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A year and a half ago Kahurangi Ngata decided to take control of his own learning and life. His first decision was to forgo his final year of high school, Year 13.  Instead, with his parents’ blessing he would set out into the world that awaited beyond the school gates, with dreams of exploring art and gathering ideas for his future, whilst keeping ‘as busy as possible’.

Since then Kahu has been on a path that has taken him to parts of the country he’s never been before, alongside new people as well as friends and whanau. Kahu seems to have this ability to see opportunities for learning in everything he does and in everyone he meets. When we spoke he had this shiny-eyed enthusiasm and excitement, which was both compelling and reassuring.

When Kahu first set out to explore Art eighteen months ago, he had a few ideas about the kind of art he thought he wanted to do, but these have altered course and amplified in scale along the way. A month spent at animation studio Nyuk Nyuk Studios in Wellington, alongside his uncle, helped Kahu realise that animation wasn’t really for him after all. But he soaked up all he could from a guy who was back home from eight years of oil painting in Florence, learning how to transpose age-old methodologies from paint brush to his ipad pen; old to new.

Last year also presented Kahu with the opportunity to volunteer with the Seawalls crew in Gisborne, and it was through this experience Kahu discovered his love of the large-scale artwork. Not only does the outdoor aspect appeal but he’s found that spray painting works well with his fast and unstructured, loosely-planned style, ‘if I plan too much, or try to repeat an idea, I usually find it just doesn’t work or look how I want it to look’. Kahu completed his first mural The Tui & The Kākā at Solander Cellars in March this year.

‘Do you know that I’m interested in Birds? I could talk about birds for ages’ says Kahu. A trip to the Zealandia Ecosanctuary in Wellington has turned Kahu into an avid researcher of birds. While he has always enjoyed drawing bird life, these days Kahu will take any opportunity to get closer to them, which has variously included tramping with friends, spending time with some people he knows who look after birds and visiting Wingspan in Rotorua.

Kahu seems entirely happy to be painted with the ‘Birder’ brush; he’s fascinated by the uniqueness of our bird life in Aotearoa and their role in our country’s history. Interesting facts and anecdotes about birds spilled from Kahu as we spoke, his infectious enthusiasm and sense of wonder that made me want to go straight home and delve into all the old bird books on our bookcase.

Kahu’s family’s involvement with the Te Toki Voyaging Trust (his dad Morgan was crew on the waka that travelled from Auckland to te Tairawhiti in 2017 and his mum Cleo crewed on the Waka that went to Norfolk Island last year) has piqued Kahu’s own interest in what is being called the ‘Waka Renaissance’ in Aotearoa and led to his own involvement with the Trust.

Lately he has been based up in Auckland volunteering with Te Toki. He helps out with boat maintenance, preparing the waka for Tuia 250 commemorations later this year, and is involved in the training sessions, all the while absorbing as much knowledge as he can from the people around him.  The experience has added another aspiration to his hopes for his future which is to be involved with the waka that will travel to the Pacific next year. Being away from Gisborne and immersed in the intensity of our biggest most hectic city has also given Kahu a newfound appreciation for Home.

While Kahu’s experiences in this past while have undoubtedly been aided by supportive whanau and open doors around the country, it is Kahu’s own focus and openness to learning from any person he might come across and any situation he finds himself in, that make him a great poster boy for the case of self-directed learning. 

So while not everyone always has access to such support networks, we do all have the ability to open our eyes to the fact that teachers and learning opportunities reside around every corner, across every table. Just as Kahu is continually soaking up ideas, inspiration and imagery from everything he can, I came away from our conversation with scribbled notes to myself about birds to look up, new bands to check out.

I also brought away a reminder to myself about the importance of listening to our young people, just as they are listening, and trying to learn from our mistakes.

Thanks Kahu.

Story by Sarah Cleave

Images created by Kahu Ngata.

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