"I hope my work will be felt by other Māori on their own journey of remembering, reacquainting and reclaiming" - How Nicole Semitara Hunt used Photography to capture the Gentrification of K Road.
By Tayi Tibble
Nicole Semitara Hunt is a 25 year old photographer/videographer based in Tāmaki Makaurau. Nicole is Māori and Filipino, from Ngāi Tūhoe and Te Arawa. I came across Nicole Hunt on Instagram and was instantly drawn to her beautifully curated feed of neon pinks, oranges and greens; images of youth and the city. You know.. brown kids getting up to all sorts of shhhhh.. but all with a certain feeling of autonomy and ka whawhai tonu matau. Her photography is equally inviting and haunting. Her images invoke a sort of scene, a buzz which as a creative, makes you wish you were there. Only “there” doesn’t exist anymore. With increased rent prices and gentrification occurring in Auckland, Nicole and her friends have found themselves without a studio space… but what they have found is the opportunity to “unravel" together, returning to their maraes, their roots and taking each other and their mahi with them.
“My roots bring me back to Kawerau,” Nicole says. “It’s a small town that sits in between two of my iwi, Tūhoe and Te Arawa. As important as it is to me now, at the time I hadn’t processed the value of my Maoritanga, so even though I was surrounded by it, I chose to only carry with me the bare minimum when I moved to the city at 17.”
Nicole went to art school for a year before dropping out. She says, “I was still learning how to fend for myself and navigate white spaces. I ended up becoming an english, media and creative writing graduate instead.”
In her last year of uni, Nicole “picked up the shitty camera” she bought when she was at art school and started taking photos of her friends and Auckland city. “It was hard adjusting to the city when you used to have a river running through your backyard. To cope, I started imagining the streets downtown as a giant playground. I would roam them late at night by myself, people watching or trying to sneak into abandoned buildings. One night I took photos at a friends party on K Road and from there I started getting paid to do others.”
"It was hard adjusting to the city when you used to have a river running through your backyard. To cope, I started imagining the streets downtown as a giant playground."
“As Māori, it’s hard to remember who we are and where we're from when we begin living in urban areas. And we know that this was the whole point of bringing Māori into the cities...” Nicole says, invoking the whole history of mass Maori urbanisation and the disenfranchisement and alienation that followed as a result. Nicole continues, “If I stand in the middle of Te Urewera, how can I forget my whakapapa? If I’m in the city, how can I remember when Papatūānuku has been covered and my friends are pushing me to come to the gig? Before I started to acknowledge my tūpuna, I feel I was basically ceding my indigeneity with the way I was choosing to live here. I’m still learning how to navigate myself with mana here.”
“For the past three years I’ve been working and playing in and out of Auckland’s creative/music scene.” Nicole says she found whanau, in a collective called The Grow Room. They had a studio space inside St Kevin’s Arcade on K Road, then another space in Samoa House… however rent was rising, they were “struggling” and could no longer afford a venue. “So we had to dip,” Nicole says. “During this time, I basically documented the gentrification of K Road’s underground creative communities. It was nice being able to showcase all these crazy things happening - no one else was doing them any justice.”
"Before I started to acknowledge my tūpuna, I feel I was basically ceding my indigeneity with the way I was choosing to live here. I’m still learning how to navigate myself with mana here."
“At the moment I freelance. I could be doing anything from creating visuals for a theatre show to shooting a concert for an international artist. I’m always working on my own projects on the side,” she says, although she adds that she has been “a bit quiet” with her own work lately because “her mindset has shifted a lot.”
“It’s a bit of a painful process so I have to let things sit for a while and ideas to mature before doing anything in the public eye. I’ve been focused on going home more often, delving deeper into my whakapapa and re/learning history. Now, most of my closest friends here are Māori and I’m lucky to be able to unravel everything with them, and document the process. We’ve been going to each others marae for wananga and have been talking about sparking up a little book club for Māori resources among other ideas.”
In regards to her ambitions and artistic intentions she says she hopes her work “will be felt by other Māori on their own journey of remembering, reacquainting and reclaiming.”
“I’m more into working with video at the moment because of the limitations photography can have when trying to encapsulate something. Eventually I’d like to create work/work in ways that tangibly help my whanau and iwi, but I’ll need to be ready to move back home for that.”
At the very last minute I ask Nicole if there is one photo in particular that she considers her favourite, the best photograph she has taken. Like every artistm she says it "changes" but ultimately chooses an image of her Dad taken earlier in the year at their marae, Tauarau, in Ruatoki. "It looks so beautiful and regal," Nicole says.
"Every time I go home my dad takes me on these trips to Ruatoki and Taneatua or Rotorua to visit whanau, our urupa and the land we have. He tells me all of his stories, and shows me exactly where they happened. He’s been doing this since I was a kid but I really only started paying attention over the last few years. Now that he knows I want to know everything, he’s been telling me more than ever before."
You can follow Nicole on Instagram @locapinay.
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