Yonel Watene was born in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand in 1989, of Māori (Ngāti Maru (Hauraki), Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Hine) and Greek descent. He works across a range of mediums and is primarily known for his paintings although he is becoming increasingly well known for his film photography, sculpture, and installation projects.
“A lot of my painting is about diving into art history and returning back into my world and just being as authentic as I can be with that process,” Watene stated about the development and thought process behind his practice. Through a series of wizard paintings in which he is referencing the iconic Cheech Wizard (an American underground comics character created by artist Vaughn Bodē), the aritst wanted to create a figure that represents an image of humanity as a way to look at the human condition. By repurposing its comical nature and links to epic fantasy in scenes depicting such ordinary situations as a first date, first day of school, social distancing, or lockdowns, he constructs a playful parody of humanity. Conveying the sense of the familiar anxiety and similar emotions into essentially fantastical world, Watene is emphasising the intensity of such ordeal on us. In addition to that, his interest in blurring the tradition navigated him to repainting such iconic underground comics and graffiti imagery in oil. But instead of canvas, he used denim as a surface, further clashing the classicism with his own, present day experiences. This interested eventually informed the exploration of the art history from his own perspective. Reversing the approach to creating photos and postcards representing Māori men, women and children produced by Pākehā (European settler) photographers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, this ongoing series of work represents looking at things from a Māori stand point. Watene studied fine art and economics at Auckland University of Technology, graduating in 2010, and now lives and works in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. Since 2016, by working through a variety of new media that grew to include photography and object-making, Watene created a diverse oeuvre that, while being inherently complex, is strategically invested in modern cultures, art historic traditions, and autobiographic material, all of which are important to the artist. His investment into cultural commodities helps consolidate a diverse visual vocabulary that is equally prolific as it is strategic.