"Not everything you create will be loved and adored by the masses. And that’s okay." An interview with LAKIWIBABY - Our Soulful Māori Dream Girl all the way in the San Francisco Bay.
By Tayi Tibble
Brie Hooper or 'La Kiwi Baby' is an artist and designer based in the San Francisco Bay. Brie is active on instagram and facebook and sells her art and apparel; t-shirts, crew necks, pins, that she designs on her website lakiwibaby.com. I came across her work on Instagram, maybe a year or two ago. At the time I was on a kick following a bunch of really cool westcoast Latinx artists, and they all happened to be following Brie. So by like.... laws of physics, like attracts like, probability etc I figured she must be cool too... extra cool. I remember clicking through to her page, scrolling through her feed and literally doing a double take like… ‘hold up… that babe on that t-shirt has a moko!’ I adored her work instantly. Her images of beautiful women with big dark hair, curvy bodies, serving strong activist looks gave me hardcore mana wahine vibes. Brie was cool enough to let me ask her a couple of questions, and was very generous with her answers. We talked about reclaiming trauma, musical influences, cultural appropriation and what it means to feel connected or disconnected to Te Ao Māori. Read our interview below.
Hi Brie, how are you? Well you know I’ve been a big fan of your work for a while now. I remember messaging you about it, telling you how I found it reaffirming when I was writing the draft of my book, Poukahangatus… I loved all the women, the hair, even the way you draw your lines are kind of curvy and feminine. I wondered if you could describe your practice and what it is that you do?
Hi darling! I’m doing just fine, thank you for asking. I appreciate the love, I purchased your book and absolutely love every bit of it. Yes so my practice I guess is just drawing and turning my drawings into wearable pieces for others. Such as pins or apparel.
How did La Kiwi Baby get started? What has been your trajectory as an artist?
La Kiwi Baby started back in 2016 as a side hobby to keep me busy during the end of an on and off four year abusive relationship. He was a creative yet troubled man who was a big reason why I started to draw in the first place for both positive and negative reasons. Positive being that he was the one who pushed me to create more, and negative because he did a lot of bad towards me that pushed me to draw as an outlet and as a distraction to my reality. I’m positive about that time now, and I have forgiven him for all his wrong doings. I feel at peace with those days. Because well shit I wouldn’t be as tough, smart, confident, or have this fun side business without those experiences. Sure it would nice to be here without living through traumatic times, but that’s not how life functions. La Kiwi Baby was also his pet name for me that I turned around and made it a name I would enjoy hearing, rather than cringe over. My mentality and the vibe I try to give off with my shop is positivity. Trying to turn any bad situation into a better one. Learning from bad times and growing from them, rather than sulk, live in the past, or live with regret. I live in the bay area, where shit is expensive and time is money. I ain’t got time to be sad or feel bad for myself. No point in it.
I have always had a creative side since I was little and would draw from time to time, but never felt confident in my work so I kept it to myself. I ended up going to college for graphic design when I was 20, and it really put a damper on feeling like any type of artist. I was creating stuff for my teachers; stuff graphic designers enjoy creating but personally, that type of art brings me no joy. Using geometric shapes to tell a story is not for me. I love to create things with women and animals and inspired by soul music. So once I graduated and kiwi baby started to become a thing, I found pride in my work. I was making pieces that I enjoyed and it was tight because other people were fond of it too. I also have personal ties to everything I make and I share that online, so I think my relatable stories make people like my pieces rather than my actual skills. I can always "grow as an artist” but what I draw comes from the heart and I think that’s what matters to people.
"I can always "grow as an artist” but what I draw comes from the heart and I think that’s what matters to people."
You have described La Kiwi Baby as “a one woman show by a lady of mixed cultures. Originally from New Zealand, but grew up in Southern California my work has various inspirations. All are based off of the cultures I was surrounded by and the one I long for back in NZ.” Could you talk about this? What kind of cultures did you grow up around and how do they inform your work? What do you long for back in New Zealand? What are the differences between New Zealand and Southern California, and what is it like splitting your time or even identity between them?
Yes so I grew up in Southern California and we were about an hour and a half north of the border to Mexico. The public schools I attended, for the majority the kids were either white or Mexican. Growing up mixed with absolutely no sight of the New Zealand or Māori culture around me, I gravitated towards the richness of the Mexican culture. Also having a mother of colour I felt like the only other kids who could relate to me were kids with the same experience. Plus their culture is just so beyond interesting and has similarities to Māori. There’s also quite a few words in Spanish that are in Te Reo, but they have completely different meanings.
I didn’t fully realize it until I was older, but growing up without your culture can make you feel left out. I don’t belong to any culture I knew out here, and when I go to visit New Zealand I don’t feel like I belong either because I grew up learning American and European history. I learned french and was around spanish, but never knew a lick of te reo, just know a small amount of words. The knowledge I have is from doing personal research online or through books, but even then I question the sources of the information I’m finding. When I tell someone I’m part Māori they look at me like I made up a word. Or I tell someone I’m from New Zealand and they ask me where that is or is that Australia? So I longed for that sense of belonging to something.
I visit my cousins and they all have their memories, know our history, know the language and I feel like an outsider. I try to enjoy the cultures I learn from friends out here, what I grew up around, but they’re not mine to claim. Plus I’m white passing, but mixed. It’s something that I feel sad about, but at the end of the day they aren’t the worst things in life to be dealt with. I had my parents and my brothers who I love unconditionally. I have never been treated differently in a negative way because of my skin colour unlike my brother who took on our Māori skin tone. Racism is alive and well in our world and especially in America. So even though I carry sadness over this, there are things I should and am thankful for.
