Pat Baskett, ‘Te Waka Toi Comes Home’, Herald, 3 February 1994
The exhibition of contemporary Māori art, Te Waka Toi, has come home for its first New Zealand viewing in the Auckland City Art Gallery, after a tour of five American cities.
The exhibition is the brainchild of painter Sandy Adsett and sculptor Cliff Whiting, who is also chairman of the organisation whose name the exhibition bears, Te Waka Toi, the Council for Māori and South Pacific Arts.
They were joined, as curators, by Eric Tamepo, and were aided by the expertise of Wellington art collectors Jim and Mary Barr.
Te Waka Toi incorporates a diversity of artistic styles and media, from painting on canvas, wooden wall sculpture and sculpture using polystyrene, to traditional kete and korowai (cloaks) and ceramic vessels.
At each of the American venues—San Diego, Phoenix, Chicago, Seattle, Hawaii—the installation of the exhibition was overseen by one or two Māori artists. The placing of each work was governed by more than aesthetic considerations.
Whiting explains in the exhibition’s catalogue: ‘The way that the pieces are arranged is a demonstration of the marae and how it deals with living expressions.’
‘So you have a challenge, then you have women’s work, as the major welcoming pieces into the exhibition. They reflect the karanga, the call of the women . . . Then moving on into the body of the exhibition is like moving into and on to the marae.’
No fixed sequence was possible because each location—the Museum of Man in San Diego, or the University of Hawaii Art Gallery—posed different problems of size and space. And these are works of art which need to relate visually to each other as well as conforming to the interpretation of tradition.
In Auckland, the task of liaising with art-gallery staff was allotted to carver Fred Graham and painter Kura Te Waru Rewiri. Visitors to the exhibition, in the old library wing on the gallery’s ground floor, will recognise the symbolic challenge of the first work they encounter, the wooden sculpture by Whiting, with its horizontally held taiaha.
The stylised eagle perched on the taiaha acknowledges the American Indians as the tangata whenua of the places visited.
The karanga of the women is represented by a large photograph of life-size clay figures made by Shona Rapira Davies and called Ngā Mōrehu (the survivors). The figures were considered too fragile to be transported.
Although the layout reflects traditional marae practices, the exhibition goes beyond any superficial representation of what might be deemed ‘Māori culture’. The artistic rigour of the images attests to the vigorous way in which that culture continues to evolve—while maintaining its most distinctive features.
Kura Te Waru Rewiri points out, for example, how the traditional roles of men and women are breaking down, albeit un-consciously, in the mind of the artist.
To the right of the entrance to the exhibition a wall is taken up by a large panelled work by Adsett. The design element it uses is a weaving pattern called niho taniwha. Weaving is considered the domain of women.
In his catalogue notes, Adsett says: ‘I think that most Māori artists have a commitment to the cultural survival of our people. As our language is constantly under threat the visual statements of who we are and where we are become very important to us.’
Beyond Adsett’s panel, on the wall opposite the entrance, Rewiri and Graham have placed the kete and korowai of Rangimarie Hetet, Diggeress Te Kanawa, Emily Schuster, and Erenora Puketapu Hetet, symbolising the way the presence of the women surrounds the men on a traditional marae.
Dr Rangimarie Hetet is now 101. The cloak on display is the last one she made before her eyesight failed, and the pattern one of her favourites.
It incorporates more than 100 short Lassies of twisted flax, dyed in special mud found where Hetet lives in Te Kuiti. Much of the six to nine months it takes to complete a cloak is spent in selecting, gathering, and preparing the flax.
Rewiri comments that ‘a lot of our people have made heavy sacrifices to keep alive traditional artforms’.
Schuster takes the traditional form a step further by combining it with the tapestry ‘sampler’ which colonial women stitched and framed. Her weaving samples highlight the intricate and delicate aspects of the craft.
Christchurch-based Riki Manuel is one of the younger artists represented in Te Waka Toi. His moko-covered wooden masks represent, he says, the faces of the past and the future.
The first in the series is carved with a moko recorded by Parkinson, one of the artists who travelled with Captain Cook. ‘In contrast the final mask, the face of the future, is painted with a contemporary design.’
