Renati Waaka (Te Arawa) was raised in Rotorua, the country’s first Reo Rua (bilingual) city and hub of Māori culture. Through the powerful medium of photography he’s spinning not only Te Ao Māori but also the world on its head with work that aims to shift attitudes towards Takatāpui and minorities. Coming into his fourth year of University, Renati has been dominating the Māori art space with his visual approach to decolonisation and multiculturalism. Settling down with him after a busy summer photographing the likes of Six60, Jess B and Church & AP, he shares his approaches towards Queer-tanga and Photography as a modern Māori man.
Ko wai koe? Nō hea koe? Tell us about yourself!
Kia ora, ko Renati Waaka tōku ingoa, nō Rotorua ahau. I am a multi disciplinary artist based in Wellington. I am in my fourth year of study at Te Herenga Waka (Vic Uni) and majoring in communication design.
How does your upbringing as a Queer Māori affect your work?
My upbringing made me realise what I wanted to see represented in the media. I couldn’t see an accurate representation of myself and other minority groups, so I made it a mission of mine to give positive representation to people who feel under-represented and/or misrepresented and give a space for them to dream bigger and to see their dreams as something that is attainable, because they absolutely are.
How do you interact with Te Ao Māori as a queer person?
I navigate Te Ao with the aim to decolonise myself, and the spaces I enter. With that being said, I find comfort in knowing that pre-colonisation, queer bodies were sacred and honoured across many indigenous cultures, including Māori. Despite what colonisation has made people think about takatāpuitanga, I honour and respect myself as a sacred being. Because duhhh.
Where would you like to see changes in the Māori community to help Takatāpui?
It’s the judgement for me aye. What people don’t understand is that this is not a choice. Being queer, trans, gay, etc is not a choice, and most of the judgement and hate come from our own whānau. And for them it’s a matter of education and awareness. I want our lives to be normalised and not stigmatised. This is a major change I want to see. Learning to decolonise your view on takatāpuitanga will save a lot of a lot of families from unnecessary and avoidable trauma within our Māori and P.I communities. Entering queer spaces and surrounding myself with accepting people has broadened my perspective of what it means to takatāpui, and it’s honestly so beautiful to witness. I am super blessed to be surrounded by friends and whanau who are accepting, and that allow me to flourish in these spaces.
What’s a project you’re proud of?
Honestly, every project from the last year. I’m proud that people can see themselves powerfully represented in the work that I’ve done. It’s more than photography for me. It is beyond the praise I get from followers. Beyond the visual. Beyond how clean the shot is. Beyond the people I get to meet. What makes me proud of the work I’ve done is how it makes people see themselves. My goal is to uplift, and if I’m doing that, even for one person, I am doing my job.
Any plans for the future?
A lot of plans for the future. Get this degree, get that bread. A big goal of mine is to do a world tour with a major artist as their personal photographer. I’d also like to get into film, music, directing, fashion. I want to do more storytelling work that *you guessed it*, represents people that NEED to be represented. Other than that I’m tryna get a new job lol.
We have big hopes for you Ren and we see you’re on a path carved by yourself. You carry the mana of your iwi and your tupuna on your shoulders. I can’t wait to see your mahi hanging up in the galleries, whaia te iti kahurangi, e mara!