Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Maumahara - Remember

Yesterday I introduced the stunning cross-cultural works of Pakeha New Zealander, Jo Torr, which are featured in her exhibition ‘Nga Kakahu (The Cloaks),’ currently showing at Tauranga Art Gallery. (See below). Today, it seemed especially fitting that I follow that up with a Maori perspective on cross-cultural expression – ‘Maumahara / Remember’ Cloaks by Rokahurihia Ngarimu-Cameron (Te Whanau-a-Apanui, Whakatohea, Ngati Awa, Tuwharetoa, Ngati Airihi), which is now showing at Canterbury Museum in Christchurch. Ngarimu-Cameron weaves Maori and Pakeha together by taking traditional Maori off-loom hand-weaving garments into contemporary art practice via adapted European loom weaving techniques. The show is the result of a 2-year project for her Master of Fine Arts programme with the Textiles Section of the School of Art at Te Kura Matatiniki ki Otago (Otago Polytecthnic).

Rokahurihia Ngarimu-Cameron was born in Opotiki in the late 1940’s and was raised by her grandmother, Rokahurihia, and her mother, Te Oti, in a whare ponga on the at Hāwai in the rohe (district) of Te Whānau-a-Apanui. (I wrote about Hawai on this blog a week or so ago. Click on it in the label line below to see the marae). The whare (house) that she was raised in had an earth floor, no electricity, no running water, a single door-opening and an outside toilet. Her grandmother, Rokahurihia was then in her seventies. “She was “tuturu Māori” – which meant that we lived in the ways of our ancestors. She could not speak English – so all my verbal communication with her was in Māori. She was a survivor of the Tarawera eruption and a staunch member of the Ringatū church. I bear her name (which means tumbling and turning rocks) and dedicate my mahi (work) to her and to my mother,” writes Ngarimu-Cameron in her degree text.

When you enter into the darkened hall of Canterbury Museum where the exhibition is staged, you can almost feel that sense of history. Ngarimu-Cameron comes from a long line of traditional Maori weavers – four generations of them in fact – and weaving was an integral part of her life growing up at Hawai – not only as an artistic medium but as an essential practical skill that provided everyday essentials like kete (baskets) for food gathering. For her Fine Arts project though, she wanted to experiment and push the boundaries of harakeke (flax) fibre using European technology. To that end, she had to develop a new technique that would enable her to use short lengths of harakeke fibre on a traditional loom – the loom that stood in the corridor outside her Polytech studio space.

“The idea began to take shape that I could make use of the loom in my work for my
Master’s degree. I thought of my tūpuna and the difficulties they had faced and
overcome, and through karakia I consolidated my determination to succeed. I became excited by the possibility of finding ways of retaining my Māori identity by adapting
my treasured Māori methods and resources – in particular whītau (flax fibre) – to use on the
loom. Holding on to my whītau was of prime importance. There were problems to be
solved here. Most workers at the looms used yarn wound on a shuttle which can be
thrown backwards and forwards. The length of strands of whītau is limited by length
of the flax-blade, and a shuttle is impractical. Perhaps for this reason, no-one, as far
as I know, had looked to the loom as a tool for weaving Māori cloaks using whītau,” write Ngarimu-Cameron.

Throughout her art practice, Ngarimu-Cameron has always worked towards reinstating and strengthening traditional tecniques and the use of traditional resources and their preparation. For this body of work she used traditional off-loom
technology and the many techniques involved with this, for example the tāniko technique on the kaitaka; hide preparation; traditional dyeing; and preparation of feathers and fibres. She has a passion for the current renaissance in Māori weaving which she says “preserves and honours the ancient ways of making the artifacts of our material culture.”
It is through such practices that we remain connected to our traditions. However, it was also important for me to connect with European culture in Aotearoa and also to honour and respect the European components of my own heritage. This found its way into my practice via the use of plaids for tartan patterning,” she writes. For Ngarimu-Cameron, the whole project was very much about bridging the gap between Māori and European culture in Aotearoa / New Zealand. In my view she succeeds beyond expectations. Her cloaks are masterpieces – an intricate interweaving of fibres, threads, feathers, knots and twirls – much of it dyed traditionally using tanekaha (celery pine bark) and paru (black mud) – that left me speechless. And that doesn’t happen often!

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