Brett Graham is one of New Zealand’s most accomplished sculptors, highly regarded for his ability to abstract complex historical and political and cultural ideas into formally strong sculptural statements. Predominantly working in wood and stone, he engages in a dual dialogue of Maori and European histories whilst adhering to the modernist emphasis on form and material quality.
His works have addressed the displacement of Pacific people through actions of colonialist powers such as the devastation of Barnaba through phosphate mining and the destruction of Bikini atoll as a site of US nuclear testing. His last exhibition at Two Rooms, Campaign Rooms continued the dialogue of cultural inequalities and post cultural anxieties looking at symbols of weaponry and war.
His collaborative work, Aniwaniwa, with Rachel Rakena at the 52nd Venice Biennale introduced the theme of water, and reflected on rising sea levels and global warming. His depiction of a settlement drowning sounded warnings for other communities dwelling on low-lying islands around the world. The idea of submersion also became a metaphor for cultural loss.
Tangaroa piri whare is an expression that describes the omnipresent power of the sea. Tangaroa is the god of the sea in Maori mythology and not only refers to the power of water and its ability to be everywhere at once, but Tangaroa is attributed with creating the first Maori carving. According to legend, Tangaroa abducted Manuruhi, son of Ruatepupuke, who had offended him, and transformed him into a wood carving to adorn his house beneath the sea. He was eventually rescued and returned to his world along with other carved posts introducing woodcarving to humanity.
In 1998 Graham was commissioned to make a work for Te Papa and in homage to the legend of Tangaroa, Graham created Te Korokoro o Te Parata, a large circular sculpture depicting swirling whirlpools of water.
In his latest exhibition, Graham looks at the devastating effects of the tsunami and its presence in the Pacific and how the ripple effect of the tidal waves reaches all parts of the ocean and affects us all. The tsunamis of Samoa in 2009, Chile in 2010, and Japan in 2011 were felt thousands of kilometers away, on coastlines on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean.
His new works are shields that we use to protect ourselves, real or imaginary, to avert disaster, malevolence, or even in our daily social interactions to avoid misunderstandings or misinterpretations. They are entitled Kesennuma, Talcahuano And Saanapu, after the three towns effected by tsunami, in Japan, Chile and Samoa respectively.
Brett Graham has been included in many major international and national exhibitions including the Biennale of Sydney, 2006 and 2010 and the Asia Pacific Triennial 1996, Queensland Art Gallery, His work, Aniwaniwa, a collaboration with Rachel Rakena, was exhibited at the 52nd Venice Biennale 2007 collateral events. Te Hokio, exhibited at the 2010 Biennale of Sydney is in the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery. His many public commissions include Kahukura, for the Tjibaou Cultural Centre in New Caledonia, Kaiwhakatere for the old Broadcasting House site, situated behind Parliament in Wellington, Whaowhia for the Auckland War Memorial Museum and most recently he has been commissioned to produce a work for the new international airport terminal in Wellington.