Robert Jahnke’s practice interrogates socio-political and historical structures in Aotearoa. He employs language, text, and symbol with form and pattern to create a complex discursive space that explores the way te Ao Māori exists within a colonised world.
Brazilian philosopher and educator Paolo Freire saw dialogue as a way of knowing. For Freire, the conversational sharing of experiences and histories was not dialogue, but mere information exchange: true dialogue “enables us to approach the object of knowledge” (1). With this in mind, Bob Jahnke’s works can be seen as dialogic in their expression. They call out to us and reverberate through visual, conceptual, and temporal space; in doing so they reconfigure these spaces and allow us to approach an art practice grounded in matauranga Māori.
Ka Tangi Hoki Ahau (2019) is not the cry of a single ‘I’ but the cries of all those whose voices have not yet had their chance to say something. In this multi-perspectival space these multitudes are (visually) present, reflecting and bouncing and overlapping into every corner of the work. The statements advance forwards and stretch back into infinite depths and, after a while, the words themselves become secondary to the fluid, shifting optical effects of the lighted mark-making. A readable text morphs into an array of glyphs whose structure seems familiar, but whose meaning is just beyond reach.
Mata Puare (2021) confronts us with two rows of ‘X’; the form is instantly recognisable but its interpretation is unclear. Is this the ‘X’ of unknown value or does it mark the spot? An ‘X’ can represent a stolen name and negated personhood (3). ‘X’ is also the basic building block of tukutuku weaving, physically embedded in the narratives told through the panels and the act of weaving itself. The work defies a single reading; its blue lights wink in and out of being and in doing so, the work produces and re-produces new patterns from the base elements. As we watch, each visual permutation builds upon the other over time, creating the sense that any particular arrangement of colour, shape, and reflection is integral to the ones before and to come.
Robert Jahnke’s artworks are active. Their light slips and slides through our sight, their messages slip and slide through our mind. Observing and reflecting upon the way these works reconfigure form and meaning sets up a dialogue that brings us closer to other ways of knowing. We don’t realise that we have been asleep until we are awakened by Jahnke’s works.