National | Architecture

Māori artist annoyed at awards snub

Ngāti Whātua artist Graham Tipene created the strong Māori identity of the Tirohanga Whānui Bridge in Auckland. 

A Māori designed bridge won a prestigious architecture award recently but not without controversy. The Māori artist who created its striking look is frustrated he wasn't given the recognition his work deserves and says it's something that happens all the time to Māori.

Graham Tipene is the Ngāti Whātua artist behind the design of the Tirohanga Whānui walking and cycling bridge in Albany, Auckland. He's complained that he wasn't invited to the 2019 Auckland Architecture Awards earlier this month, despite the major Māori identity his artistry has given the bridge.

Ngāti Whātua artist Graham Tipene spoke to Te Ao about bringing a more Māori presence to Auckland.

It has also been suggested that mana whenua are annoyed their contributions are not being acknowledged at awards events either.

A "smile-inducing" bridge

Tirohanga Whānui is described by Aurecon, the lead consultant for the construction of the bridge, as a "design that echoes the richness of Māori culture and will leave a legacy for bridge design in New Zealand." Aurecon says they "recognise that Graham played a big role in the visual identity" of the bridge.

However, it seems this wasn't enough to see the artist invited to the awards ceremony. "All the architects and engineers were there but the Māori artists themselves weren't invited and we're fed up this keeps happening," says Tipene.

The bridge won a prestigious 'public architecture award' at the event, putting it in the frame for a national award at the NZ Architecture Awards later this year. The judges said they were won over by the "invigorating, smile-inducing moment" the bridge created.

'Māori artists weren't invited'

Aurecon spokesperson Wendy Byrne says it's typically the team that enters a project into the awards who invites the guests. In this case, it was Auckland-based architects Wells Architects Planners, who put the bridge forward for an award, that was best placed to invite Tipene.

Tipene says project teams "don't see any connection between cultural design and architecture or engineering."  Photo/NZIA.

Jeffery Wells says, "Generally, the architectural practices with projects shortlisted for an award might invite a client, and perhaps the builder if it was a complex project."

On this occasion, the firm invited four guests but did not include Tipene in this mix.  They invited Aurecon, clients Watercare and NZ Transport Agency and builder Northern Corridor Improvements Alliance.

Tipene says project teams like this don't pay adequate respect to Māori design input. "Of course, those people don't see any connection between cultural design and architecture or engineering, which is why we weren't invited I'm guessing."

"I’m sorry to hear that Graham is upset"

Wells acknowledges the upset Tipene feels and explains the firm had an awkward situation in the past that's made them cautious now. "I’m sorry to hear that Graham is upset. I have worked with several iwi and other artists on bridge and public artwork projects over the years. I have the greatest respect for their work."

Wells says, the last time they had a project shortlisted, they invited the client, builder, engineer and a collaborating architect, only for matters to fall flat. "Embarrassingly, it did not receive an award, which was a little disappointing for the team – and the reason why we now avoid inviting too many collaborators."

"We will be sure to invite Graham"

Wells says they would like to see the broader team, including Tipene, properly acknowledged at the NZ awards. "If Tirohanga Whānui is shortlisted for higher honours, it would be great to see the wider team attend."

Tipene designed the concrete panels depicting pūrākau Māori for the Waterview tunnel in Auckland. Photo/Supplied.

Aurecon says it's equally sympathetic. "We are regretful that Graham Tipene feels this way." The company wasn't involved in the decision who to invite but Byrne says they will ensure Tipene is invited to the NZ engineering awards in Christchurch in August. "We will be sure to invite Graham along and if he can make it, we will be very pleased to host him."

The only hitch is that Tipene will have to pay his own way. "It is up to each representative to pay their own travelling expenses," says Byrne.

'Some Māori were very upset'

Tipene says he wasn't aware the bridge was up for an award until a colleague contacted him. "Some Māori who were there were very upset by that. Elisapeta [Heta] was one of them. I got a text from her asking where I was as we had just won an award."

Te Ao spoke to Tipene about the awards' snub - Te Ao

Elisapeta Heta, who is Ngāti Wai and Ngāti Hāmoa, is a Māori design leader for one of the country's major architecture firms. She also sits on the NZ Institute of Architects (NZIA) Board as a co-opted member for Ngā Aho, a national network of Māori design professionals.

Heta says as a Māori artist, Tipene best understands the failure to recognise artists' contributions. "Graham’s comment about the fact that it happens all the time, if I’m honest, he’ll probably feel that a lot more than I would."

She says mana whenua have also raised concerns their contributions are being overlooked. "I’ve also heard in some mana whenua circles, the representatives, particularly for Tāmaki have said 'look, you know we are here giving narratives, giving our time, giving artists, putting them forward to support design projects' and I’ve heard cynical comments like, 'we’re not really acknowledged when it gets to awards systems.'"

'Moments to prompt change'

Heta says the failure to invite Tipene to the awards provides an opportunity for change. "Moments like this are moments to prompt change quickly," she says. "It’s prompted a really good discussion about ensuring that we are much more thoughtful about the way we do things, to make sure we never are [so thoughtless] again."

She says the awards' process needs to play "catch up" to recognise Māori contribution but there's genuine goodwill from the architecture community.

"I’ve received nothing but support. I think that te ao Pākehā is catching up to our presence. Processes like awards systems are now having to make reassessments of what they’re doing and how they might include our Māori perspective."

It's an outlook supported by the NZIA, whose Auckland branch organised the awards. The organisation says they weren't involved in deciding who received invitations but respect everyone involved in projects. "We like to see as many people as possible enjoy the recognition accorded to outstanding projects," says spokesperson John Walsh. "We are keen to acknowledge all those involved in architecture award-winning projects, and we welcome all participants to our awards events."

Māori design leader Elisapeta Heta says mana whenua have complained their contributions are being overlooked. Photo/NZIA.

'It’s really important everybody steps their game up, Māori are treaty partners'

Heta says changes are needed to ensure Māori are properly recognised. "Change the processes of how you submit your [entries] so that design teams are prompted, people applying for these awards are prompted, to think about who they are including and excluding in their acknowledgements."

Tipene thinks even stronger action is required and believes a new awards category should be added. "I don't think there is a cultural design category," he says.

Heta says, "We’ve been looking into either adding another category or an awards area that looks specifically at engagement processes or acknowledging design teams." That's a process she says that "would be considered to be tika."

Both Tipene and Heta agree that Māori are overdue proper recognition. "I think it’s really important that everybody steps their game up because everybody that collaborates and contributes are really important but Māori are treaty partners. It’s a partnership conversation,” says Heta.