our contemporary world is a Western concept. Sometimes it can be seen as elitist. But regardless of labels, concepts or how you choose to express them, art is art. “I like to say I’m a Maori visual practitioner. This simply enables me to create. It allows me to use music, film, any material I choose to express artistic vision. To me, tikanga and Maori concepts are things of value and truth. The practice that I follow, what I create or work on is all about uplifting and celebrating ourselves.”
Hemi Macgregor is an art lecturer at Massey University in Wellington and lives with his family on the Kapiti Coast.