Leilani Kake

Representative image of MALE – Māori or Polynesian (2014)
Lenticular print, framed

Artwork and essay originally produced for Between Wind and Water, Enjoy Contemporary Art Space (2015)




MALE – Māori or Polynesian (2014) is an exploratory work that stems from research and reflections of friends and family who are currently going through or have been through theNew Zealand judicial system. The title of this exhibition, Between Wind andWater, is a nautical term that describesa moment when a boat is in turbulent seas. I’ve interpreted this as a times when people have made choices in their lives and are in a period of flux, trying to keep their heads above the water.

My work is a lenticular print comprised of three portraits of family members: my brother and two cousins, who each fit the description of male, Māori or Polynesian. They are all of mixed Māori, Cook Islands and European ancestry, int heir early twenties and have varying aspirations. From afar you see one young man, then the closer you get to the image, it changes, morphing into the other young men. Like the viewer, society must be challenged to stop and reflect, get closer, participate and investigate in order to realise that perspective can be skewed through our own personal and social cultural lenses.

The accompanying Identikit drawing activity invited gallery visitors to create composite sketches from one of three customised Identikit booklets featuring some familiar faces from New Zealand’s sports and entertainment industries.The exercise, along with my work, pushes us to consider our judgement of others and ask, who is he? Brother or other? Criminal or victim?

Programming and Representation

When I watch Police Ten 7, I see young men who represent our sons, brothers, fathers-to-be… men that deserve to be heard and supported to achieve rather than victimised. My brother laughs loudly when watching Police Ten 7; I tell him to turn it off because all it does is reiterate the stereotypes that young Māori men are cheeky, dumb or angry, and that young Polynesian men are alcoholic brawlers. He responds with,“Well, it’s the truth and it’s funny!”

But whose truth?

The act of filming young, emotionally vulnerable Māori and Polynesian men acting as larrikins for reality television entertainment is thinly veiled exploitation of some of society’s most socially oppressed and systemically disadvantaged communities. As a parent, I worry that my son and nephew will watch and believe that this is cool and funny. But more importantly I’m concerned that we, as Māori and Polynesians in New Zealand, are fodder for the masses through a lens of systemic racism supported by public institutions and media platforms that sanction this sort of broadcasting.

Recently I stood in line at the Rialto cinema in Newmarket, Auckland waiting to buy tickets to watch an Argentinian movie, The Mystery of Happiness. My partner and I stand out as the ‘other’ in a sea of predominantly Pākehā or white middle-class New Zealanders. I look to my left and see three huge posters promoting the new movie, The Dead Lands. James Rolleston, known for his role in Boy, Lawrence Makoare, known as one of the meanest Orks from Lord of the Rings fame, and Te Kohe Tuhaka, the Shortland Street hottie. These three talented Māori male actors looked awesome, and yet I sighed. Still the Noble Savage, native warrior, angry Māori male.

We see Rolleston on the Vodafone advertisements acting cheeky and unintelligent and Tuhaka as an undercover cop in a gang that lashes out at a female character, but where are the representations of our Māori thinkers, leaders, fathers that say “I love you, son”, and husbands that show they care?

Prominent Māori academic, Leonie Pihama made public her views on TheDead Lands questioning whether the film actually qualifies as a Māori film in the way the pioneers of Māori cinema would see it, “They were always of the view that a Māori film is a film about our people, that is written by our people, that is directed and produced by our people. That the control of the image and representation is in the hands of Māori. When we talk about what is a Māori film, this film does not actually fit the notion of how we would control our image and I think that is a really big issue when we look at the negative stereotyping, primarily of Māori men in this film, but also the kind of sideline image of Māori women”.1

Professor Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Special Rapporteur to the United Nations, was appointed to report on indigenous issues in New Zealand, referred by the CERD Committee (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination) following the Foreshore and Seabed Act (2004). He concluded that the treatment of Māori people and issues was of special concern, and highlighted, “a systematic negative description of Māori in media coverage, an issue that should be addressed through the anti-racism provisions of New Zealand’s Human Rights Act”. Society, with the help of the media, shapes the way we view ourselves and others.

Poor Traits

Dualism in Western portraiture or the separation of soul and body has historically seen the head become the home of the soul. The practice of Physiognomy (the definition of personality through facial characteristics) in the 19th century calculated socio-economic potential, racial intellect and hierarchy based purely on how sloped a brow was, or how dark a man’s skin was. This imperial perspective was the basis of the ‘Noble Savage’ ideal. Consequently early portraiture of Māori and Polynesian males focussed more on the body, and physical exoticism can still be seen in contemporary mainstream entertainment and advertising. The body is often linked to the external and material world. The Māori and Polynesian male face is reduced to joker or aggressor, visceral and emotive rather than intellectual and reasoned. Quanchi states, “The few pictorial histories from the Pacific region have…treated images as evidence… suggesting to readers, as did the photographers of the last century, that what was being offered was “truth” or “from real life.”2 (Quanchi, pg.3)

Dissecting the colonial residue on representations of “truth” in our Oceanic histories is a process of decolonising the gaze for the photographer, subject and audience. Being conscious that the photographer-subject relationship is constructed of intention and power, and being critical of the representations of identity as “truth”, in the past and the present is, in my opinion, an important issue surrounding the image maker. But I also agree with Jo Smith’s assertion that, “while colonial photography objectified indigenous peoples, these technologies also preserved that past and enable that past to be re-activated with a palpable force in the here and now – for indigenous peoples” 3(Smith pg.116).

