This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity
Jac Lynch: Stevei you were one of the participants in the Butch on Butch project which involved you having a photo going up and having some words that you wrote to go with the photo. Could you let us know why you became involved in that particular project.
Stevei: Well initially I was approached obviously by yourself to be a part of the exhibition, very cautiously obviously because you weren’t sure whether I identified as butch or not. When you first approached me it didn’t sit very well. I was kind of, not offended but a bit shocked just based on my own thinking and that. So what I did was then come back at you and say well as a Māori woman we’re not brought up having those words within our daily lives. We use words like wāhine toa, which talk about us being quite capable women, women who are quite able to move through male and female roles if it’s needed especially on the marae etcetera. So I came back at you and asked whether you would agree to photograph me more based on that, you know that I’m wāhine toa and for me that encompasses what people perceive butch women or butch people to be.
Jac: Yeh it was kind of a lesson for me cos that was right at the start of the project, and that’s when I stopped approaching people and just put the word out so I really thank you for having done that cos that was a big learning curve for me but a well worth it anyway.
Stevei are you able to tell us a bit about yourself, where you grew up, about your whanau and so on?
Stevei: Yeh I’m an artist, I mostly deal with clay, Māori clay, nga kaihanga uku. Thirty-five years old and I grew up in Cannons Creek in Porirua. My whanau is from Hicks Bay in Te Araroa so Ngāti Porou and we come from a very strong family and we are a chief line. I’m one of eight children, seven left, but I’m the only child to my Mum and Dad so you can work that one out, good Kiwi family (laughs). I was a sportsperson in another life. Played softball in the (United) States for New Zealand but then retired from that and decided to follow my dream as an artist which I am doing today.
Jac: What direction is your art going in?
Stevei: At the moment I use clay as if it is skin so it is just a natural progression into tattooing. Ta Moko, obviously but based on my work with clay I take Pacific patterns that people might see as more Pacific island than being Māori but I look at patterns that we would have used before we got to New Zealand, you know before we got to Aotearoa, and also there are so many commonalities you know the way we put it together so doing that on the skin has always been a dream. I’ve always wanted to be a tattooist and by using the word tattoo rather than Ta Moko I won’t be put into such a tight box as well so it will allow me to be more of who I am too. You know especially being a openly gay Māori artist is a big thing, it’s not something that’s openly talked about or acknowledged so yeh, being a tattooist allows me to who I am really.
Jac: How was it for you as you were growing up identifying as gay?
Stevei: I probably, if I’m honest, I probably knew very early in life probably around five years old my earliest memory. When I was six my parents split up and I went to live with my Dad. He couldn’t brush my hair so my long hair got cut off and I was probably happy with that as well and my Dad would take me to Farmers and dress me in boys clothes and I loved it because I didn’t like wearing dresses because it just didn’t fit with me, you know I’m always out there playing around. What I did find I had experiences like peeing my pants because I was so afraid to go to the bathroom in places because the women would tell me off and tell me to get out of the toilets because I was boy and I was having to explain that I was a girl and it was quite terrifying to have those experiences. I used to hold on as much as I could not to have to experience that from adults. It was quite a daunting and horrible experience for me. But also there were a lot of advantages. I learnt a lot of things that I probably wouldn’t have learnt. You know my Dad was a roofer so I learnt to do a lot of things with my hands. My Mum was a strong woman too so she taught me on the other end of things to be a really strong Māori girl.
Jac: Did it seem to you that your Dad was just being really supportive of you being you?
Stevei: I don’t know actually, I’ve never thought of that. I know that when I finally did come out I was in my early ‘20s I had just come back from the States. He cried apparently, he thought it was his fault actually because of the way he brought me up, I did live with him. He brought me up the only way he knew, you know it wasn’t great but at the same time well it’s made me who I am today. All those experiences in your childhood and teenage years make you who you are.
