[As published in March/April BayBuzz magazine.]
Our ongoing series discovering the talents of the many artists of Hawke’s Bay. 

Phillip John Smith

He might be Hastings’ greatest painter you’ve never heard of … yet. At just twenty-seven, Phillip John Smith’s work eschews definition, scrawling all over genre from abstraction to expressionism, realism to surrealism. Hungry to hone his craft, he absorbs influence from disparate sources, regurgitating prolifically all over his canvases. 

Early artistic experiments were discouraged, provoking concerns over the darkness of his subjects, the strange insights they provided to an addled mind. But despite his attempts at suppression, the ideas festered, germinating beneath the surface to emerge on his skin. 

He began tattooing himself, “drunk, for shits and giggles. I had no interest in art whatsoever. I didn’t care for it,” he remembers. Rather, expression attempted to purge his mind of the corruption inside, to drag it into the light. This remains a central tenet of his work, exposing and examining the ugly underbelly of an unquiet psyche, finding comfort in the macabre. 

Heinous imagery mottles his entire left side, mostly self-executed by his own right hand; his right side clean in a rare gesture of self-control. “Everyone tells you to be yourself. If I’m myself, I’ll end up in jail or dead,” he obtusely explains. 

This manifests in his alter ego, KooKoo the Clown, born from a self-made mask, used to take on a new persona, married with his considerable physical skills. The flips and tricks he picked up in Hastings’ concrete wastelands were honed by a brief youthful foray into MMA, the international cage fighting death match sensation. For Smith, clowning began as a tactic to draw the ire of hoodrats who plagued his childhood friends on Hastings’ streets. With such an insatiable artistic spirit, performance art was a natural progression. A Blossom Parade favourite by day, by night lighting up Spaceship with the Fucked-Up Family Circus, Smith as KooKoo channels anarchic glee from pavement to stage. 

A walking juxtaposition, the ‘ugly’ moniker scrawled across canvases and etched into his face contrasts with his objectively beautiful visage. An obsession with filth contradicts the extreme cleanliness of his practice, his love affair with bleach. If FitzGerald’s measure of intelligence as the ability to simultaneously contain opposing ideas is true, then he is a genius. 

His preferred materials are free, painting on whatever large surfaces he can scavenge – curtains hold paint, don’t require priming, and are easily salvaged, along with disused house paints. 90% of his work, from laying down background to fine detail, is done with a 40mm brush. Waiting for paint to dry is his favourite part of the process. 

“I make a mark. Then make another mark that makes that mark better. I have no plan. Every time you put the paint on you see something else. It’s intuitive, mind and body work together to make something new… to create something I’ve never seen before, something I thought wasn’t possible,” he elaborates, “I’m trying to portray human emotion so I paint humans. They have no culture, no race, no gender, they’re all me but they’re not me, they’re a little bit of everyone, inspired from my mind … I despise copying photos, it’s not art, it’s design. I’m not a printer, I’m a human.” 

Murals and contributions to group shows at his Spaceship studio aside, despite his huge and varied oeuvre, Drunk and Ugly in Hastings, is the first public opportunity to view the fruits of Smith’s tortured toiling in the darkness. Intentionally shunned by conventional galleries, like the work itself, he forces the viewer into an alien, uncomfortable space, consciously raising a middle finger to the art establishment who cannot help but sit up and take notice. 

Drunk and Ugly in Hastings is showing at 804 Heretaunga Street West from 4-17 April. 

Waiaroha Kaiwhakairo 

Hastings Council’s shadow hides a hive of activity. The Waiaroha project is in progress. Heavy machinery and high vis construction of our new water treatment plant, council’s answer to the increasingly dire water crisis, catch the eyes of passersby. 

Adjacent, in the Heretaunga Tamatea Settlement Trust-owned Tuaka building, a team of carvers chip away at what will be the whare ako, a place of learning combining whakapapa and Māori science to teach future generations to preserve this most precious, threatened resource. 

Master craftsman, Charles Paringatai, carries the torch of tradition both in his kōrero and his practice. “We’re bringing awareness to the ecology of water before colonisation. Before we had books we told and recorded history through our whakairo, our kōwhaiwhai, our tukutuku,” he explains. 