MALE – Māori or Polynesian (2014) is the first part of an ongoing body of work and accompanying research. I’m interested in how personal identity in the 21st century is affected by misrepresentation and the reverberations of colonisation, and how this affects Māori, Polynesian and New Zealand society at large. Further to this, whether there is a link between the ways Māori and Polynesian males are represented visually in New Zealand society, and the over-representation of Māori in prisons.


1. Pihama, Leonie. (2014) Interviewed by Radio Waatea, October 2014. Source: https://waateanews.com/2014/10/30/the-dead-lands-slated-for-negative-stereotypes/

2. Quanchi, Max. (1997) Imaging, Representation and Photography of the PacificIslands. Pacific Studies, Vol.20, No.4. December 1997

3. Smith, Jo. (2011) “Aotearoa/New Zealand: An Unsettled State in a Sea of Islands”, Settler Colonial Studies. February 2011.Volume 1, 111-131.


Leilani Kake (b. 1977) is a video installation artist and educator based in Ōtara, South Auckland. Having exhibited broadly throughout Aotearoa New Zealand at venues including Auckland Art Gallery, City Gallery Wellington, Waikato Museum and Fresh Gallery Ōtara, Kake has also featured in exhibitions in Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, France, Morocco, Taiwan and the United States.

Through ritual, language, pattern and form, Kake’s work explores the universal human condition experienced through an indigenous lens. Her work has taken the form of large scale projections, multichannel installation, tīvaevae (Cook Islands quilting), photographic stills and animation. She holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Auckland and Te Tohu Pōkairua Diploma of Māori Language Fluency from Te Wānanga Takiura o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori o Aotearoa.


2011 – Ngā Hau E Whā – The Four Winds, Fresh Gallery Ōtara, South Auckland

2009 – Tino Rangatira Tanga, Corban Estate Arts Centre, Auckland

2008 – Artiki / Talking Tivaevae, MIC Toi Rerehiko Media & Interdisciplinary Arts Centre, Auckland


2017 – Asia-Pacific Regional Workshop on Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development, UNESCO New Delhi, India

2011 – Women in Film and Television (WIFT) Mentoring Programme, Auckland

2008 – Salamander Gallery Emerging Artist Award, Creative New Zealand Arts Pasifika Awards

2007 – ARTsource Recipient, Arts Regional Trust (now Te Taumata Toi a Iwi)


2022 – Toi is Rongoaa curated by Margaret Aull, Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato, Hamilton

2022 – Moonwalkerz curated by Nigel Borell, Taste of Pasifika Festival, Auckland.

2022 – Puhi Ariki curated by Nigel Borell, Wairau Māori Art Gallery, Hundertwasser Art Centre, Whangarei

2021 – Hohou Te Rongo curated by Margaret Aull, Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts, University of Waikato, Hamilton

2020 – Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art curated by Nigel Borell, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

2020 – Toi is Rongoā: Whenua Ūkaipō – Connectedness, Public Trust Hall, Wellington

2020 – 20:20 curated by In*ter*Is*land Collective, London, UK

2019 – Finding Emory: A Poster Show curated by Ema Tavola, Vunilagi Vou, South Auckland

2019 – Puhoro ō mua, Puhoro ki tua – In association with the 9th International Indigenous Artists Gathering held at Tuurangawaewae Marae, Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato, Hamilton

2019 – Māori Moving Image: An Open Archive, The Dowse Art Museum, Wellington / Christchurch Art Gallery

2018 – A Maternal Lens curated by Ema Tavola, 4th International Biennial of Casablanca, Morocco

2018 – Ata Haere I Te Wao / A Walk in the Park, Pukepuke/Nathan Homestead & Auckland Botanic Gardens, South Auckland

2017 – The Perpetual Flux of Transitional Otherness curated by Ema Tavola, Olly, Auckland

2015 – Between Wind and Water curated by Ema Tavola, Enjoy Contemporary Art Space, Wellington

2014 – I Stand With You curated by Luisa Tora, Fresh Gallery Ōtara, South Auckland

2012 – Home AKL curated by Ron Brownson, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Auckland

2011 – Rencontres Internationales, Centre Pompidou and the Gaité Lyrique, Paris, France

2011 – Niu Warrior, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Sydney, Australia

2010 – Native Coconut curated by Ema Tavola, Fresh Gallery Ōtara, South Auckland

2010 – manu toi; artists and messengers curated by Nigel Borell, Māngere Arts Centre Nga Tohu o Uenuku, South Auckland

2009 – Pan Pacific Nation curated by Jaimey Hamilton, Arts at Marks Garage, Honolulu, Hawaii

2009 – Le Folauga curated by Ron Brownson & Fulimalo Pereira, Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Taiwan

2008 – Meat & Lollies curated by Janet Lilo & Ema Tavola, Fresh Gallery Ōtara, South Auckland

2008 I Te Marama – Into the Light, Nathan Homestead, South Auckland

2007 – Longitude curated by Giles Peterson, The Art Studio, Rarotonga, Cook Islands

2007 – Fresh Gallery Otara turns 1! curated by Ema Tavola, Fresh Gallery Ōtara, South Auckland

2006 – What’s Going On, Fresh Gallery Ōtara, South Auckland

2006 – (Re)Locating Home curated by Ema Tavola, Alliance Française de Suva, Fiji / Fresh Gallery Ōtara, South Auckland

2006 – Launch Exhibition curated by Ema Tavola, Fresh Gallery Ōtara, South Auckland

2004 – South Contained Unit curated by Ema Tavola, ArtNet Gallery, South Auckland

2001 – Red Earth Project, Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Auckland