25 Nov 2018

In conversation with Māori artists Marilynn Webb and Isaac James Te Reina Cleland

From Te Ahi Kaa, 6:04 pm on 25 November 2018

Every year, Māori art (Ngā Toi Māori) is celebrated at the Te Waka Toi Awards.

Justine Murray meets two of this year's winners – internationally renowned printmaker Marilynn Webb and emerging filmmaker Isaac James Te Reina Cleland.

Marilynn Webb and Isaac James Te Reina Cleland, recipients of 2018 Te Waka Toi awards

Marilynn Webb and Isaac James Te Reina Cleland, recipients of 2018 Te Waka Toi awards Photo: Supplied

Marilynn Webb was born in Auckland but spent her childhood in Opotiki with two rivers on either side of her home and the beach at the front. 

It was an idyllic, carefree lifestyle as an ‘Opotiki Kid’ then, she says.

One of her classmates was broadcaster Haare Williams who was a class bus monitor, she recalls.

“It was bliss for a child and a small loving community, it was wonderful.”

Now 82, Marilynn says that at the time she hit adolescence there were two career choices – teacher or nurse.

She chose teaching and went on to attend Ardmore Teachers' Training College, which was a live-in institution at the time.

“I went across to Whakatane and signed up then. To me, that was better than working in a local shop, university education was scarce, you would have to go Auckland or Wellington, and although I went right through school, there was a great mission for kids to get out and earn their own money."

During her third year of study, Marilynn headed to Dunedin for training and took advantage of off-campus student life.

She turned 21 and city life was an eye-opening experience, because at heart she was still an Opotiki kid, she says.

In 1958 she met artist Ralph Hotere who had also trained in the same group.

She also experienced inequality.

“At that time, and I’m talking about 1958, that was the time when women did the same job as men but earned less, so there was no equal pay happening then, and if you were unmarried you did all the weekend work because the family was sacrosanct, so married advisors didn’t have to go out and do the community work.”

The Tovey Scheme was named after educationalist Gordon Tovey who led the art and crafts in the Department of Education and comprised of primary school teacher trainees. Some of those first recruits included Selwyn Wilson, Para Matchitt, Sandy Adsett, Fred Graham and Cliff Whiting.

“They trained specialist advisors in science, physical education, and then they trained in arts and craft and then Māori as well as all the Eurocentric attitudes to arts and craft, and I came in on the re-birthing of Māori art and craft, which was wonderful.”

Te Waka Toi Awards November 17, 2018 Te Marae at Te Papa in Wellington

Te Waka Toi Awards November 17, 2018 Te Marae at Te Papa in Wellington Photo: 2018 Mark Tantrum

Marilynn is an internationally renowned printmaker whose work has been exhibited around the world.

Her themes are inspired by conservation, Māori women, politics and post-colonial history.

In 2000, she was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit and received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from Otago University in 2010.

This year, Marilynn was honoured with the Te Waka Toi Supreme Award for her service and contribution to the arts.

Isaac James Te Reina Cleland, writer, director and actor.

Isaac James Te Reina Cleland, writer, director and actor. Photo: Supplied

In a scene that mirrors Neil Gaiman's young adult fantasy novel Graveyard Book, 25-year-old actor, writer and director Isaac James Te Reina Cleland (Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga) grew up in the gravekeeper’s house at Whenuatapu Cemetery on the outskirts of Wellington.

His family had a goat, he would build forts in the bush and also explore the graveyard, looking at all of the headstones and plaques.

This unusual backdrop was where Isaac first discovered spirituality. He says he used to sleep with the light on and often felt presences around him.

That same sensibility has played nicely into his career as a writer and film director.

At just age 18, Isaac wrote his first short film Entropy about a man dealing with mortality.

He has directed short films and documentaries, acted in Vernon God Little and Te Waka Hui onstage, and recently played the character Tom in the Māori TV series Ahikaaroa.

In 2013, Isaac received the Best Emerging Director award at the Inaugural Māori Land Film Festival for his short film Tamanui.  

This year, he was one of two recipients of the Ngā Manu Pīrere Award.