From pop art to urban style: The evolving prints of Brad Novak

For so long pop art has been the genre that many contemporary artists felt comfortable being labelled with.  However with the pop art movement now nearly 50 years old there has recently been a shift toward a more urban feel in contemporary art, heavily influenced by the most exciting thing in modern art right now - street art.

Auckland printmaker Brad Novak's career has bridged this change of tone.  Novak's butterfly tiki prints were firmly in the NZ pop art tradition but he has recently taken on a harder, more urban edge whilst still retaining this strong sense of NZ identity.  

Brad Novak "Reservoir Birds"
Limited Edition Screenprint
His new Reservoir Birds print references both the cult movie "Reservoir Dogs" and the bird paintings of Christchurch painter Bill Hammond.  However he brings a grittier sensibility to this new print that is clearly post-Banksy - you could imagine this image stencilled onto the wall of an alleyway in downtown New Zealand.

Here is Brad Novak's video, "The making of Reservoir Birds" filmed at Artrite screenprinting studios in Auckland.  The print is available for sale here.  Please note the black paper version was not able to be released due to a fault with the batch of ink used, the white paper print is the only version that is for sale at New Zealand Fine Prints.

Tiki: More than decor - a symbol

We believe there is now emerging a deeper meaning to New Zealanders buying prints of symbols like tiki and koru than just a superficial decor trend.   This article is a call to critically examine a casual dismissal of the extensive use of the tiki motif in particular as just another (temporary) phase of a wider kiwiana trend in NZ art prints that will pass.

More than just a decorative piece a tiki print first and foremost represents an ongoing connection to Aotearoa/New Zealand.  When a tiki is given as a present it's often a deeply meaningful gift that symbolises a connection with NZ and/or the person or people who gift the artwork, in essence a tiki has grown to mean friendship and connectedness with a uniquely NZ slant.

Picasso Tiki by Lester Hall
Tiki are now a symbol that is accessible to - and understood by - nearly all New Zealanders and this recognition extends to people who may have a passing acquaintance with NZ, may live in another country etc but to whom this idea of the tiki's meaning still makes sense.  It's becoming clear to us that for New Zealanders today tiki are not being purchased just to decorate in the supremely superficial manner like the kitch decor of an American tiki bar that is practically divorced from all meaningful connection with its Polynesian origins beyond the historic accident filtered through the decades.

Tiki in pre-colonial Maori culture

Whether as a memorial to the ancestors or associated with fertility and childbirth tiki were undoubted connected with the sacred, the spiritual and a sense of connection to place or people by Maori. Unlike other Polynesian cultures where tiki were predominantly carved wooden objects in Aoteaora the pendant known as the Hei-Tiki is the most well-known expression of the tiki form.

Tiki in NZ Art

Tikis were first re-worked in a fine art context by Dick Frizzell in his response to the debate around cultural appropriation in the 1990s and are now part of our collective cultural identity. The evidence that a tiki is now more than just a decorative motif is also that despite the ongoing popularity of Tiki prints as a genre they simply not becoming stale or boring because the idea of the tiki continues to evolve and deepen as successive artists re-mix, re-invent an re-interpret the tiki shape and form. Whether referencing pop art, Aboriginal art, Picasso (see Lester Hall's latest print above left) and even Dick Frizzell himself in wonderfully circular fashion in "Tiki to Diki" - or used as an anthropomorphic symbol of Maori ancestry in the prints of Shane Hansen such as this one below.

Shane Hansen Print "Boy and Friendy"
As non-Maori New Zealander's are now becoming a distinct culture,  often referred to as Pakeha or even as "white Polynesian" this also means we are becoming more likely to unselfconsciously give the gift of a tiki or a koru (a symbol of renewal or new life) than, for instance, to reach for a religious artwork such as Durer's Praying Hands which would have held a similar sense of shared meaning in an earlier more religious time.

When a friend or work colleague returns to their home country after time spent in New Zealand colleagues and friends send them home with a picture of a tiki,  not just to remind them about their time here, or to celebrate our unique Maori culture - but most importantly as a symbol of the recipient's special connection that they will always have with New Zealand.  We also send tikis to New Zealanders overseas to remind them of their connection to home instead of the more obvious picturesque views of their favourite landmarks.  Mickey to Tiki may be easily the most well-known tiki print, regularly delivered by us as a gift for weddings, birthdays and Christmas for a decade now - but we believe there has been more to its popularity as a gift than it just being chosen because it was a safe choice as NZ's most popular print over this time.   Given the messages included with the print we know there is usually this kind of underlying heartfelt and sincere meaning behind the gift of this most famous of all artworks featuring a tiki.

There is now an ongoing place for tiki as "more than just decoration", it is not just a decor trend because this greater idea of the tiki is now part of the NZ identity.  This deeper wellspring of meaning means artists will continue to find ways to drive the idea of the tiki into new and unexpected directions (so much so we have now even created a permanent tiki prints collection). But just as there is a difference between a plastic tiki and a hand carved tiki we think there is a distinction between a watered down version that verges on cultural appropriation to a sincere reworking of what has become a cultural icon for both Maori and non-Maori New Zealanders.

New Zealand artists & the future of the Tiki

And considering tiki are a Pacific wide icon it is exciting to see that tiki art from NZ are clearly now
Drippy Tiki by Greg Straight
the best tiki artwork available because thanks to artists like Dick Frizzell we have taken an indigenous motif and taken it further to imbue it with even more meaning and resonance when you see it on the wall!  Not taken an indigenous icon out of context (as a decoration for a tiki themed bar for instance) but to be an emblem of our NZness with deeper meanings beyond the visual representation on the wall.

Mickey to Tiki is accessible to non New Zealanders not just because Mickey is so recognisable but also because the tiki is increasingly well known outside of the Pacific.  And New Zealand artists are leading this growth in popular consciousness because they are evolving the tiki from an emblem of an historical culture - without sacrificing its meaning - into a fresh and contemporary form that incorporates and includes while (with a few grating exceptions) still respecting and paying homage to the underlying symbolism of the hei-tiki in Maori culture.