Working as a creative practitioner since the 1970s, Robert Jahnke has consistently spoken truth to power. Jahnke’s artistic practice is one of the lenses through which he observes the discourses of socio-political power and lays bare the inequities and structural violence that continue to affect Māori in post-colonial Aotearoa New Zealand.
Jahnke's sculptural practice utilises steel, wood, found objects, and, most recently, neon. Text has been a regular feature in his works and it operates on linguistic, semiotic, and visual levels. Through the repetition, rotation, and reflection of words and phrases, Jahnke reveals the unstable nature of language and how meaning shifts between speakers and listeners, context and form. Light operates as a physical manifestation of these shifts in recent works and the animation it provides is a reminder of the mutability of interpretation. Describing the use of stacked fluorescent tubes in his 2019 exhibition Lamentation, Jahnke notes that they “form a repetitive vertical pattern alluding to roimata toroa; the tears of the albatross” (1). Images stretch back in an unbroken continuum and each element is integral to the work as a whole.
In the 2020 series Tā Te Whenua, a single ‘X’ in a diamond glows in a mirrored infinity. The character itself possesses multiple symbolic functions: X can mark a spot or negate a statement. X denotes 10 in the Roman numeric system, in algebra it is the unknown, in arithmetic, the multiplier. More importantly however, this cross form is the basic stitch in tukutuku weaving and the building block for patterns such as kaokao (the bend or side of the ribs) or pātiki (the flounder), (2) each of which plays its own metaphorical role in te Ao Māori.