Together with fellow kaiwhakairo, Nathan Foote, Caine Tawhai and Phil Belcher, a wealth of pūrākau tinged with mauri and wairua are poured into this project, along with prodigious skill, meticulous planning and heartfelt intention. 

Enormous tōtara logs, sourced from the Manawatū River, are sketched with chalk, hacked with adze and power tools then refined with steel chisels and occasionally traditional pounamu, revealing forms rendered expertly with stunning surface detail. 

Informed by stakeholders, they chart the kōrero they wish to convey, dividing component parts and narratives between them to achieve compositional balance in their complementary styles, converting pūrākau to symbolism-laden imagery. 

The poukaiawha (front pole on the porch of the Whare Ako) at the piece’s heart, charts the whakapapa of atuatanga. Where it meets the outstretched arms of the maihi, is Io Matawai, the supreme being particular to the Kahungunu telling of this tale, and his bride, Whaea Rikoriko, personifying the glimmer of light on water’s surface. From their union came the universally recognised Ranginui, ingrained at the tekoteko topknot, his son Tāne-nui-a-rangi, the forest god, who ascended to heaven to receive the kete of knowledge, nestled between his legs. His mother, Papatūānuku provides balance at the base of the poukaiawha, representing their separation which resulted in the creation of the world as we know it. Below Tāne-nui-a-rangi his consort Hine-tūpari-maunga, made from clay and mother of rocks – Pūtoto, Tuamatua, and crucially to the educational element of this tale, Parawhenuamea, who emerged as pure spring water only to gather the silty maunga run-off that today causes so much environmental grief. Another of Tāne’s wives, Hine-i-te-repo, personifies the wetlands, the once abundant precious fibres – harakeke, raupō and so forth. 

Flanking the poukaiawha are twin maihi, depicting kaitiakitanga, guardianship of our waterways. Karukaru, ruahāpia, ruamano, pāpāwai, moremore and crucially takaparata all feature. According to received kōrero, the latter travelled up the Ngaruroro on the Tākitimu, the Kahungunu waka, before morphing into a hammerhead shark, burrowing into our aquifer to create our vital clean water source. Takotowai, a derivative of Pūtoto, is the personification of our natural filtration system. Her many children of stone mated with water women – Rākāhore with Hine-maukuuku, making clay; and Makatiti with Hine-waipipi to produce shingle. Here on the pare and whakawae, pūrākau expertly and intricately rendered in whakairo filter ecological truth through mātauranga Māori. 

The waharoa tell of eleven heavens, each with complementary male whatukura and female mareikura, the cross section dominion of the twelfth and highest heaven. Illustrated, too, is the Kahungunu whakataukī, Ko Heretaunga Haukunui, Ararau, Haaro te Kaahu,Takoto Noa – Heretaunga of the life-giving dew, of the hundred pathways, the vision of the far-sighted hawk, left to us, the humble servants. The shape of the hawk echoes in the carved forms and will be laser cut into fabricated steel that will cast shadows with the sun’s movement, referencing, not just the local whakataukī, but Māui’s escape from the fiery hands of Mahuika. The origin of manu too, are alluded to, Tāne foiling the plot by Whiro to steal the kete of knowledge on his descent from heaven, bringing with him the birds and winged creatures. Abundant native birds are an integral indicator of a thriving waterway. 

From divinity and myth to practical partnership, the amo tell of here and now. Each side is different, one depicting Kahungunu, representing mana whenua, the other the councillor, tangata tiriti. Yet the halves join together as one, as we must collaborate, to preserve increasingly scarce resources. 

The kōrero of rangatiratanga and kaitiakitanga is idealistically writ large in wood, but the truth of the mahi tells a different story. 

This project runs three months behind because the tōtara they needed from the Tukituki was rendered inaccessible, a direct consequence of our changing climate. Such is the scale of their mahi they must seize materials where they can, but storage is an issue. These are itinerant artists, lent a studio by crown and council while on the job, but left to hustle in an increasingly bleak funding landscape to secure workspace for future projects. 

This is the coal face of land disenfranchisement. It’s near impossible to find a local Kahungunu artist with their own secure studio. As a people we need to examine how we make good on our treaty promises and give mana whenua the space they deserve to create. 


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *