He Mokopirirākau: Cliff Curtis

Jani Wilson

Abstract


Mokopirirākau are native New Zealand forest geckos that metamorphosise their appearance to blend with the environment as a survival mechanism. A well-known human mokopirirākau is Te Arawa’s Cliff Curtis. Arguably the world’s most successful Māori screen actor, for more than twenty years, he has maintained a Hollywood ‘calling card’ by convincingly transfiguring himself into an array of ethnic characters: Arab to Hispanic to African-American to . . .


Here in Aotearoa, we can see that Curtis’s long career in performance started when he was a school-boy, in kapa haka. Even now, he participates in an annual maurakau wānanga on Mokōia Island, and he has recently turned to competitive kapa haka at regional level with Ngāti Rongomai. Kapa haka is one of Curtis’ longest practiced performance disciplines; it underscores his film performances and lends them power.

With the increased popularity of Māori-centred film and the rise of Māori TV, more kaihaka – like Curtis – are transitioning to careers on-screen. This paper asks: what power do kaihaka performers carry with them from the kapa haka stage to the screen? That is, how do they too become mokopirirākau? Further, how might the knowledge gained from kapa haka act as a scaffolding for a framework for analysing characters and performances? How could such a framework also serve to structure critical thinking both about Māori performance about non-Māori roles performed by Māori? Indeed how might a kapa haka based analytical framework provoke new ways of thinking about performances by and for non-Māori?

 


Full Text: PDF