I now live in Northern California which is very different from southern, but I love both very much. I believe California is just a bit bigger than New Zealand. It’s similar in the sense that you have everything terrain wise within one place. From beautiful beaches to snowy mountains or to the dry dessert. But I love New Zealand and California oh so much. I wouldn’t live anywhere else but either places. It’s funny because here people know me from being from New Zealand because I was raised by my Māori mum and my third generation kiwi father who kept us grounded and with the morals and ideals they have from home. But when I’m in New Zealand I’m seen as an American because most my life has been spent out here.
"I didn’t fully realize it until I was older, but growing up without your culture can make you feel left out."
That's really interesting. I mean a lot of Māori even here in NZ aren't raised necessarily in the Māori world, and sometimes books or online education is their first way back into Te Ao Māori and learning about themselves. That was sort of the case for me. I guess the difference doing that sort of journey here, is that you are easily supported; you have more access to resources and other Māori. I can't even imagine the difficulties of trying to do that overseas. It must be, yeah alienating... but it's rewarding mahi. Important mahi. What I feel most proud about, being Māori, is our resilience and ability to be Māori anywhere in a range of ways.
What I really like about your work, and what I think I tend to look for in art generally, is it’s intersectionality. You combine Māori culture, latinx culture, pop culture… imagery of protestors, berets and bats, with feminine lush florals, tropics etc. How do you use and navigate all these different influences. Is it deliberate and conscious? Or is it just totally inherent and natural for you?
The way you describe my art is so beyond what I would ever say about it! I honestly just create what comes to me in the moment. From what I’m feeling or what I want to feel. A lot of my drawings have to do with what I wish I was or what I’m working towards being. It’s all about empowerment and creating a reality I don’t personally have. I also love strong women of colour more than anything. I admire them. Women have to internalize so much in life and then to be of colour is another level. This is all information I have learned from family, friends, and loved ones. And so I like to pay homage to that to show them they’re seen for their strength and their beauty. Because society and pop culture doesn’t do that very often. The world, politics, racism, and humans can be so ugly. I want to create something pretty or beautiful or sexy so we can take a break from all that.
Oh well, I’m really dorky and poetic lol, but I mean it! I’m so gushy over your lush work! Have been since I first came across you and your work on Instagram; how important has social media been for you and your work?
Social media is the reason why La Kiwi Baby even exists. It took me time to be okay with it, but I have realized that my emotional connection to what I do, and sharing myself as a person draws people to what I make. Because trust, anyone could draw what I draw..it’s not technically special or unique. But I think because I share myself and why I make what I make, people relate to it. So if I opened up my online store without my instagram, a lot of what I do probably wouldn’t be noticed. I actually deleted my instagram months before I opened up Kiwi Baby because I hate how it makes us compare our lives to others when everyone is only showing the highlights. So it makes people feel lesser and I’m not down with that aspect of social media.
"It’s all about empowerment and creating a reality I don’t personally have. I also love strong women of colour more than anything. I admire them. Women have to internalize so much in life and then to be of colour is another level."
You sell your work predominantly online; but I have also seen you selling them in pop ups irl. What are the benefits of either? Who tends to be you customer? Basically I am curious as to how people in the US/non-maori respond to your pieces that feature Maori iconography?
Yeah online is where most of my sales come from. I sell wholesale to a few ma and pop type shops in California and every once in a while do pop ups. Pop ups are fun because I get to actually meet people I’m selling to, and I’m a huge people person and hella chatty so I enjoy the interaction with the people who want to take home my art. My customers are mostly women 18-30 and I have a good amount throughout US but I would say mostly California. Very few people out here will know about Māori designs, but once in a blue moon someone will call it out which is cool. I will have people tell me they love a design that has Māori iconography, but won’t purchase it due to the lack of knowledge for the culture. I don’t love that feedback, but I appreciate the honesty and them not wanting to appropriate something they know nothing about.
Ahhh that’s super interesting to me too… it’s such a tension isn’t it? On one hand it's super important that we protect our taonga and intellectual property, especially since so much has already been taken from us, but on the other hand, I still want non-maori to engage with my work. Sometimes I feel like not engaging because of ‘fear of appropriation” is a cop-out. Māori have invited others into our culture, literally since contact. Sometimes I want to be like, 'mam it's okay for you to enjoy this!" Just like, don't steal from us lol. Also give us your money it's called reparations haha. On a, I guess brighter note, who are some of your favourite artists of any genre, that inspire you and make you excited about the current creative outputs in 2017?
My favorite artists are actually soul singers such as Barbara Mason, Brenton Wood, The Lovelites, Sunny and the Sunliners, and so much more. Their music means the world to me. I’m a big emotional baby, and the lyrics and rhythm of soul music always makes my feelings seem valid and inspires me.
Any interesting upcoming projects? Do you have any major creative ambitions lol?
At the moment for upcoming projects, I’m starting to have patches made through my friend Megan who runs Patch Ya Later. You can find her beautiful work on instagram @patchyalater. I’m also in the works of learning to make jewelry through my talented friend and you can find her on instagram @maidenvoyagejewelry. It’s so exciting and it’s going to be a while before anything gets put out, but keep your eyes pealed!
If you wanted to give some wise or unwise words to other Māori artists, what would you say?
Wise or unwise words? Hmm. Not everything you create will be loved and adored by the masses. And that’s okay. You’re not a machine, you have to go through the humps of either not creating or creating shit to get to somewhere good. Ain’t nothing easy or perfect, so don’t stress it.
Thank you for asking me this questions! I appreciate your work and your ongoing support for little ole me.
Kiwi BB aka Brie
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Toi Māori Aotearoa's blog is purposed to keep you up to date with the latest happenings going on both here at Toi, and across the Māori arts scene in Aotearoa, and abroad.