Arnold Wilson’s three tall figures called Papatuanuku (Earth Mother) are sited in the centre of the room, reminiscent of the palisade-type of figure that was set inside the pa. The black rock-like shapes are made of polystyrene, and recall a visit Wilson made to a Zimbabwe village where sculptors created works out of the local stone.
The finished pieces were mounted on stumps of trees or on top of outcrops of rock.
Wilson says that his interest in burial markers led him to paint the plinths in kowhaiwhai pattern in black and white, showing male and female elements.
The link Wilson’s work shows with that of Zimbabwean artists points up the wider aspects of the exhibition’s conception. Whiting explains: ‘Quite early on I was challenged as to why we were sending a contemporary Māori art exhibition to the United States. My response has always been that Te Waka Toi has never been only an exhibition—it is part of a cultural exchange.’
‘It was part of a search to find out about other tribal people … and how their cultures, their arts and their ways of life were surviving, particularly in the fast-moving, hard-hitting culture that Americans live in.’
Alongside this desire to understand another people’s struggle was the need to acknowledge and pay respect to the American Indians in each city the exhibition visited.
Whiting: ‘For them, as for us, the real concern is about spiritual mana, so that if you are a stranger in a place your welcome needs to be given by the right people.’
Rewiri’s work exemplifies the way contemporary Māori art is imbued with tradition, using elements from it, and yet speaking in a voice that is of the 1990s.
Her three-panelled painting Te Tohu Tuatahi, or looking through, is dominated by black. Rewiri says this has a positive meaning, symbolising the spiritual realm that ‘surrounds you like a cloak’.
Fine dribbles of colour hang like threads and represent a waterfall with its cleansing properties and power to lift tapu.
The large cross in the central panel is the sign many chiefs used as a signature when they signed the Treaty of Waitangi.
Rewiri says: ‘The important thing is the connection we still make with Māori traditions. But the challenge is to go ahead of that tradition.’
This requires a level of sophistication and that each artist takes their art one step further.
The danger lies in producing something that is too easily recognisable as ‘Māori art’.
Rewiri sees it as ‘quite a race really, to think ahead and accept the challenge’.
‘Te Waka Toi Returns to Aotearoa’, Te Māori News, February 1994
Artists, friends, and supporters gathered at the Auckland Art Gallery to welcome back the taonga.
The exhibition has for the past two years been shown in San Diego, Phoenix, Chicargo, Seattle and Hawaii.
The exhibition originally came out of a visit to a small mountain settlement outside San Diego by Te Waka Toi chairman CIiff Whiting (Te Whanau a Apanui) and Fellow artist Sandy Adsett (Ngati Kahungunu).
‘We were looking at possible models for Maori arts training programmes and the idea of an exhibition of contemporary Maori art became a point of discussion’, says Whiting.
‘Quite early on I was challenged as to why we were sending a contemporary Māori art exhibition to the United States. My response was that Te Waka Toi was part of a search to find about how other tribal peoples were surviving in this day and age.’
Whiting says during the tour, Māori protocol was reflected in the body of the exhibition.
‘The way the pieces were arranged was a demonstration of the marae and how it dealt with “living expressions”. So you had a challenge, then you had women’s work, as the major welcoming pieces into the exhibition. They reflected the karanga, the sacred call—that is their right to be the first speaker. Then moving on into the body of the exhibition of the exhibition was like moving on into the marae.’
‘The works we had in the exhibition, traditional and contemporary deal with both spiritual matters and issues of today.’
A roopu tautoko accompanied the group ensuring there were appropriate people to do the necessary karanga, karakia, whaikorero, and waiata.
Whiting says by the completion of the tour it was clear to see that the initial idea of sending the exhibition was a good one.
‘To me the interesting thing was that immediately our people entered the area that held the exhibition, it naturally became their marae. They felt secure, you could see it. They looked at all the works, whether they were modern or traditional. They looked at them as taongatuku iho, as works handed down from the ancestors. It was this experience that really confirmed for them, and us that observed it, that yes there is areal place in the international scene for Maori people to participate.’
James Mack, ‘Exhibition Excels at City Gallery’, Evening Post, 29 June 1994
I had seen this exhibition in the Auckland City Art Gallery. It looked awful and I had written it off because of it.
