In Aitutaki for the past fortnight, Hewett has spent his time speaking to as many people as he can including elders, storytellers, family members, gathering up tales of his heritage and culture.
He paints as he goes – digitally, using a computer tablet for a planned graphic novel that he hopes to distribute throughout the Cook Islands and to Cook Islands communities in both New Zealand and Australia.
While Hewett’s current stay on Aitutaki has only been for two weeks – a trip made specifically to work on his graphic novel project, the 47-year-old artist says this isn’t the first time he’s researched these histories and stories.
“I’ve done that over the past 20 years,” says Hewett, who has been living in New Zealand for eight years and currently works for Auckland City Council as a gallery coordinator and manager in Otara. He was raised on Aitutaki as a child and then attended school in New Zealand, returning to the island in his early 20s, working as a wood carver and also teaching at Araura College for two years.
“I spent my time here gathering stories,” he says. “Most people call them legends, but they’re actually our live, narrative histories – with just a few dramatisations added on.”
Hewett’s work is aimed at people of all ages, but he believes the use of a graphic novel format will particularly help him reach the younger generation.
“The kids today – this generation wants stuff that’s exciting, and they’re surrounded by an age of video games and things like that, so hopefully these images will be a bit more exciting for them, rather than just a book with words.
“They want to see these exciting images – that’s just the way it is. Whereas we would be told the stories in those days and imagine it, now they sort of need an image of those stories to keep them interested.”
Once they are complete, Hewett hopes to work with the Ministry of Culture to distribute his collection of stories and legends to schools throughout the country.
“It’s bilingual as well, so it’s for a range of learners and we’re talking about people who may have disabilities with literacy, as well as language problems,” he adds.
Hewett compares his work recording the stories of Aitutaki to the preservation of Maori medicine knowledge.
“So, predominantly, the dynamics of Maori medicine is that a family would have a gift of knowing a Maori medicine, and if that information wasn’t transferred on, the recognition of plants that we would normally cut down nowadays would not be known,” he says.
“I know the knowledge is the mana, the power, but for me it’s not about that – I learnt all I did so I could transfer it on to our people. It’s not something that I want to close up in a chest and lock away and it be forgotten.
“We need to look forward and be a bit more forward-thinking about how we preserve this stuff.”