Recently I returned home to New Zealand. I was born in Auckland, adopted at nine days old and have spent my entire life in Australia, returning occasionally for holidays. last year my friend Alison decided it was time for me to find my people and my initial response was, “buzz off and find your own people!”. What I have experienced with most adopted people, is a sense of rejection. It just seems to come with the baggage of being given away. The crippling fear of facing birth parents and being rejected for a second time, was more than I could bear and so I had never undertaken a search for my family. But Alison had decided it was time.
First of all, it started with retrieving a pre-adoption birth certificate, who even knew such a thing existed? It is a simple process, fill out a form from a website. The piece of paper came which stated my birth mother’s name, father unrecorded and the name she gave me at birth. Then a stamp with the names of my adopted parents and the name they registered me as. I cried for two days solid. I can’t even tell you why, it’s just so deep to know you have another identity that you knew nothing about.
The second step was a trip to the Christchurch Library. We researched everything on my birth mother, she wasn’t on Facebook (that would have been too easy), so it required an appointment with Births, Deaths and Marriages, where we found her parents’ names. Alison (who missed her calling and really should have been a detective) surmised that either one of her parents could have passed away, so we scrolled through death notices and found that she was right. From my grandfather’s death notice we learned my birth mother and husband’s name. The next step could only have been divine. My friend Treena, quite unaccustomed to such acts of bravery, called a number she found in the white pages that sounded like the right person.
Of course the woman on the other end of the phone was shocked and a little freaked out, but it was in-fact the right person and two days later we sat in a cafe, sipping coffee and wondering how we had got there. When we met for the first time, it was tense. Her family still don't know I exist, but she gave me my father’s name and two photos. Old black and white photos of a man who had long since passed away, Dalbert John Kingi, (Ngāpuhi). Her biggest concern was that it was one of those tv shows, with someone about to jump out of the bushes with a camera. But this was not that, I just wanted to know where I had come from and who was my father and what was my point of origin?
It was the mid-sixties, my mother was working as a nurses aid in Auckland, blonde hair, blue eyed Pākehā girl, meets a good looking, smooth talking Māori boy who played the guitar and liked to tell stories. They had a fun filled few months and then when she moved on to Dunedin to pursue her nursing career, she found she not only had Dalbert’s memories, but she had his child as well. She gave birth to me at the Auckland hospital, adopted me out straight away and went on with her life. She didn’t tell anyone, not her family, not her friends and not my father.
Since then I have found Dalbert’s family, I am one of fourteen siblings (he had two marriages and a few extracurricular activities). I have met five of my siblings, brothers and sisters that I am so fortunate and proud to know and now I have a beautiful sister, Malta; who I just adore. When I met my brother Brownie, in Whangarei, he explained to me our whakapapa. Such an incredible history of family and culture, traced right back to before the first waka arrived in Aotearoa. For the first time in my life I felt what it meant to belong.
Of course everything has changed for me now, how can anything ever be the same? What does it mean to be Māori?
My new series of paintings comes from the process of outworking these questions of identity and celebrating beautiful Aotearoa.
Across the Waters and Where the Sea Meets the Sky are two of the first paintings of my new collection. I was researching the ancestors journey across the waters from their original homeland. They set out on their waka, being guided by the stars, in search of new land and a new life. It would have taken such courage and strength, to launch out with their families into the unknown. This is how I feel, having packed up all that I had and leaving all that I knew behind, to venture home to a land I know nothing about. It is both exciting and scary to begin again, but I feel compelled to take the journey.
Tangata Whenua, this is one of the first Māori words & concepts I understood in my journey home - people born of the land, the connection Māori have for their land & nation, the earth itself, the ancestors that have passed through the veil & the family present now. It is more than just living on a patch of ground in a house, it is what it means to belong - to a people, to a place.
Identity is such a complicated matter, because it involves the big questions of life, Why am I here? Where did I come from? Who am I? We have become who we are through both nature (our DNA makeup) and nurture (the way we are raised).
For me, the huia feather represents my own non-existence. My birth mother (pākehā) did not tell anyone that I was born, and still to this day, will not let her family know that I exist. Why is that? Is it because of the social pressure of status, unwed pregnancy, mixed race baby? Why am I still a secret?
When Governor Grey visited New Zealand in 1901, a Māori women took the tail feather of the huia bird from her hair and placed it into the hatband on the Duke's head. Upon returning to London, this stunning looking representation of social status became a fashion icon that helped to hunt the native bird to extinction. Everybody wants social acceptance.
The Silver Rose paintings are an expression of my dual identity. The silver fern is an international symbol of New Zealand, while the English are known for their roses. Being both both English and Māori descent, I am a silver rose.
When I first met my brother Brownie, he embraced me into the family, reciting our whakapapa and blessing me with the Lord’s prayer in Te Reo. He gave me the pendant from around his neck (the shape is in the painting), a koru design that he had carved from a Mother of pearl shell, and I felt such an incredible sense of belonging.
I have always favoured the colours red, black and white. In the way I dress and how I decorate my house. I never really thought much about it and my family always teased me about my obsession with these colours. Recently I started to research Māori art history and found to my surprise that red, black and white are traditional colours for Māori. Is this a coincidence? or does DNA play a significant part in who we are? Is there such a thing as cultural DNA?
Coming home has given me such permission to be myself, passionate, loud, colourful and full of life. ‘Inheritance’ is a painting about me.