The exhibition looks great in the City Gallery—in fact the gallery has never looked better—and I was forced to reconsider and see the exhibition and the separate works it contains with a fresh eye and fewer preconceptions.
Aware of the care I as a pākehā critic must use in judging Māori art, the exhibition gives me the opportunity to say some things about Māori art that my soul has needed to say for a long time.
The knockout piece for me in the show is Te Ure o te Ngaire (1991) by Lyonel Grant of Rotorua.
He says about this masterpiece of his, ‘This piece is like revisiting the classical. No matter how many times I explore other materials, forms and approaches, it is satisfying to return to work of a more classical flavour.’ This large you is powerful in its restraint—it cherishes its timber to make its power manifest. Its surfaces are rich and its decoration sufficient to reinforce its classical approach and intention.
Grant’s other work Whaaia Ko Tawhaki (1991–2) is more complex, making a statement about Te Wharenui; it is inherently architectural and while not quite as strong as Te Ure o te Ngaire confirms Grant’s status as Tohunga Whaakairo.
Too often I find myself over-whelmed with the excesses and mannerisms of much contemporary Māori art. The power is often sublimated by excess surface decoration. Too much is said, and lots of contemporary carving and painting becomes busy and overstated losing its voice in the complications of its processes. Too much Māori art becomes cultural wallpaper.
Māori Women—Te Whare Pora, the Weaving House—have not let the advent of new technologies subvert their classical intentions. I still tremble inside when encountering a korowai by Dame Rangimarie Hetet.
One can understand the mana of being wrapped in one of these powerful transmitters of Maori cultural values.
Artists of great stature can also move a step to the side. Diggeress Te Kanawa (Rangimarie’s daughter) weaves a magnificent korowai. But she also makes necklaces and earings with the left over muka from her cloaks. These small adornments are vibrant reflections of technical and aesthetic virtuosity.
Erenora Puketapu-Hetet’s Tu Tangata (1990), humbled by its artist-administered label, also uses a traditional base to create a beautiful cloak for birds of a different feather to cherish and appreciate. This is a great classically abstract conception that is in full control of its destiny.
The other great encounter for me was with This Is No Ordinary Sun (from the Hone Tuwhare poem), a canvas panel mural by Selwyn Muru. In Auckland, I couldn’t see it; in Wellington, it sang me lots of complex tunes. While not always liking the paint in the poem, I found lots of lovely paint licking by Muru all over this large work. Superb technique, beautiful colour and some wry political humour. In one panel an arrogant mechanical French cockerel is defecating atom bombs into the Pacific at Mururoa. It is captioned in reverse ‘Te Mururoa Coq up’.
Robert Jahnke’s Nga Ata o te Whenua (1990), in rimu, lead, and steel, is starkly simple. But its pervading Māori ethos is capable, surely, of being seen by all and by all Māori.
The City Gallery display team still hasn’t got label placement sorted out. You often have to search for the information you want about works that are not perimeter-wall bound.
In the midst of all the public discussion about the City Gallery and cultural amenities, if you want proof how important the City Gallery is to Wellington, visit it now. It has never looked better! There is also a full programme of events associated with this show and Bottled Ocean.
Support these events and get across that important threshold. There are treats in store for you and in so doing you give bums-on-seats evidence to city fathers and mothers that the City Gallery is an important—we can’t do without it—cultural amenity.
‘Te Waka Toi an Afterthought Locally, Capital Times, 27 July 1994
When the contemporary Maori art exhibition Te Waka Toi toured America in 1992, its organisers took, not only their art, but their people over the seas to show audiences the beauty of their living, breathing, culture.
One of those people was Garry Nicholas who is managing Te Waka Toi‘s last showing ever, at Wellington’s City Art Gallery this month.
Brought up in Waitara, under the shadow of Mount Taranaki, Nicholas had tribal affiliations with Te Atiawa Ngati Ruanui and Ngaiterangi Ngati Ranginui.
He was the youngest of thirteen children, and when he grew up became a primary school teacher at Waitara’s local school.
His interest in art emerged long before he became an executive officer at the Māori Arts Council/Te Waka Toi, which he joined in 1985.
