It is not often that I walk into an exhibition space and get goosebumps. The current exhibition at Auckland War Memorial Museum, Kōrero Mai, Kōrero Atu, is one of those few shows that make you feel a sense of something deeper to the objects on display. Working with mainly historical objects as part of my day job at Auckland Museum, it is very refreshing to see a gallery filled with contemporary art. The textile and jewellery pieces on display have been created by two female Māori artists, Areta Wilkinson and Te Rongo Kirkwood. Many of the works within this exhibition have been inspired by those same historical objects within the Auckland Museum’s collections that I am in the presence of every day.
Kōrero Mai, Kōrero Atu – entrance to the exhibition.
Upon entry to the exhibition a large screen plays a looping video of the artist’s whānau (family) welcoming guests into the shared exhibition space – an important element stressed by the artists when designing the space, as the presence of their whānau acts to warm the gallery and keep the objects company. A small stage adorned with cushions acts as a space for guest weavers to present live demonstrations of the traditional craft of weaving muka (flax) throughout the exhibition duration. Each artist has half of the exhibition space and has designed their respective areas to showcase not only their contemporary creations, but also treasures from within the Museum’s collection that have inspired these new works. A soundscape murmuring in the background immerses guests into the worlds of these artists and their individual creative journeys.
Te Rongo Kirkwood – A Journey of Life Through Light
Te Rongo Kirkwood is primarily a glass artist and finds inspiration in her works through nature, spirituality and her mixed heritages of Scottish and Māori. Curved walls create an organic flow and lead you into Kirkwood’s space where large mixed media glass and textile kākahu (cloak) pieces adorn a middle cylindrical wall. Each cloak reflects the four phases of a day, from dawn through until night. Displayed in an adjacent room are six of the Museum’s treasured historical kākahu, carefully and innovatively woven by Māori ancestors for practicality against the harsh elements of nature and to signify the wearer’s status. Cloaks were woven by skilled weavers who used muka (flax) as a base and could be adorned with anything from feathers, to animal skins to naturally dyed threads. Kirkwood’s pieces explore the idea that the aho (threads) within these traditional cloaks are the links that connect descending generations together. For me, Kirkwood’s pieces amplify these historical kākahu by combining traditional craft with the use of contemporary mediums such as glass and continue on the aho binding these generations in a new light.
Te Rongo Kirkwood’s kākahu on display.
Kirwood’s piece Te Kaahu Pokere, The Evening of Life stood out for me and is inspired by the lustre of the tui feathers on one of the kākahu held by the Museum, displayed in the adjacent space. This piece has been crafted to resemble the shape of a hawk with its wings outstretched and is laden with black glass feathers, real tui and ruru feathers, and woven together with black silk cord. This particular piece radiates a grand elegance through the combination of the black glass and use of real feathers, while paying tribute to traditional techniques of weaving. Another impressive aspect of Kirkwood’s exhibition is the accompanying video where the artist reflects on her childhood and the ways her past experiences have shaped her career as an artist today.
Areta Wilkinson – Recollections
Areta Wilkinson is a contemporary Māori artist and creates jewellery and sculptural works that draw on her mixed heritage of Pākehā and Māori, and her iwi affiliations to Ngāi Tahu. Inspired by museum collections Wilkinson draws on the stories that objects can tell of culture and identity. The pieces within the show also pay tribute to the strong influence that craft traditions have on her practise. Inside Wilkinson’s space, large display cases present each of her contemporary pieces, while interspersed around the walls of the space are the objects Wilkinson has drawn inspiration from to create these pieces. The majority of her works within Recollections are jewellery pieces, which I found to be most interesting.
Areta Wilkison’s delicate pieces on display. Foreground: “Legere to gather.”
The works in particular that I felt drawn to were a series of delicate brooches and pins made from hand-worked silver and gold in the shape of plant cuttings, titled Legere, to gather. These pieces draw on the collection of plant specimens that botanist Joseph Banks’ collected during James Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand in 1769. Wilkinson has gathered each piece together and titled it with its scientific, common and Māori name. I especially found that the way these pieces are displayed, on top of stacked white-covered books, evoke the memory of how botanical specimens were traditionally preserved and recorded in field books.
Display of Areta Wilkinson’s “Legere to gather.”
Another work I found interesting was Family Silver, a group of cast bronze sculptures that are the cast shadows of silverware displayed in Macready’s Jewellery shopfront from Auckland Museum’s former 1866 gallery. This gallery space was recently dismantled after many years and Wilkinson evokes the memories from her childhood of visiting the 1866 gallery with her family through these pieces.
Both of the artist’s works within Kōrero Mai, Kōrero Atu explore in depth the relationship between the then and now and leave a lasting impression for the viewer. This is a beautifully presented space throughout; from the soundscapes, to the welcoming video display, right through to the stage for guest weavers to demonstrate their skills for the duration of the exhibition. I highly recommend visiting Auckland War Memorial Museum for this show, as it not only brings to life objects cared for by the Museum, but showcases two highly regarded contemporary artist’s textile and jewellery works in a brand new light.