Artist: Brett Graham - Wasteland

  • 16 May 2024

“Wastelands’ refers to the wetlands or ‘swamps’ that were a most valuable resource to Māori but loathed by European settlers who drained them to create pasturelands.”

Brett says his recent work has responded to the rapid depletion of natural resources since the onset of colonisation:

Colonial foundation mythologies privilege pastural lands over wetlands. Traditional indigenous food sources such as eels were replaced by cattle and sheep, and wetlands described as ‘wastelands’. 

The ‘wagon’ form covered with eels will tilt back on two wheels and have two protruding carved totara shafts. The form comes from the pātaka or carved storage house. Usually fixed on stilts and elaborately carved, the pātaka took pride of place in the village displaying the tribe’s wealth and resources.

Placing a pātaka on wheels alluded to the forced migrations of Māori because of the colonial process, people were evicted from their lands. Similarly the migratory pathways of eels to spawn in the Pacific Ocean and then return have also been interrupted.

Brett’s father was raised by the Waikato River, his father often fed the family with eels. In the waiata/song Waikato Te Awa the lyrics note the significance of eels to his tribe:

Titiro Whakakatau to kanohi

Ko Maungatautari
Ngāti Koroki

Ko Arapuni raa

Te rohe o te tuna ee! 

Look right to Maungatautari, 
the mountain of Ngāti Koroki,
to Arapuni, the area famed for its eels!



Brett Graham (Arsenale)

Brett Graham, 'Wastelands' (2024).
Photo : Maximilíano Durón/ARTnews

Who determines what is a wasteland? That’s the premise of a massive, black-painted wooden sculpture, titled Wastelands (2024), by Brett Graham (Ngāti Koroki Kahukura, Tainui). The work takes the shape of a pātaka (storehouse) that he has put on wheels. Traditionally, the appearance of a pātaka holds special significance: how ornate the carvings on one’s pātaka was a sign of wealth and prestige in the community. But Graham has subverted this by carving into his pātaka the image of eels, a traditional food source of the Tainui people. During colonization of New Zealand, the Western-imposed government passed a law that deemed swamplands, a habitat of eels and important resource for the Māori generally, as “waste,” essentially deeming them “unoccupiable land, redefining them as territories of wetland to be drained and turned towards agriculture,” per the wall text. Graham then has gathered these eels to save them, honoring their importance to the well-being of Māori people.


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