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Kahurangi: Reflecting a journey of weaving
' ... but this art is far more than just beautiful ... the art works are not simply art disconnected from the rest of life. They exist because the people who created them live in a relationship with their environment and their art comes directly out of that relationship.' – Mick Dodson from the Carried Lightly catalogue
Maori have always been rightfully indignant at the suggestion that their culture has no written language. The traditional mnemonic arts are language and within them recorded history, mythology and commentary are found. As the centre of Maori tribal life, the wharenui (meeting house) represents the body of an illustrious ancestor and is animated with the spirits of past, present and future. The wharenui embodies whakapapa (genealogy/history) and cosmology, given form by an internal structure of weaving, carving and painting.
In the catalogue essay for Kahurangi Toi Te Rito Maihi paraphrases the words of the artists who explain that, 'As the words of a writer, who weaves a story from words, a weaver weaves blades of harakeke so they join with others to form an intricate pattern, a story, a work of art. Words and harakeke alike depict the emotional state of the artist's mind. .... They restore or renew the desired harmony of the work in hand. They allow a freedom of expression no longer easily found'. While the work of Matekino Lawless and Christina Hurihia Wirihana is often made for collections and exhibited in galleries throughout the world, among their many combined achievements is the interior of 'lhenga', the great meeting house at Waiariki Polytech at Rotorua, which opened in 1996.
The role of the artist in Maori society does not simply involve making objects or decorating meeting houses. It is a role that extends into the composite fabric of the society itself. Matekino, who received the Queen's Service Medal earlier this year, is described by Areta Koopu, former President of the Maori Women's Welfare League, in Kokiri Paetae as a '...person who tries to address certain social issues, like family violence, affecting young Maori living in the city... she had hopes for our young Maori children and weaving to instil the values of our tupuna to help young women aspire to other things'.
I had encountered and been impressed by Christina's work in Fisi––the blossoming of the waves shown at Mori Gallery during the Pacific Wave Festival, Sydney, 1998. In this exhibition artists from various parts of the South Western Pacific region including Lisa Reihana, Judy Watson and Fiona MacDonald, focussed on the dialogue between traditional and contemporary art practices. As Caroline Vercoe pointed out in an article on the challenges which the work of Pacific artists has provided for the conventions of gallery and museum display, 'The fixed and rigid categories of craft and fine art become a hindrance to the reading of such works, often working to demean and deny their complexity and significance' (Object 2/99: 66). Kahurangi, the original concept of Barbara Make (former Curator of Ethnology at the Waikato Museum), brings together the works of Matekino Lawless and Christina Hurihia Wirihana in a way which demonstrates a trajectory of Maori weaving practices and exemplifies how some of these challenges might be met.
Kahurangi means 'the matriarch' and as such, focuses our attention on both the traditional and contemporary roles of Maori women via the art of weaving. In the past (and to a lesser extent in the present day) weaving skills and knowledge have been shared amongst members of the community and passed from generation to generation as a way of strengthening the bonds of family and the wider community. As Matekino says, also in Kokiri Paetae, 'Our Maori people are striving to revive te reo, tikanga and everything that is Maori, traditional weaving is very much a part of who we are as Maori'. The scope of this exhibition therefore is expansive as it deals, inherently, with issues of identity, whanau (family) and ultimately encompasses the role of tangata whenua, people or caretakers of the land.
Christina began weaving early in life and by the age of twelve she had identified mentors who would influence her practice to the present day. Among those mentors Christina acknowledges Matekino, her mother, who played a major role in teaching her the skills evident in the work we see in both galleries and meeting houses. Kahurangi is very much a family affair and central to the exhibition are three large whariki (mats), one each by Matekino and Christina and another on which they collaborated. The ‘journey of weaving' is demonstrated by the differing styles of mother and daughter. Christina notes that while her mother has been happy to work in the traditional domain, in recent years she has also taken a more innovative approach. Significantly however, both artists have striven to find new ways of expressing their ideas that do not compromise the integrity of the work.
Matekino and Christina have worked together since the 1960s, not only sharing their knowledge and techniques with each other but also with their students and the members of communities with whom they undertake what are often ambitious projects. There is within Maori communities, enormous respect afforded to the knowledge and skills of the weaver. It is them, after all, who have been responsible for the recording, interpretation and maintenance of histories and mythologies.
Family, in the context of Kahurangi, is broadly defined and members of the extended family have participated in the exhibition while others are referenced in individual works. In Christina's large installation consisting of twenty-five large hanging paper panels made from the discards of processed flax, each has a kohatu, a stone bound in flax and woven by her nieces in a way that characterises individual family members. Another of Christina's-works, Woven Stainless Steel, references her husband who works as a boiler maker. Although this extraordinarily elegant work utilises introduced manufactured materials it draws upon a traditional aesthetic. Held together by the tension of the steel Woven Stainless Steel might be interpreted as a comment on the strain felt by many Maori people in respect of the maintenance of their cultural traditions and the overwhelming tide of western influence. Matekino's late husband, a farmer who shared his knowledge of the land with family members, is also acknowledged in a work consisting of planed totara posts which he had left on the farm.
Harvesting and knowledge of the bush are key points of connection in terms of the cultural perspective. The commitment of both artists to their work extends to the conservation of the natural environment from which the raw materials for their pieces have come. Each step in the process of making is taken in consideration of traditional practices which are contextualised by an interaction between the person and the plant and seen as a relationship between two living things. It is here that customary knowledges of the maintenance and harvesting of plants are employed and are reflected in works which, by way of this exacting regime, achieve the beauty and harmony that characterises the finished piece. In Maori culture, (and in many indigenous Pacific cultures), weaving is considered holistically and can be seen as an environmental/spiritual continuum which reflects the responsibilities of tangata whenua. Christina describes the process of gathering and the practice of weaving as effectively, 'bringing the outside in'. Added to this is what the artists refer to as the therapeutic aspects of weaving or finding the 'space and pace' of learning and experimenting with the techniques necessary in making great works.
A number of the works in Kahurangi emphasise process. In Woven Pieces showing different techniques for example, details of raranga (the plaiting technique) and whatu and taniko (twining techniques) do much to explain how the larger pieces have been constructed. As is the case with many indigenous artists throughout the Pacific and the world, there are differences in the works made for galleries and those made for traditional or ceremonial purposes. The works shown in galleries have an audience who will read the work quite differently and often within the context of Western contemporary art practices. While work made for meeting houses is to some extent bound by tradition and the architecture of the building, gallery work provides an opportunity to communicate with a wider audience, making the work accessible to those who may not have an in depth knowledge of the ideas and techniques.
This is not to say that Christina and Matekino do not take innovative approaches in their work for traditional venues and it is always important to remember that in New Zealand a number of Maori artists have, in varying degrees, taken delight in pushing the boundaries of traditional weaving and carving techniques. Clifford Whiting's controversial design for the meeting house at Te Papa Tongawera/The Museum of New Zealand is an excellent example. Galleries and museums therefore have become venues where we can see both traditional and contemporary work side by side, thus giving a greater understanding not only of the cultures whose works are displayed but also of how culturally specific techniques have changed.
Christina Hurihia Wirihana, Woven Stainless Steel, 1998. Stainless steel strips, 50 x 50cm (1 of 3). Collection the artist. Courtesy Waikato Museum of Art and Histroy. Photographer Stephanie Leeves.