‘As a teacher, I worked in schools that had a large Māori membership. So, it was very easy for me to keep presenting Maori art as a viable way of helping young people to express themselves’, he says.
It was Nicholas’s strong relationship with his brother Darcy, an artist who worked at the Wellington Arts Centre, that led him to apply for a job with Te Waka Toi and to become an organiser of the council’s exhibition. Te Waka Toi toured America in conjunction with New Zealand’s 1992 America’s Cup challenge, following its predecessor Te Maori. It opened in San Diego and showed in Phoenix, Chicago, Seattle and Hawaii.
During the two years Te Waka Toi was on display Nicholas travelled between New Zealand and America to supervise its presentation. ‘The idea of presenting the work in the context of living people became absolutely essential for us’, says Nicholas.
‘Because it’s one thing to hold up a material culture and stick it on the walls of a gallery, but the moment you place living people around it who can talk about it, and who have great affinity with the symbolism in the work -then it becomes a living culture.’
Nicholas tells me Te Waka Toi‘s artists were not paid for their works. They loaned them to the exhibition.
‘The artists were interested in taking part in Te Waka Toi because they were conscious that, in the past, they had never been invited by any other Government agencies, or any galleries to present their whole culture in an exhibition without other works’, says Nicholas. Much of the work in Te Waka Toi has political meaning associated with New Zealand’s bicentennial celebrations in 1990, he adds, and today this gives them a peculiar historical resonance.
Exhibits include masks, carved moko, paintings and drawings, and weavings from some of Māoridom’s most respected artists.
Nobody ever planned to show Te Waka Toi in New Zealand, and shows at the Auckland Art Gallery, and the City Art Gallery came only as an afterthought.
Is Nicholas sad to see the exhibition closing next month?
‘No. That’s not a problem for me because these things have to keep going. If you disband this one, then you can create another.’
Rangitihi Tauparae, ‘Te Waka Toi Returns from the USA’, Mana Magazine, February–March 1994
The story of this exhibition’s remarkable success in the US and the connections it has forged with the First Nation people of America is a tribute to the artists who made it possible.
The Te Waka Toi exhibition had its beginnings in a discussion between Cliff Whiting and Sandy Adsett who were travelling in the US looking at possible models for Māori arts training programmes.
‘The idea of an exhibition of contemporary Māori art became a point of discussion,’ Whiting recalls. ‘As we travelled, Sandy and I constantly returned to the same question: Just what sort of international approach should a council like Te Waka Toi have?’
Te Waka Toi was already involved in a policy of supporting Maori art and Maori artists in cultural exchanges with people within the Pacific, so a look at the west coast of the US was a logical next move.
Nine years ago, Te Māori had made a spectacular impression in the US and that success has paved the way for other exhibitions of Maori art. Consequently, Adsett and Whiting found themselves in a good position to look for possible venues.
They visited San Diego which was, at the time, gearing up for the America’s Cup. An exhibition of Māori art, the two decided, would definitely be ‘in the right company, in the right place, at the right time.’
Douglas Sharon, director of the San Diego Museum of Man, was delighted with the idea and offered Whiting and Adsett use of a gallery he was having refurbished. The exhibition, it was decided, could be the first to open the new space.
Home again, the pair quickly realised that if the exhibition was to take advantage of the yacht race, there was only a year in which to prepare what would have to be a large exhibition.
Says Whiting: ‘We immediately formed a curatorial committee composed of Sandy Adsett, Eric Tamepo, and myself. We also realised that we had to have advice about how we should go about putting together such an exhibition and called on Jim and Mary Barr.’
The artworks were borrowed directly from the artists and the exhibition was assembled to fit into a forty-foot container, which proved to be the cheapest method of transporting the exhibition to the US. Freighting in this way helped determine the type of artwork acceptable for the exhibition.
Whiting, as chairman of Te Waka Toi and the curatorial committee, was often challenged as to why the council was sending a contemporary Māori art exhibition to the US.
‘My response has always been that Te Waka Toi was never intended to be only an exhibition’, explains Whiting. ‘It was always to be part of a cultural exchange, part of a search to find out about other tribal peoples and how their culture, their arts and their way of life survive, especially in the fast-moving, hard-hitting American culture.’