Jac: And in the States you were playing softball. Tell us a little but about that, cos that, well you may not identify directly as butch but that’s a bit of a butch enclave. (laughs)
Stevei: Yeh, well I was actually straight when I left New Zealand. (Laughs) Well that’s what people think. But going to the States and people not knowing me and knowing who I was other than being a softballer allowed me, probably for the first time in my life, be who I wanted to be you know. Well you can’t come out if no one knows who you are. So I started seeing women and came out in the States. But I was there for two years and had to come back to New Zealand and face the gauntlet of family and friends so yeh, that was an interesting experience. But because I played softball in university and also summerball I knew a lot of girls who were gay but are married now. Because it’s such an intense environment because you’re with the same people constantly so it was interesting, a very different kind of community from New Zealand gay community which I also been part of from playing softball at the age of 12 you’re exposed to it really early and my Dad’s brother’s gay so it was never something we didn't talk about within our family. So yeh, being in the States it was an interesting experience and being in the university, well the stuff you see happen in the movies it does really happen. So you know it wasn’t really typically a butch sport in the States. So you know for a lot of girls over there, you’re 22, you're at university, you’re still really under the thumb of your family so you’re playing the game, you’re being very feminine etcetera. So it wasn’t until actually I came back to New Zealand that you started to see that with the softball players being more butch but at the same time we all use to just think we’re just athletic, we’re sporty people. We didn’t ever see that term. So for us the butch ones were the ones that played for the Amazons and those were the ones we stayed away from cos for us no way were we butch, this and that, before I came out, none of us thought we were gay. I think at one point maybe one of the team’s I played for 10 out of 14 turned out being gay so you know it was definitely a stigma thing that none of us wanted to go near at all and I think probably it shaped my thinking because I wanted to avoid that I didn’t like to be associated with being butch. It’s only very recently that I feel comfortable just being around butch women and having people think maybe I am as well. That was something I was really conscious of, maybe something I’m not that proud of but you know your environment shapes your thinking and what you think and yeh so this was a good exhibition for me I think. It meant that I needed to really step outside of my comfort zone for being part of it.
Jac: Did you get feedback from friends about being in it?
Stevei: It was an interesting topic to bring up with people. It was quite interesting because it made me realise too cos of my perception of myself where you think everyone thinks you’re butch because like you’re in a store and they don’t even look at you and they’re like ‘can I help you, Sir?’ and I think that’s only my size, because I’m tall and broad. So a lot of them were like ‘oh but you’re not butch’ and so it was quite nice but yeh you know it sounds ridiculous but it made me see that just because you may have that opinion that everyone thinks that you’re butch because you don’t wear girly clothes and that, that society is not that small minded or maybe I’ve just got some good friends. And they were quite supportive and thought it was really brave and they were quite interested in the concept in general. I went on an artist cross-culture exchange in Australia and I was telling some of the other female Māori artists about this exhibition and they were really interested and wanted to see photos and they really like the way I approached you about the wāhine toa and that actually started conversations within us about what we see wāhine toa as and what people perceive butch to be you know in general which were the questions you were asking in the exhibition. And they were saying ‘well what is butch?’ and these were straight women so it was a really cool way of starting dialogue and they were quite supportive and they saw the photo too and they really like it and thought that was really cool especially having been dressed up in a more traditional way than what maybe we think wāhine toa is, having been dressed by Suzanne Tamaki in costume art.
Jac: Can you talk about some of the way you were dressed for it? Because you definitely had certain symbols and things with you.
Stevei: When we confirmed the concept I went to Suzanne and talked to her about it and we thought ‘right we’re going to dress me up as a female warrior’. So I brought with me, I had a belt that was a made in the old weaving tradition and they would have used in the old days to put their patu etcetera and it was worn to protect your kidneys if you were attacked. So I wore that and I had some of Suzanne’s blankets on and I had a piupiu that I’ve had since I was a little kid that was given to me by my grandmother so that was really special to be able to wear. And we just had some pounamu on and bone carvings on so we just really dressed it up. It may not have been typically traditional. It was a concept and I was wearing a waistcoat so that was kind of a mihi to the whole colonised era which is one of Suzanne’s specialties. And then I had my hair up which was quite interesting because we wanted to dress me in a really strong wahine toa way which was probably one of the most feminine I’ve looked in a very long time which was amusing for Suzanne and you (laughs).
Jac: Talking about your art, the expressions of masculinity and femininity in it, how does that flow for you, or does it?
Stevei: I was always brought up that the world has to always be balanced so I’ve always had masculine and feminine. When I do shows or bodies of work, my work it’s always female directed but there always has to be an element of masculinity in there, whether it’s a male object or sculpture in some sense or if it’s just a more masculine female directed sculpture. So I think that’s really important and I think that clay is quite hard but is also a very soft material so I think that it is very evident in my work.
Jac: What are your plans for the future? What have you got coming up?
