The Dowse Art Museum, located in Lower Hutt City a mere 15 minutes drive from Wellington central, is always a favourite of mine to visit. Though it is titled an “Art Museum” it leans more heavily to the art side of things as most exhibitions lack the social history objects that I tend to associate with a museum. After seeing that the current cycle of exhibitions featured an exhibit of the Māori jeweller Areta Wilkinson’s works, I thought it would make for a great extension and extrapolation of the ideas surrounding taonga (a Māori concept that is very simply translated as a treasured possession but in reality is simultaneously more abstract and simplistic than this explanation) that I have briefly touched on in other posts. Whakapaipai – Jewellery as Pepeha, greets visitors on the top floor of the museum with a wide open space and a group of silhouetted people at the back who are wearing necklaces. The layout of the exhibition is reminiscent of the traditional Māori ceremonial greeting of a pōwhiri wherein visitors are welcomed into spaces (a recognisable image of which would be of a pōwhiri conducted on a marae) by the resident group (tangata whenua, people of the land) and in particular called into that space by a woman calling them in with a karanga, a call that interweaves the history of the resident group and the visiting group (manuhiri). In this respect, the layout of the exhibition reflected the essence of the exhibition title whereby whakapaipai means to adorn and a pepeha is a means of introduction where genealogy is told.
However enticing these silhouettes and their adornments were, my eye was drawn to the wall on the left hand side where a series of photographs lined the wall. This was a clever curatorial nod to the interior designs of a marae. During the pōwhiri ceremony mentioned above, the visiting group is welcomed into the ancestral house (wharepuni) of the resident group. The visiting group then sits to the right hand side fo the door, a side which is invariably larger and features carvings and weavings that represent tribal groups from throughout the country. The home side is thus, often smaller and features carvings and weavings from the resident group. The situating of these photographs was clever as the silver bromide photograms and cyanotypes were created from museum collection objects that were from the same tribal group as Wilkinson herself, and the exhibition continued to welcome visitors into Wilkinson’s understanding of herself. This understanding of self is something that Wilkinson determinedly sought out when she moved to Christchurch eight years ago to reconnect with her Ngāi Tahu (a Māori tribal group from the South Island of New Zealand) roots. One way in which she was able to do this, thanks to her training as a jeweller, was through exploring the jewellery in museum collections, a majority of which are adornments like hei tiki or other pieces that are made to be worn around the neck. Though a lot of these taonga in museums have unknown provenances, including some of those that Wilkinson includes in the exhibition, through including them in the exhibition, and especially by including them on the wall where they are placed, there is a kind of reclamation that though these taonga may have unknown provenances, and may have originated in Ngāi Tahu, they are in the care of Ngāi Tahu now and are thus inextricably linked to them.
What Wilkinson also represents as a contemporary Māori jeweller is the innovation that Māori have in adapting to the materials at hand. Many of the taonga in museum collections are of a natural disposition be they pounamu (greenstone) or include the feathers of native birds, Wilkinson’s pieces in Whakapaipai are made from various metals but the styles and shapes reflect back to the taonga that inspired her from the museum collections.
Trying to explain the many ways in which this exhibition impressed, inspired and moved me through such small objects; how it commanded such presence and space when the objects themselves are comparatively small; is impossible to do without including the Māori customary concepts that they continue to speak to. I could go on about these concepts as they are many and varied but crucially, they all connect. Instead, I will leave you with two quotes from the exhibition from two of the people that Wilkinson has interviewed as part of her journey of self-discovery:
“One of the things that makes them [taonga] so significant is that they have been touched whether they have been made or used or worn, a lot of it is about the direct touching, and the connection that makes with our tūpuna (ancestors) if that taonga has been passed down.” – Rachel Rakena, artist of Ngāi Tahu and Ngāpuhi descent
“…taonga, or whakapapa (genealogy), are one and the same to me,…they are physical manifestations of whakapapa and they contain the essence of all of that.” – Megan Tamati-Quennell, Māori art curator of Ngāi Tahu, Te Ātiawa and Ngāti Mutunga descent
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.