Nina Oberg Humphries is first to admit: she does not speak Cook Islands Maori; nor did she have a great deal of first-hand exposure to her culture, growing up.
But this has not stopped the 30-year-old of Cook Islands and Pākehā descent from seeking inspiration from home when it comes to her artistic work.
Oberg Humphries is renowned for exploring the contrasts between cultural tradition and popular culture to create a visual language to represent second generation New Zealand born Pacific Islander like herself.
“All of my artistic practice is centred on my experience of being a Cook Islander and a Pacific person,” she says.
“I draw strength, ideas and inspiration from issues we face such as climate change and how we celebrate relationships with each other, the Sea and the Earth.”
The Christchurch-born Oberg Humphries, who is influenced by dance, social politics and music, and works with a variety of mediums, is a second-generation Cook Islander.
Her grandmother Rangi Oberg was from the Cook Islands and moved to New Zealand when she was 12 years old.
Now married to a Samoan with two children, Oberg Humphries has family roots to Matavera and Takitumu is her tribe.
Her aunties, Michelle Oberg Ash and Frances Oberg Nordt, live on Rarotonga and run their own businesses, Castaway Resort and On the Beach Restaurant.
“My Cook Islands grandmother was a strong community leader here in Christchurch receiving a Queen Service medal for her community work while also being a Justice of the Peace,” Oberg Humphries says.
“Being an active part of the Cook Islands community is something that is important to me and I get this from her. I do not speak Cook Islands Maori nor have I had a great deal of first hand exposure to Cook Islands culture growing up.”
When her grandmother passed away in 2007, Oberg Humphries was 17. She turned to art as a way to remain connected and learn more about her Cook Islands culture.
She didn’t had to look too far for inspiration. Her mother Stephanie Oberg has a Masters in Pacific Art History and is an art curator and writer.
“Being around artists particularly Pacific artists was a common thing growing up, so I naturally leaned towards arts as a career,” says Oberg Humphries.
“Artists such as Michael Tuffery, Riki Tangaroa and Ani O’Neill were all artists I admired growing up and still do. I used aspects, research and topics of their work to navigate areas of Cook Island history and culture.”
After high school, Oberg Humphries attended a School of Fine Arts at both Massey University in Wellington and Canterbury University in Christchurch.
She finished art school in 2015 before exhibiting her work throughout New Zealand.
In 2017, she was a commissioned artist for Scape Public Arts Trust to create a public engagement artwork where over 5000 people participated.
This month, she was named the 2020 Pacific Artist in Residence at the University of Canterbury’s Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies.
“The Macmillan Brown Artist in Residence is a residence I have wanted since I was 12. To me the award was one of the highlights of the year.
“New artists would come from all over New Zealand and my mother would drag me along to look at their work. All of the artists who have received the Macmillan Brown are so well respected in the arts community with many being world renowned for their craft. I feel extremely honoured to be amongst them.”
During the three month residency, Oberg Humphries will be researching Pacific artefacts from the Canterbury Museum Collection and their relevance to Pacific people.
From this research, she will make a series of artworks in reaction to conversations with Pacific people living in Christchurch of all ages and backgrounds.
“I am most excited to see what other Cook Islanders feel and know about the Cook Islands items I have chosen.
Canterbury Museum has many Cook Islands taonga in their collection with many amazing examples of God staffs and fans. One fan is said to be linked to the Endeavour and Captain Cook’s voyages through the Cook Islands.”
Oberg Humphries has no immediate plans to exhibit her work including the one she will be producing after her stint at the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies in the Cook Islands but it is something she would love to do in the future.
Her advice to any young person wanting to be an artist or those who have studied art but were finding to keep up is “just go for it”.
“Art is a reflection of the world we live in and your work helps document the time and issues we face. We all have amazing talents and perspectives that others can learn from.
“Arts in any form has this power to uplift, heal and challenge. Heritage arts such as tivaevae and carving keep our traditional knowledge and histories alive and culture strong.”