Te Wheke – Cityzenkane’s and Stevei Houkamau’s giant new work on a wall in Wellington’s Bond Street. Click here for larger version
by Bruce Mahalski
I first met Cityzenkane(CZK) at a street art event in Sunderland (Street Art Heroes) organised by Fitzrovia Noir in Northern England in 2014. I’d seen a few photos of his work that the event organiser had shown me but I didn’t really think much of it until I saw it in the flesh.
It’s always been bloody difficult to take a good photo of a sculpture (let alone a painting) and the levels of details in CZK’s work do not always come across in a photograph. You literally have to see his work to believe it.
If photographing CZK’s work is hard, words aren’t much good either. ‘Alien’ and ‘insectoid’ spring to mind but the work is also soft, spiritual and somewhat sexual. Some of it looks distinctly Indian or South East Asian and his giant installation in Gotenburg last year reminds me of Angor Wat in Cambodia (if H.R Giger had been the architect!) There are definitely links to Giger and the world of science fiction in CZK’s sculptures and I suspect that if Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro ever sees the Gotenburg installation he might well try and buy it to use as one of the back-drops for his long-awaited movie adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic alien-horror story, ‘At the Mountains of Madness.’
“I’m very much influenced by the complexity of nature, ancient cultures and symbolism. In terms of artists – Andy Goldsworty, Anish Kapoor, HR Giger, Blu Blu, Banksy, Phlegm and ROA – are all gods” (CZK) .
As for CZK himself. He’s the ultimate enigma. This grey-haired survivor of the English rave scene and hard drinking Buddhist likes to meet people and share his craft. I was lucky enough to witness the remarkable results of a workshop he ran at a art centre in Northern England with group of disabled artists. After showing the group how he first made his own pieces out of clay, he encouraged them to make something similar themselves. When they’d finished their sculptures, Tom (CZK’s partner) took the work away and cast it in glass. These beautiful glass sculptures were then attached to the outside of the art centre.
CSK uses lots of materials to make his sculptures but most are originally made and carved from clay before being moulded and cast using hard wearing exterior polymers and plasters such as jesmonite and winter-stone. Before they go on the wall they’re reinforced and padded internally with rebar, fibreglass and foam and then attached to the wall with heavy duty bolts. These sculptures are not going to fall off – even in a Wellington earthquake.
I knew that CZK admired the indigenous art of the New Zealand Maori so I got together with local street-art facilitation group ‘Vivid Wellington’ and ‘Havana Coffee Works’ to bring him to Wellington for the Vivid Wellington Street Art Festival.
After a traditional Maori welcome at The Wellington Museum for CZK and his crew of Tom (chief fabricator) and Gaz (documentor) the artist led a workshop with fifteen artists from local art groups. Clay was the medium and the octopus was the theme. Why the octopus? We’ll get to that in a minute. Afterwards the resulting work was fired and spray-painted and will soon be installed as part of a temporary display at the Museum along with some of CZK’s own work.
Afterwards CZK moved into his temporary studio supplied by the Wellington City Art Centre and started brain-storming with his collaboration partner Stevei Houkamau. Stevei is a noted Maori uku or clay artist who Vivid had brought in to give CZK a thorough tutorial in Maori art and culture. One of the things they discussed was the great ocean explorer Kupe and his epic battle with a particularly troublesome giant octopus (wheke) which helped to shape the local geography around the city.
After almost three weeks of sculpting, carving, moulding and casting both individual and collaborative works (including of course a giant octopus) they were ready to install the work on the side of the Economous Building (Great Name!) in the centre of the city.
After two strenuous days of work by CSK and Tom using heavy duty equipment to bolt the sculptures into the wall, it was time to paint in around them to make the finished piece.
With help from another local Maori artist, Miriama Grace-Smith, the sculptures were joined with traditional black and white designs to make a powerful portrait of Kupe resplendent in all his mana over the vanquished octopus below.
“The large disks on the mural with the red are from the woman who Kupe left behind on the coast when he fought the wheke in Cook Strait. At first they thought he had died and they scraped their skin to draw blood as a sign of grief. That’s how ‘Red Rocks’ on the coast came to be. The 2D designs are traditional Maori kowhaiwhai pattern incorporating Pacific symbols to acknowledge where we came from (Hawakii) and also to acknowledge our ancestors and where Te Wheke and Kupe started their fight. (Stevei Houkamau)
Bruce Mahalski is a street artist and organiser of the Vivid Wellington Street Art Festival