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Hinemoana Baker

Ulrike Almut Sanding and Hinemoana Baker while shooting their poetry film
© Hinemoana Baker

The Goethe-Institut New Zealand and Contemporary HUM present a series of portraits about New Zealand artists who have found a new home - also artistically - in Germany. Author Claude Kempen met Hinemoana Baker in Berlin. 

By Claude Kempen

"He mokopuna ahau nō Ngāti Tūkorehe, Raukawa, Toa Rangatira, Te Āti Awa me Ngāi Tahu. I greet you as a descendant of these tribes of my father, and the ancestral lands of my mother – Germany, Australia and England. Mauri ora!"
Hinemoana Baker
I meet Hinemoana Baker on a dark and cold Berlin evening in January 2020. Two months before the pandemic arrives in Germany, we agree to have a drink at Z-Bar, close to her home in Schokoladen, one of Berlin’s well-known housing projects. I am already seated and nervous to meet her. Her considerable profile as a poet, writer, singer-songwriter and performer had preceded her and I had fallen in love with her on the spot, quite literally. Just before my nervousness could take over entirely, she walks into the empty but cosy bar and greets me with a warm smile and a generous hug. I feel comfortable at once. This is one of her secret powers, putting people at ease with her witty and empathetic presence. I will come to know about her that while this is true, she is nonetheless very capable of a clear and uncompromising assessment of political injustice and the people who perpetuate it. Those who know her poetry will recognise this beautiful intersection. The back blurb of her latest and fourth collection, Funkhaus (Victoria University Press, 2020), describes it well, noting that the collection offers “big, punchy poems and shimmering delicacy, as well as [her] trademark humour”.

Funkhaus, which was shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in 2021, was created in Berlin and is named after one of the city’s buildings where, from 1956 to 1990, the GDR's radio station was based. Hinemoana got to know the history of Berlin and of this building specifically when she squatted there for one long winter. Like the radio signal that emerged from this historic space, Hinemoana’s poetry travels effortlessly, telling stories of her complex and various whakapapa (genealogy) links; the queer/takatāpui ones, her Māori heritage, and her homes in Berlin and Aotearoa.

Your Berlin sends roots

down through its dead.
Its buildings and its total recall shake with trains.
Words are gold bricks of light in the season.

'Funkhaus', from Funkhaus

When looking at one of her Funkhaus poems, “The typical lightning bolt”, her poetry also tells us another story. The poem speaks back to the trope of creative work being the product of sudden inspiration, a bolt out of the blue, rather than being the result of many years of hard work. But it’s also a wonderful example of this poet-musician’s love of sound. Try reading this excerpt slowly, aloud, to yourself:

The Typical Lightning Bolt

and the same could be said
for all surprises
is less of an emergency than it appears
a spoon standing straight up in sugar flashing
when you flick that big soft kitchen switch

a cake made of its own candle smoke
it disappoints you to death
fumbling with its gun
after burning a finger
filling the hot-water bottle…

'The Typical Lightning Bolt', from Funkhaus
  • Hinemoana Baker at a reading © Hinemoana Baker
    Hinemoana Baker at a reading
  • Funkhaus book cover © Hinemoana Baker
    Funkhaus book cover
  • Hinemoana Baker and her father at Otakou Marae © Hinemoana Baker
    Hinemoana Baker and her father at Otakou Marae
  • I love Berlin - Hinemoana Baker © Hinemoana Baker
    I love Berlin - Hinemoana Baker
  • Ulrike Almut Sanding and Hinemoana Baker, Collage, Film stills © Hinemoana Baker
    Ulrike Almut Sanding and Hinemoana Baker, Collage, Film stills
Hinemoana has been active as an artist for over 30 years, and her many accomplishments are difficult to summarise. Back in her homeland, Hinemoana recorded and produced five studio albums and was a radio show host at Radio New Zealand for some years. Since moving to Berlin she continues to prove how versatile she is as an artist.  In 2016, together with multi-media artist Ulrike Almut Sandig, she created a poetry film named “It wasn’t me und du warst es auch nicht”. This short film is both multilingual and highly attentive to the sound of words and their off-screen voices. The two artists walk through Berlin in white suits, their arms loaded with inflatable globes while their voices, occasionally overlapping, inspire us with images of the Antarctic, the non-existent opposite of wildfires, the Pacific, and love. Hinemoana tells me that a few years ago, when she still lived in Wellington, she was part of a team whose film was shown at the Zebra poetry film festival in Berlin. She remembers how thrilling it felt to have a film screened there. Not only did "It wasn't me..." also appear at that festival the following year, but in November 2021 she was honoured and delighted to find herself to be one of the judges of this same poetry film festival’s annual competition. It was, as she says with a laugh, ‘an Oprah Winfrey full circle moment.’

The longer I sit with her, the more I realise that even her day-to-day conversations are marked by her talent for storytelling. I find myself enchanted by her speaking voice, her choice of words and her timing. No wonder then, that she is regularly invited to perform on Berlin stages. In 2019, she guested at the Gender Sender podcast’s live show and makes the crowd laugh a lot. She tells a story about shame involving her former partner, a very tall and very enthusiastic soccer fan, even by German standards. He is much younger than her and she admits having felt insecure about the age gap.  But the lanky German takes her by surprise when he shares his own physical imperfections and vulnerabilities with her. The two were a couple for some years until the relationship came to an end, she says: “There’s only so much football a poet can take”.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Hinemoana has been on stage less frequently. The first time I saw her perform was nearly two years after we first met. She appeared at the International Literature Festival 2021 alongside other amazing indigenous poets from all over the world. Later that same year, she showed up for a small poetry reading outside of the Hopscotch Reading Room with her friend and fellow New Zealand writer, Alice Miller.

During her latest appearance at Berlin’s beloved Dead Ladies Show, she narrated Katherine Mansfield’s life, a life not entirely unlike her own. One of the many things these two women have in common is their love of performance. Katherine Mansfield is mostly known for her short stories, but she was also a celebrated wit, performing at parties when she first arrived in London, earning money and cementing her popularity in the process. In May 2005, Hinemoana toured Aotearoa with her friend and sound engineer Andrew Dalziel. They put on a multi-media show with photography, poetry, singing, a looping pedal, and a scuba tank for special sound effects. She tells me this was one of her favourite tours, largely because of the collaborative aspect of it. In Berlin, her connection with Ulrike Almut Sandig has been fruitful not only when it comes to their co-produced film, but also for their numerous shows and performances. Currently, Ulrike is also translating selected works of Hinemoana’s poetry and the pair are seeking publication opportunities for them.

While Aotearoa will always be her tūrangawaewae, Berlin is fortunate that Hinemoana Baker calls this city her home.
"Don’t ask me to speak for the nations, we shift the hate with the light from our fascinators"
'One Hit is not Enough' from Funkhaus


Portrait Hinemoana Baker © Hinemoana Baker Hinemoana Baker (b.1968 in Christchurch, New Zealand) is a poet, musician and recording artist, teacher of creative writing, and occasional broadcaster. Baker earned a BA and an MA from Victoria University, where she was also the university's Writer in Residence in 2014.

She authored the poetry collections mātuhi | needle (2004), kōiwi kōiwi / bone bone (2010), and waha | mouth (2014). Her work has been anthologized in The Best of Best New Zealand Poems (2011) and The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature (2012), among others. Baker was the 2009 Arts Queensland Poet in Residence and received the 2015–16 Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer’s Residency. She is currently based in Berlin where she is completing a PhD at the University of Potsdam with the research training group RTG Minor Cosmopolitanisms.