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Johnson Witehira – hot property on the streets of Wellington

Johnson Witehira – hot property on the streets of Wellington

Johnson and artwork

Johnson Witehira’s artwork hits the streets of Wellington for the second time this year. This time Witehira, supported by the Wellington City Council, is bringing Waituhi: a street art project, to this year’s Matariki festivities – gracing the wall of Opera House Lane.

For Johnson this project is another chance to bring something Māori into the urban landscape. “Often I find myself standing on a Wellington street and I’ll be hard pressed to see anything Māori. Street art is a great way to reach the public and being able to put my art out there means I can bring it to the people.”

The Land of Tara, is the latest exhibition to appear in the Courtenay Place light boxes. Later this month Johnson will be working with the Wellington City Gallery to create a typographic artwork for Te Wiki o te Reo Māori. Then he’ll be producing works for The New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, in response to Hone Tuwhare's poem, We Who live in Darkness. Wellington’s Lux Festival has commissioned Johnson to produce an artwork to be projected on a huge scale. Recently, his work was also displayed in Times Square on 34 billboards across three days.

All up, Witehira has five different projects running during July and August in Wellington.

“His work is high impact, accessible and proudly asserts our cultural history,” says Katie Taylor-Duke, Arts Advisor for the Council. “Witehira’s proposal for Waituhi was a thoughtful interpretation of the brief. He clearly addressed the project objectives and came up with a design that responded to the site – both to its geographical past and to its contemporary evolution as a busy laneway.”

Before working on the design concept Johnson spoke to local Māori authority Liz Melish on her thoughts about the site, its significance to Taranaki Whanui ki te upoko o te Ika, and the themes.

“My design for this project synthesizes ideas from the three key themes – the site and its significance, matariki and kaitiakitanga – into a captivating visual narrative.”

Opera House Lane was identified as a good site for the mural because it has an interesting past – once part of the shoreline that bordered Te Aro Pā and a place for gathering kai (food) for local iwi. It’s also prone to graffiti, and has been undergoing an upgrade to make it safer and more accessible.

This is the first time a street art component has been included as part of the Matariki festival. The aim of the project is to take the festivities and theme of Matariki to a wider audience – beyond the spaces of the galleries, to enliven a culturally rich part of the city with a new artwork that may challenge or humour viewers and that will give them a sense of pride in the spaces they occupy.

“I’m a huge fan of a number of street artists including Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Aotearoa’s own, Askew1. Though I create the design, the work will come together with the help from many people including other artists and friends, and those behind the scenes at council who will help with the production. Maybe it’s a Māori thing, or being part of a big family, but I like working like this. You never feel like all the pressure is on you because there is so much support.”

Johnson begins work on Waituhi in Opera House Lane starting 28 June, when Pleiades – the Seven Sisters constellation – is visible.


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