Dr Brett Graham (Major 1980 - 83) OC of the Month - September 2021
Wednesday, 22 September 2021
Dr Brett Graham (Major 1980 -1983)

Photo credit: Brett Graham, Govett Brewster Art Gallery. 'O'Pioneer' Sculpture, Tai Moana Tai Tangata Exhibition, Cheska Brown - Photographer.

For our September ‘OC of the Month’ we talk to Old Collegian, Dr Brett Graham (Major 1980 -1983) who was recently awarded the prestigious Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate Award which celebrates New Zealand’s most outstanding artists.

Brett is a sculptor who creates large scale artworks and installations through the medium of contemporary art, architecture, and carving. His work focuses on the historic relationship between Māori and Pākehā as well as current environmental and political issues. His most recent exhibition Tai Moana Tai Tangata was developed with the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth and has been described as one of the most impressive and ambitious solo exhibitions in recent times.

Tai Moana Tai Tangata - A cautionary tale about human endeavour in Aotearoa, New Zealand is currently on display at City Gallery in Wellington until October 31.

After leaving King’s, Brett went on to achieve a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) from the University of Auckland, NZ. 1985-88, followed by a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from the University of Hawai’i, USA. 1989 – 1991, and then finally a Doctor of Fine Arts (DocFA) from the University of Auckland, NZ. 2001 -2005. 

Whilst Brett currently lives in Tāmaki Makaurau, he has travelled extensively and undertaken residences throughout The Pacific, North America, and Europe.

Graham's work has been featured at the 2017 Honolulu Biennial and the 2006 and 2010 Sydney Biennales. His collaboration with Rachael Rakena, Āniwaniwa was exhibited at the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007). He has work in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, and the Honolulu Museum.

In 2002 Brett was invited back to the College to receive an Honours Tie for his services to Art.

Old Collegian of the Month Interview
  • When you were at King’s College, what did you want to do for a career after you graduated?
I always wanted to be an artist. At school at that time the arts weren’t encouraged as a career option. One needed to be pretty single-minded to go against the grain.
A number of talented artists passed through the art department at that time, including Francis Pound, Ian Jervis, Selwyn Price and Max Jackson.
  • What is your best memory of your time at King’s College?  
My best memory was a summer trip organised by Ron Algie to Tongariro National Park. He invited a group of us from the 4th form. It was a kind of team building exercise that could have turned into ‘Lord of the Flies’ but all I remember is being exposed to the phenomenal landscape for the first time.
  • Which staff member do you remember most favourably from King's College and why?
Many of the staff made good impressions and were good role models. Mr Whelan taught New Zealand history and spoke of Māori history empathetically. I admired Rev. Buttle greatly. After thirty years of teaching at King’s he became the Missioner at the Auckland City Mission. I respected him more in that role, for practicing what he preached. LCM Saunders gave me a book, ‘The Pickwick Papers’ that he had been awarded when he was at school, for a drawing I did during French class (which probably explains why I was bad at French). Don Binney and Sir Thomas Davis were not staff members but received Honours Ties when I was at school. They made a mark.
  • What advice would you give to your school age self?
Laugh at the racist taunts to yourself or anyone who wasn’t ‘normal’ and anglo-saxon. They’ll be on the wrong side of history.
  • Tell us about yourself now and what you do for a career?
I’ve been a professional artist for quite some time. It’s great when you can turn your ‘passion’ into a ‘vocation’ (not a ‘vacation’!)  My exhibition ‘Tai Moana Tai Tangata’ is now showing at the City Gallery in Wellington. It does a double take on colonisation. In some ways I’m still reacting to what I learnt at school or didn’t learn rather.
  • What does/did your job involve?   
I work for myself however exhibitions like ‘Tai Moana Tai Tangata’ involved quite a large crew of people, from skilled carpenters to extraordinary mould makers, to film makers and animators. One great experience was meeting John Ewen, another King’s Old Boy and retired equine vet. He and his wife Susan let me use their barn as a studio.
  • What are the most challenging parts of your job?
The cliché is true, it can be ‘feast or famine’. It takes a little bit of insanity to work outside the square and ignore people ‘concerned’ about your financial welfare, constantly telling you to do something ‘practical’. If there’s no risk, there can be no victory.
  • What would you say is your biggest achievement to date?
Artists will always tell you that their last work is their best work. I’m no exception.
Go and see ‘Tai Moana Tai Tangata’! I caught up with David Johnston at the opening, who was at King’s with me. I enjoy learning what school friends are doing now. He’s a professor at Massey University.
  • What is the single thing that would most improve the quality of your life?
There is no material thing. There have been quite a few sacrifices along the way, like having a family. My son, Taiwere, is a musician. I'm proud that he is engaged in the arts. 
  • What are the three objects you would take with you to a desert island?
A guitar (in a middle age crisis I’ve started to learn), maybe a copy of Songlines, a great book by Bruce Chatwin about nomadic travel, which I long for being trapped in another Auckland lockdown, and lastly, a waka hourua, so I could sail home when I got bored.
  • How would you like to be remembered?
The thing is to live life well. Now.  

If you would like to nominate an Old Collegian for OC of the Month please get in touch with Nicola Davies at kcoca@kingscollege.school.nz