Inspired by Chelsea Sugar Refinery’s iconic CSR golden syrup, and a rather well-known, somewhat sentimental (some may even say syrupy) Kiwi artist of Māori portraits from times gone by, I created this Warholesque repeat design to accompany the article for the book.
Ah, the quaint lacuna of Kiwi popular culture.
I am pretty sure it was actually “unpopular culture” until maybe Peter Jackson got famous in Hollywood, because I really don’t think the rest of the world was that interested until then.
So, what comprises Aotearoa’s “identity” in this respect? It is not actually the first time that these questions have been put to me to answer. The reason, I suppose, that they have been repeatedly asked is, because – much like “what is love?”, and more pertinently in this case, “what is art?” the answer is for the most part more slippery than holding an unwrapped Whittaker’s in a hot car on a summer’s day. I can definitely tell you that a “Hobbit” is not, and will never be Kiwiana, ever. As hard as they try to spin it. Sorry about it.
Geographical distance is really an over-riding factor in developing uniqueness I think. Distance also, as a long term ex-pat, gives me a great deal of objectivity. In fact if Aotearoa was further away from everything else, Australia would neither be able to make jokes about New Zealand being a sixth state, or steal most of our good shit and say it is theirs (Pharlap, Pavlova, Split Enz, the list goes on). However It would not, unfortunately, stop them from making jokes about our bumming sheep.
I am, of course, seeing these questions from a perspective of an artist-slash-designer, for the most part ex. I now spend more time researching and writing about Kiwi food and drink brands of time gone by, and sometimes recreating the lost artwork for what I consider, as a seasoned eye, the best examples of the genre. This is what I do with my Longwhitekid online journal.
The “Liki Tiki” apparel design from the popular “Mr. Vintage” brand. Image courtesy of www.mrvintage.co.nz. P.S., it looks like they’ve stopped making these however there’s a company in Australia called Mighty Ape that may still have some.
Truth be told, there isn’t anything that unique for the most part about New Zealand popular cultural/design identity until more recent times when we actually became conscious of having an “image”, and a need to articulate that accordingly. In fact, although the changeover to domestic manufacture was really a happening thing by the 1930s – well into the 1960s items from “the mother country” were unbelievably still seen as “better stuff” – and we still at least in part imported everything from chocolate to board games and toys, drinks, children’s annuals, sewing accoutrements, sticking plaster and pharmaceuticals, cleaning products, infant foods and formulas, and magazines.
Amazingly, it wasn’t until the early 1970s that we switched from “God Save The Queen” to our own anthem. The fact that we were tied to British apron strings so late in the piece probably makes a valid contribution as to why exactly we feel such a necessity to articulate so strongly an identity in the form of things undeniably Aotearoan, if that is a word (it is now).
This perhaps is a separate question if you consider it from a financial point of view – and the rewards that are to be reaped, by deliberately constructing a palatable package that sums up the country’s face. Actually, I only want to make it a separate question because I find talk about economics versus culture, and the corporatisation of anything and everything – not only boring, but repulsive. Hey, that’s just me.
Sticker set published from 1980 through the first half of the decade to promote Hi Life Yoggit. These stickers were popular on leather school satchels and exercise books (well, maybe not this particular one). The dodgy stereotypes did not go unnoticed, apparently resulting in school age children dubbing the brand “Lo Life”. Image courtesy of Steve Williams collection.
Money matters aside, the concern likely has a lot to do with sentimentality; a luxury which is seemingly now afforded in lavish amounts to the X+ Y generation with too many things, and too much time on their hands to think about stuff. Certainly when I post examples online, undeniably the strongest reaction is for anything that dates between that late 1960s and the late 1980s. Apart from the reason I just explained – this is simply because the audience not only have the easy technology to inter/act on those memories – but also because they’re not dead (yet, but wait for it).
I view the shortlist of purported “Kiwiana” icons as a rather middling bunch – with no unique foodstuffs making it in besides perhaps Edmonds, Tip-Top, Wattie’s and L&P. Wouldn’t Muttonbirds be more appropriate than canned beans and fizzy drink? Just saying.
If you want to strategically pinpoint that uniqueness factor – it is actually a very narrow thing, and one definitely needs to utilize strictness when it comes to categorizing “true Kiwiana”. It needs to tick all the Paua shell boxes, so to speak.
Art and design from the tourism genre has always been unquestionably unique. This is something that has been focussed on recently and explored by Peter Alsop in his book “Selling the Dream” and the series of essays within which explore the marketing of early New Zealand tourism, so I need not elaborate.
“Selling The Dream” by Peter Alsop, published in 2012 by Craig Potton, focuses on the beautiful and unique art of New Zealand Tourism.
When I look at examples that truly set us apart they often have a reference to indigenous culture, because quite frankly – it’s all pretty honkified and spongy white until you meld the two; sort of like sprinkling hundreds ‘n’ thousands on Māori Bread. There you have it! You know that you won’t find that unique aspect anywhere else in the world.
You can include anything with Kiwis, ferns, Tuis, and tikis. “Maori” apples and “Native” sauce are other, ancient, examples that spring to mind; They are brand trademarks that contained imagery that may have been acceptable at one time, but would of course be highly inappropriate now. And more pertinently, were done without any sense of humour – which is even more offensive in my opinion (but, as seems an almost full-time occupation for so many now, it would give the opportunity to tut-tut disapprovingly) .
Along with the Hi-Life yoghurt brand of the early eighties which issued a sticker set including “Freddie Fruit Salad” with his pink clogs, limp wrist and handbag – those hoary potboilers would never fly in contemporary times. And in a way I am sad, for the more inappropriate and ludicrous those old rarities are in our current PC-gone-mad climate, the more I like them. After all, who doesn’t like to point and laugh, particularly if it’s at ourselves? It shows how self-confident and sure of our identity we are. …doesn’t it. Well, doesn’t it?
Solo version of the can design in the original 1970s colours, to accompany the article for the book “In Search of the Vernacular”.
The process during a period of the formulation of a conscious identity is always the fascinating part. It’s exactly the not knowing how it is going to turn out. It’s like baking something from a new recipe (not Lamingtons – I think the Aussies can claim that – and I say fair trade; they are welcome to that one if we get to keep our meringue icon).
There is always that “tipping point” – the moment where one becomes so self-aware of an identity that the next step is inevitably self-referential. And from there it rapidly descends into the fetid sewer of cliché and, ergo, parody. Which is great if it is done well and you are predisposed to cynicism like me; I don’t think anyone would argue that Kiwis aren’t experts at this when it comes to advertising (think the Toyota Hi-Lux “Bugger”, or NZI Insurance “Everyone Steals Your Stuff” campaigns in particular).
All that said, who has summed these aspects up best in my opinion? I think clothing company Mr. Vintage, when they did a brilliantly simple design called “Liki Tiki” just a few years back, which featured the traditional Māori figurine slurping lasciviously on a Frosty Boy cone. Enough said.
Licking the Tiki : The Definition of Identity was first published in 2013 as part of “In Search of the Vernacular” a publication by The Cultural Mapping Project in association with Depot Artspace and The Museum of the Vernacular; a collection of artwork and writing documenting a quest to uncover Aotearoa’s rich, diverse, evolving and distinct cultural identity.
All content of Longwhitekid copyright Darian Zam © 2014. All rights reserved.