Stevei: In April, I’m off to the States again and I’m heading to Santa Fe to stay on the Santa Clara reservation which is with Pueblo native Americans. It’s under an internship with a foundation over there where you work on the land and you learn about permaculture and the traditional ways, how they planted the crops, learn about how they collected their seeds. Being on a reservation they are exempt in the States from having to use genetically modified seeds so they use the old seeds, they are growing crops that go right back and they are continuing. And the other thing is you’re not allowed to stockpile seeds over there as well, so that in itself is going to be a privilege, and I’m fixing, building adobe houses and just helping out in the community etcetera. So that’s one side of it but the other side of it is I’ll be working with an artist, Rose Bean Simpson, who’s actually the daughter of a very famous sculptor Roxanne Swentzell, and Rose is very accomplished and is becoming quite famous in herself and is in a movie that is being released this year called “A thousand voices” which talks about native American women and how they were always told by the missionaries etcetera that they were equal to men when actually before that they had a belief that they were higher than men, they were the ones that owned the land, they were the ones that worked the land, they were the ones that were out with the crops, and the animals, etcetera. So it’s just talking about those old ways and reclaiming that, which seems to be quite a big thing in the world at the moment where women are deciding that actually you know the world, and again, it’s that balance thing, the world is out of balance and to rebalance it the women have to now take control and heal it. And I know that within Māoridom that’s starting to happen and teaching our women that they’re not crazy and that they’re hearing things but that that’s their spirit and healing their spirit side and I think that’s quite important from a spirit thing. And what Rose and me are doing is creating a body of work that explores what being two-spirited is. For the native Americans what they say is that if you are gay, lesbian, transgender etcetera is that you are two-spirited and have both elements. So what we’re going to be looking at is that and Takatāpui which is the Māori word for it and how we can show that in a body of work. You’re taking a negative and a positive, yin and yang, and just exploring that and starting a conversation with clay and using metal with that. In Pueblo culture and Māori culture, so using clay and using Ta Moko and on her body of work and create a body of work, you know, creating an armour that can be worn that shows Ta Moko. And for Rose she wears her patterns on her skin which is not overly accepted, she said to me it’s not traditional in a sense but it is, so what she wants to do is show them and what we want to do is carve those patterns into the skin of these sculptures and just start huge conversations about it.
Jac: That sounds really exciting. Have you got other plans beyond that, if that’s a couple of months and wear that might take you. Have you got other plans for the future?
Stevei: Cos I did grow up in Porirua and I did come back to Porirua recently over Christmas. I want to come back to Porirua and start working with the community. I want to start giving back and one of the things I’ve been talking to people about is going into some of the schools and teaching them how to start seed banks. Because there is that whole thing at the moment in the primary schools where they’re teaching the kids how to cook with what they’re growing and I want to jump on board with that.
But I also want to come back and keep the conversation going that me and Rose start and do something back here and something that actually Elizabeth Kerekere originally had the idea of and I think that it needs to be done is having an exhibition of female Māori artists that are Takatāpui and that are willing to say I am Takatāpui and that’s actually never happened before and there’s never been an exhibition, she saw that so it’s really her baby but it needs to be done. And I think that Paerau was interested in doing that, and yeh just working and maybe it’s something that Rose could come over for. I know that Nick Leggett who’s the Mayor in Porirua said he would be very very happy to endorse that, he was very supportive of that. And I really think that’s important particularly in a community that’s very Māori and Pacific based that Takatāpui or Fa’afafine etcetera is alive and well, it’s very open it’s very prevalent and he wants to support that.
Jac: You’ve mentioned some people. Who are the influencers in your life around you right now? Who are the people?
Stevei: I have quite a few influences. Working with the clay I was taught by an artist called Wi Taepa. One of my biggest influences is Paerau Corneal who was one of the first Māori artists I met who was openly gay. It’s a part of who she is. She lives her life and she loved that whole concept of wāhine toa as well. And she was the person I spoke to before I agreed to do the photographic exhibition. She did think ‘yeh there’s no place for the word butch because there’s more to it and there are layers’. Wāhine toa really does it for us. Some words you can’t explain into English, you’d have to say 10 English words to get the real meaning of it. And Suzanne Tamaki when I’ve come back to Wellington, she’s been really supportive of me coming back. She doesn’t do clay or anything like that. Just in her ideas, she’s quite brave and out there and it’s making me be a bit more brave and having her support again to do the Butch on Butch photographic exhibition, I don’t know if I would have done it maybe without her. I’m always at Pataka, I’m pat of the furniture now, so Margaret Tolland has been a big support person for me, a lot of ways personally, and a lot in my work and having me exploring more and having more faith in my work. And she was actually the one that changed my perception of butch women taking it from my naive thinking of my softball days and being around her, having been part of the Drag Kings, meeting you through Margaret and others from that troupe and other people from the community that identify as butch and realising that there is more to them than how they look, and judging people just on how they look, and I think we forget sometimes that although we don’t want people to judge us we judge others. And I always knew I was a bit of a hypocrite and she really opened my horizons introducing me to more people and it’s only been for the better really.