Kia ora! It is Māori Language Week/Te Wiki o te Reo Māori in New Zealand this week so it is fitting that the exhibition I am writing about this month is borne from the beautiful collision of Māori and European cultures. Tell Tails is on show at the Turnbull Gallery at the National Library until August 4th and features the work of three female artists who have drawn their inspiration from the collection of the National Library. The exhibition was created over two years as a collaborative and creative project between Jo Torr, Maureen Lander and Christine Hellyar. The trio have apparently know each other for many years, and this is no surprise as the synergy of the exhibition is apparent through the many ways in which their works echo back to one another. The show gets its name from the tails of kites that Māori used to fly to show them the way in which the wind was blowing – the figurative and literal wind, that is.
Guiding you into the exhibition space (which is very small), is a large woven manu aute (kite) made of willow, feathers string, muka (prepared flax that is worked until it can be woven into garments) and printed linen. The manu aute is a precursor for the pieces to come: the blending of Māori and colonial history that is reflected through the use of blended fabrics. Also outside the gallery is a coat, created in the style depicted in the portraits of Tuai and Titere from which Jo Torr drew inspiration. The back of the coat is embroidered with another manu aute, the image of which was taken from Titere’s letters. Again, there is a blending of fabrics (wool, linen and muka) to reinforce the ways in which cultures were blending. The letter from which the drawing comes, was written by Titere when he was visiting England in 1818. The two young men were enjoying the sights in London, visiting the zoo and attending high society balls, a far cry from their lives in New Zealand.
Though I liked the idea of having these two works (there was a third also) outside the gallery, I think the objects need to be able to stand alone and this can be done with great interpretation. If not, these objects can look out of place in what is (in this case anyway) a quiet reading room for the library. Furthermore, if the exhibition narrative is going to start outside, visitors shouldn’t have to go back to labels to make sense of the content as I had to with this exhibition.
Inside the gallery space, Christine Hellyar’s piece Cordage Cloud reiterates the theme of collaboration in the exhibition as she utilises flax that was given to her by Maureen Lander and Jo Torr. It also highlights the repetition of threes seen throughout: three artists, and the three woven strands of the plaits used within the piece.
My favourite pieces of the exhibition were those of Maureen Lander. Lander was taught to weave by the late master weaver Diggeress Te Kanawa and was the first Māori woman to gain a Doctorate in Fine Arts from a New Zealand university. The first piece of hers was the three hanging bonnets, these drew my attention as soon as I entered the room. An inspiring friend of mine first introduced me to thinking about how thoughts regarding bodies are constructed and manipulated through the display of objects. The suspension of the three bonnets, facing one another as if in conversation, their shadows stretching across the wall, all of them at head height, immediately brought this idea to mind: I could imagine the wearers. Instead of being mere objects, they had an element of embodiment attached to them. Reading about the inspiration for this work made me even more excited. Lander had chosen a watercolour by Joseph Merrett called The Warrior Chieftains of New Zealand, and when she carried out further research on the painting, she uncovered the story of Hariata Heke, a woman with a penchant for red who led 700 men into battle. Hariata would often fight wearing a tartan skirt, red jacket and blue bonnet adorned with red feathers.
The final piece I want to mention is also by Lander, a deconstructed cloak inspired by a red cloak that was exhibited at the British Museum in 1998 with no known provenance. A cloak which she had made for the Te Papa exhibition Kahu Ora has been taken apart and hung, as if it were a collection of newly created pieces drying before being made into a cloak. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this kind of process before wherein something is created for a specific purpose, then a mystery presents itself for solving, so this object is recalled to help solve the mystery through a process that completely unravels the original object, purpose and story. It is a brave and invigorating prospect!
What a great idea this exhibition is; letting artists feed off the nation’s largest art collection in such a visceral manner to produce new artworks should continue on. I hope this carries on in some way in the future.
A note on my column title: Kōrero Kākahu translates very literally from Māori to English as “talk of clothing” but can also be read as the stories gleaned from clothing or the stories that clothing holds. Future columns, particularly those that cover Māori content, may delve into this meaning a little deeper.