Neon sculpture works and honour light up artist's year

By Paul Mulrooney

"Kaokao" is a 2.4 metre work that comprises two x-shaped structures

Pioneering Māori visual artist Bob Jahnke has had a prolific year, capped off by being acknowledged with a New Year’s Honour.

It’s extremely apt that Māori artist Bob Jahnke enjoys working with neon following a year where his productivity has earned him the right to have his name up in lights.

Last year as well as 2015, was punctuated with numerous exhibits and preparing new works amid celebrations for the Bachelor of Māori Visual Arts degree he founded at what is now Massey University’s College of Creative Arts more than 20 years ago.

The pace that Professor Jahnke (Ngāi Taharora, Te Whānau a Iritekura, Te Whānau a Rakairo o Ngāti Porou) set in 2016 looks set to continue this year with the unveiling of his latest work earlier this year on Waiheke Island as part of the headland Sculpture on the Gulf festival.

The 2.4 metre work entitled Kaokao comprising two x-shaped structures that form a diamond cavity fitted with neon lighting,  lit up Waiheke Island earlier this year and is being brought down to Wellington for the Lux Light Festival on the Wellington waterfront from May 12-21.

It’s a theme evident in his work that stretches back to his time as a Māori academic and pioneer in contemporary Māori art acknowledged in the New Year’s Honours when he was awarded an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM).

“It was a pleasant surprise but it’s good to be recognised for both Māori art and education,” Professor Jahnke says.

Pouwhakamaharatanga mo Maui tikiti a Taranga references stories of the demigod Maui

“It is built from corten steel and laminated totara”

A commissioned 6.4 metre pou was also unveiled at Auckland in September.

Pouwhakamaharatanga mo Maui tikiti a Taranga references stories of the demigod Maui with the three crowning figures representing Maui slowing the sun, Maui fishing up the North Island and Maui securing fire from Mahuika, the goddess of fire.

The Pou, commissioned by the Waterfront Theatre Ltd, stands in the Logan Campbell Yard alongside the newly opened ASB Waterfront Theatre. It is built from corten steel and laminated totara and provides a focal point for powhiri and ceremonial occasions at the theatre.

Much of Professor Jahnke’s work possesses a creative vitality, often with a political edge all the while championing Māori art and using it to highlight important cultural issues.

A 6.4 metre Nga Huruhuru Rangatira – Feathers of the Chief – archway sculpture was also unveiled last year on one corner of the Square in Palmerston North.

The stylised giant huia feathers, commissioned by the Palmerston North Sculpture Trust, are crafted from 3000 kilograms of ground stainless steel, featuring three feathers on one side and two on the other, representing a union between Māori culture and western knowledge.

“The three feathers are an iteration of a tri-feather motif at the base of rafters in some tribal houses and acknowledge the mana whenua of Rangitane while the two feathers signify literacy and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and acknowledge Palmerston North as a city of learning with Massey, UCOL, and the Te Wānanaga o Aotearoa all there,” he says.

The reflective nature of the work continues a strand of thinking that was very much to the fore during his neon exhibition Ata at Pataka in Porirua last year.

Meaning form and reflection, Ata explores connections between light and perception, form and retrospection as depicted in neon forms of diamonds, triangles, crosses and clubs that combined with mirror effects appear endless and multi-dimensional.

If that all sounds too arty, seeing it up front cannot stop the viewer from being first intrigued and soon enchanted by neon effects that embrace the inner child.

As Professor Jahnke says, “kids love it.”