A vital aspect of the curatorial team’s kaupapa was to demonstrate their recognition of the tangata whenua of the places the exhibition visited. At San Diego, local Indian people were sought out and involved in opening ceremonies and other activities.
The pieces of the exhibition itself were arranged to demonstrate which was conceived by Adsett and refined at San Diego was followed with some modification, at all the subsequent venues.
Although it was always intended to have a Maori presence at each venue, the idea of having a large support group grew as the exhibition planning proceeded.
‘Originally we didn’t think of sending so many people over to be with the exhibition.’ Whiting says. ‘We were still thinking of artists holding workshops—but our experience in San Diego showed us that this really wasn’t the way to do it. On this international platform, we wanted to be able to carry out the kinds of protocols we felt were important in presenting ourselves. We needed people to fulfil these roles, such as a tohunga to do karakia and all the initiations and dedications, people to whaikorero and someone to karanga.’
During the five-venue tour, over sixty people travelled to support the exhibition with their presence. The exhibition itself was also highly successful drawing record crowds to at least three of the venues on its tour.
‘Ever since Te Waka Toi opened at the Burke, our attendance has doubled!’, wrote Miriam Kahn, curator of Asian and Pacific Ethnology. ‘We don’t know they they are all coming from but we know they are coming and staying for a long time, looking carefully and even coming back. I can honestly say, in all the seven years that I have been at the museum, Te Waka Toi is the exhibit for which I have the strongest feelings. For me, the art’s magnetism comes directly from the people, some of whom I now know, who speak so powerfully through the art.’
In selecting and displaying the Te Waka Toi exhibition, the curatorium used the protocols of the marae to give the exhibition its voice. Sandy Adsett, as one of the curators and the exhibition’s designer played a crucial role in this development.
‘In setting up the exhibition we started with the kaupapa of trying to represent the way in which Māori approach the meeting house. So we looked at the karanga of the women and the challenge, while trying to get an impact from strong images as people first went into the gallery.
‘Of course, things had to change as we went along. For instance, in some venues we found we couldn’t have walls sticking out because of security and things like that. This meant we had to realign some of the pieces purely on their visual impact and how they related to each other.’
For many of the American museums, the Te Waka Toi exhibition introduced a new way of displaying and treating art objects.
For each venue, artists were sent ahead to [missing] the layout of the exhibition and arrangements opening ceremonies. Staff at the museums were at first startled and then delighted as they came to that the art works were living parts of the Māori [missing].
At the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Manos Nathan was exhibition co-ordinator with Baye Riddell. An ‘amusing sideshow’ was the interplay between the exhibition design team and the curatorial staff who showed some concern at the lighting levels on korowai, kete, and other mahi raranga. Despite our support, it was the design team’s view that the exhibits required light levels accepted as international standards. I was asked to sign a ‘not our fault if it is damaged’ document!
The problem was short-lived. When the rest of the party arrived, one of the korowai was removed from its ‘over-lit’ display case and worn in broad daylight by Matiu Mareikura at the opening ceremony!
At the Field Museum in Chicago, Te Waka Toi was displayed in the same gallery that had been used for Te Maori. Staff reported that by the end of the exhibition, Te Māori‘s attendances had been equalled by the contemporary art exhibition.
Much of the audience would have been attracted by the fact that Te Waka Toi supported the opening of the meeting house, Ruatepupuke.
For Ereatara Tamepo, curator of the Te Waka Toi exhibition and connected to Ruatepupuke, the event had double significance.
‘Ruapupuke and Te Waka Toi were on separate floors and, while it may have been preferable to have them closer together, it worked out very well.
‘We made it clear from the beginning that we wanted to involve the Indian people in the opening ceremonies as an observance of the tangata-whenua-to-tangata-whenua relationship.
‘When we arrived, a meeting was organised with the Indian people and representatives of the Field Museum. From that meeting it was decided that the Indian people would welcome us into the museum on the morning of the opening with a sunrise drum dance.
‘We met them again on the day before the opening when we were invited to a pow wow. Tokomaru Bay had arrived by then so they came too. Then, before the group left to come home, they were hosted by that same Indian community to another pow wow. People who we spoke to after the event all said they had never seen so many Indians in the museum before, so hopefully we awakened a consciousness on these sorts of things.’