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Johnson Witehira brings his indigenous design to Auckland Motorway’s noise walls

Johnson Witehira is a designer of Tamahaki (Ngāti Hinekura), Ngā Puhi (Ngai-tū-te-auru), Ngāti Haua and New Zealand European descent. He recently collaborated with local iwi to design artwork to adorn the walls of Auckland’s southern motorway. Here, he discusses the themes behind the piece.

Māori artist, designer and educator Johnson Witehira’s work has been exhibited in Times Square, New York, Courtenay Place, Wellington and now, his designs are on display on the noise walls of Auckland’s Southern motorway.  

He was brought on board by the NZTA to create a design to go on the noise walls of State Highway 1 between Ellerslie and the South-Eastern off-ramp, which shield the nearby residents from noise pollution.

Witehira says he worked with mana whenua (iwi and hapu who have rights to the land in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland) to develop a narrative for the walls, which included representatives from Ngai Tai ki Tamaki, Te Ahiwaru, Ngati Paoa, Ngati Maru, Te Akitai Waiohua, Ngati Tamaoho, Ngati Te Ata and Ngati Whanaunga.

This meant co-designing the main themes and designs of the walls with equal input from each of the different stakeholders. He says in terms of design challenges, the first step is always developing a good working relationship and trust with the mana whenua who are involved.

“If this isn’t there then no one, myself included, is happy,” he says. “This is a continued thing throughout the project. In saying that, even with a positive relationship and feedback you have to realise that people change their minds on how they feel about the mahi sometimes and that’s fine. We don’t know what happens when hapu/iwi representatives go back to their whanau and the reactions they get to projects like this.”

Witehira says the first theme shown through his piece is the idea of the motorway as an awa (river).

“The reasons for this being that the rivers could be considered as highways for Māori prior to the arrival of Europeans,” he says. “This resulted in the design of a number of waka (canoe) based elements and also the unique colour scheme which uses kahurangi (blue). The blue relates to the water and this idea of the motorway as a river.”

The second theme shown was kaitiaki (guardian or protector) to provide protection to the nearby residents via the walls.

“With this in mind, a unique tuatara-skin pattern was created, referencing the customary symbolism of tuatara and lizards as being signs of danger or misfortune,” he says.

The piece is made from concrete, which Witehira says proved difficult technically with figuring out how to create the forms he was after with pre-cast moulds.

White Landscape and director Clynt White helped do a lot of the heavy lifting, he says, while also ensuring the designs turned out as good as possible in this choice of medium.

The result is an eye-catching addition to Auckland’s southern motorway, as well as a clever integration of Māori design into people’s day-to-day lives.

Witehira discusses the relationship between Māoridom and New Zealand design in-depth in the latest issue of Idealog magazine, out now

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