The seven year old me would be relishing the NZ flag debate. I was a flag nerd who owned several flag books who could draw the Bhutanese dragon flag from memory and collected all the flag stickers from Chiquita bananas for their world flag map competition. But as an adult I’m seized with ambivalent shrugs. Looking at the official longlist of 40 designs, they symbolise some uncomfortable truths about how we creatively and personally limit our imaginations as a country.
Firstly, half the designs are by seven people including five each from two people. Most of the multiple submissions are variations on the same idea. I’ve observed a common problem with many creative arts decisions in New Zealand: a predilection for a few favourite go-to people at the expense of a greater spread of diverse, original ideas. Secondly, there appears to be very few female designers involved. Perhaps flag nerdery is more the mainstay of boys like myself, but this is hardly representative for a national symbol. Thirdly, the overwhelming reliance on Kiwiana motifs – waves, koru, Southern Cross, Silver Fern, even a DOC logo stretched out like a Pierre Cardin belt buckle – lacks imagination and resorts to John Key’s ‘brand NZ’ ideal. This, I believe, reflects a deep national insecurity towards the arts and creativity where we undervalue the inspirations unique to the New Zealand experience that have found success worldwide in favour of bland variations on formulas adopted from overseas – hence why 90% of local TV and radio content is merely Mediaworks reality TV shows and their cross-promotion through Mediaworks radio synergy. It is apt that this week Jemaine Clement criticised New Zealand TV as terrible and companies of having no interest in making good comedy. Perhaps we want an idea that we think the rest of the world approve of. This could have been a unique opportunity for real designers to showcase artistic, accessible ideas rather than a public flag-sourcing exercise that has made us a bit of an international joke. Strangely, most of us are probably proud that John Oliver simply mentioned us rather than be embarrassed that we were the target of a mocking takedown in two Last Week Tonight segments on the flag debate.
That being said, there is one flag that visually and culturally stands out for me: Wākāinga/Home. Created by design agency Studio Alexander, the blue triangle symbolises the settlers, the red triangle and white shape as Maori heritage and the latter a stylised Maori meeting house, and black for strength and optimism and is shaped to resemble our mountainous landscape. This design is truly unique; the visual equivalent of a Flying Nun song on a soundtrack to an adaptation of an Eleanor Catton novel starring Jemaine. To be in the shortlisted four would give real creativity a fighting chance and anyone wanting to reclaim the debate from aesthetic choices that collectively equate to a Kiwiana knicknack shop exploding onto canvas would be well served rallying behind Wākāinga/Home. The seven year old me would have been proud to felt-tip pen sketch this flag.