Brett Graham

Ngāti Koroki Kahukura, Tainui

Brett’s large-scale sculptures have captivated viewers around the world

Brett’s work explores indigenous histories, politics and philosophies. He views his Māori whakapapa (ancestry) as a broader Pasifika/Moana identity. Brett’s work regularly brings together motifs from contrasting cultures to provoke discussion about the legacy of colonisation.  

Brett has exhibited in a broad range of national and international contexts. He has exhibited twice at the Sydney Biennale (2006 and 2010), and at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007.  

Wasteland 2023

Wastelands continues themes from Brett’s recent exhibition Tai Moana Tai Tangata and is also a homage to his father’s (Fred Graham) sculptures from the 70’s.

His initial approach was to make a work that physically responded to the ’style’ of his father’s work. He then decided it was more appropriate to make a work in a style that responded to his father’s conceptual ideas.

Wasteland is a homage to nature and expresses a Te Ao Māori/indigenous proximity to the natural world.

Materials: Steel, found wagon wheels, macrocarpa wood, paint.

View this work: Corderie in the Arsenale 

Brett’s work (Wasteland 2023) with his father’s (Fred Graham) work in the background at the Corderie in the Arsenale.

“‘Wastelands’ refers to the wetlands or ‘swamps’ that were a most valuable resource to Māori but loathed by European settlers who drained them to create pasturelands.”

Brett says his recent work has responded to the rapid depletion of natural resources since the onset of colonisation:

Colonial foundation mythologies privilege pastural lands over wetlands. Traditional indigenous food sources such as eels were replaced by cattle and sheep, and wetlands described as ‘wastelands’. 

The ‘wagon’ form covered with eels will tilt back on two wheels and have two protruding carved totara shafts. The form comes from the pātaka or carved storage house. Usually fixed on stilts and elaborately carved, the pātaka took pride of place in the village displaying the tribe’s wealth and resources. 

Placing a pātaka on wheels alluded to the forced migrations of Māori because of the colonial process, people were evicted from their lands. Similarly the migratory pathways of eels to spawn in the Pacific Ocean and then return have also been interrupted.

Brett’s father was raised by the Waikato River, his father often fed the family with eels. In the waiata/song Waikato Te Awa the lyrics note the significance of eels to his tribe:

Titiro Whakakatau to kanohi

Ko Maungatautari
Ngāti Koroki

Ko Arapuni raa

Te rohe o te tuna ee! 

Look right to Maungatautari, 

the mountain of Ngāti Koroki,

to Arapuni, the area famed for its eels!