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Hei tiki by sculptor Rangi Kipa. Photo/Supplied

Crafting Aotearoa: A uniquely New Zealand story of cultural change

A new book is an encyclopaedic and wonderfully illustrated overview of craft making in Aotearoa and the Pacific. 

In 2011, picnickers on the banks of the Anaweka River in Tasman district discovered a 6m length of cut wood. It was the hull of a waka, carved out of mataī between 1226 and 1280AD. This was remarkable enough – it is now considered one of the country’s earliest archaeological finds – but further linking the hull to our early ocean-faring history was the shape of a sea turtle, carved in raised relief at the shaped end of the hull. Sea turtles are rarely seen in Māori carving, we are told in Crafting Aotearoa, but they are frequent motifs across the Pacific where turtles were traditionally regarded as “sacred guides for the first voyagers to venture to Hawai’i”.

Who carved it, when, why and with what is not known, but this small handmade motif encapsulates a story of spiritual belief, migration, discovery and, for lack of a better word, craft.

According to the authors of this encyclopaedic overview of object-making in New Zealand and the Pacific, craft is a tricky word, a “Pākehā term” referring to mostly functional objects made by hand and using a set of techniques “such as throwing a pot on a wheel or blowing glass”. But the history of the handmade object is also cultural – often involving protected knowledge passed down through generations – and political, privileging some cultural activities over others in order to maintain, we are told, “the hierarchies between coloniser and colonised” (and presumably those of gender and ethnicity). How could you write a book in Aotearoa, the authors ask, “that didn’t pay proper attention to the history of toi Māori, the oldest and most distinct type of hand making in this country?”

A sculpture of the god A’a made on the island of Rurutu.

It is a bristling riposte to an unidentified antagonist, but to set the record straight the editors and authors – art historian and curator Damian Skinner, former Te Papa curator Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Dowse Art Museum director Karl Chitham – have compiled an exhaustive and intriguing history of the evolving traditions of craft, craft art and object art in Aotearoa and the wider “Moana Oceania”.

It’s a busy book. It has seven main essays, nearly 70 shorter articles (printed in an eye-perplexing red), hefty captions, footnoted translations (many repeated) and a wide-ranging selection of photographs. The breadth is extensive, covering Samoan pe’a (traditional male tattoo), Crown Lynn Māori-motif dinnerware, Fred and Myrtle Flutey’s pāua shell-hung house in Bluff (recreated in Canterbury Museum), “Kia Ora” ashtrays made in Czechoslovakia, typefaces created by Samoan graphic designer Joseph Churchward, the Blunt umbrella designed by Greig Brebner, the critical and diplomatic success of Te Māori and the handmade hearts proliferating in Christchurch after the 2011 earthquake.

In a determinedly catholic approach to the business of the handmade, the authors rifle through kitchen cupboards, international exhibitions, museums, studio workshops and galleries to extract examples of the overlooked (sisi kakala – the vibrant Tongan waistbands), the resourceful (a candlestick made from No 8 wire), the spiritual (a crucifix made from a bullet), the bored (a lighter made from shrapnel) and the instructive (stitchery skills taught to young Māori girls by missionary wives as a marker of “civilisation” and a way in to biblical instruction).

Pātītī made by blacksmith Robert Pinkney and whakairo rākau expert Michael Matchitt. Photo/Supplied

In amassing this body of art, crafts and artefacts, knowledge and practices, the book examines the attitudes – as determined by the coloniser, missionary, ethnographer, curator and salesperson – that deemed some objects rare collectibles, some ethnographic curios, some souvenir tat, some fine works of art and some decorated implements for the home. But despite these seemingly rigid boundaries, the influence of cultural encounters is persistent and persistently changing.

Early European settlers started incorporating New Zealand and Māori motifs in their architecture and art from the 1880s. According to ethnologist Augustus Hamilton, this new “national characteristic” would serve as a “memorial to the race who created and developed it”. In carving out a distinctly New Zealand identity, government officials promoted representations of “Maoriland” at international events – feeding into a kind of “settler nationalism”, we are told, that relegated indigenous peoples to the past.

At the same time, however, interactions between different cultures brought a sharing of knowledge. Māori understanding of local plants was integral to missionary printers and bookbinders, who used pages of tapa and ink from local plantain. Chinese gold miners introduced new forms of carpentry and carving to New Zealand. In Northland, Dalmatian kauri gum diggers carved the resin. In the late 19th century, craftspeople in Britain, fleeing the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, brought with them the skills and values of the artisan-driven Arts and Craft Movement. By the middle of the 20th century, new educational theories promoted craft making as part of a well-rounded education for children and therapy for wounded soldiers.

Celtic and Māori cutlery by jeweller James Fleck. Photo/Supplied

As a growing souvenir trade found a ready market for cheap, generic “exotica” – the coconut-shell spoons, shell necklaces, pāua coasters – an influx of post-World War II immigrants from Europe brought to New Zealand Bauhaus-inspired fine craft and object art. This was supported by the emergence of new exhibition outlets such as the Helen Hitchings Gallery (1949), New Vision Gallery (founded in 1957) and Objectspace (2004). Architects such as The Group, artists such as Colin McCahon and Louise Henderson, poet ARD Fairburn and potters Len Castle, Helen Mason and Barry Brickell deconstructed the assumed boundaries between art and artefact, gallery and private home. Over a few decades, we are told, “The domestic environment became the crucible for modernist experimentation.”

At the same time, toi Māori was moving from museum artefact to individual art creation, ignoring those art-minded ethnographers, wrote Auckland Museum director Gilbert Archey in 1962, “who urge us to endeavour always to see primitive sculpture against its village or jungle background”. Modern artists such as Cliff Whiting and Paratene Matchitt were incorporating traditional whakairo rākau, kōwhaiwhai and tukutuku in their work. New work by non-Māori artists, such as Ann Robinson’s cast-glass kava bowls and David Trubridge’s waka-like furniture, drew on the changing face of Aotearoa. A series of modern pātitī, or axes, with iron heads forged by Pākehā blacksmith Robert Pinkney and carved wooden handles by Māori whakairo rākau expert Michael Matchitt, were evidence, the writers say, “of exchange and willing adaptation rather than domination and coercion”.

Tangaroa, made by Ani O’Neill from brown corduroy. Photo/Supplied
At each twitch of history, the handcrafted, hand-painted or handmade was there – in the back-to-nature self-sufficiency of hippiedom, the aggressive anti-materialism of punk the charge of feminism, anti-Springbok tour rallies, nuclear-free New Zealand marches, Māori self-determination protests and new expressions of Pacific identity as seen in the ever-evolving, multidisciplinary Pacific Sisters.

A more recent wave of craft activism has introduced us to retro chic, slow fashion, zero-waste initiatives and the revival of older craft traditions: parsi-inspired garments by Mumbai-born Areez Katki; crocheted clothing by Lou & Ash; the seemingly forgotten art of Māori aute, a tradition of beaten and decorated barkcloth still associated with the Pacific and resurrected here in a beautifully textured cover image by Ngāpuhi and Te Rarawa artist Nikau Hindin, who learnt the art form in Hawai’i.

Crafting Aotearoa charts it all, providing an important overview of all things cut and carved, stitched and sewn, hammered and hewn to build a uniquely New Zealand story of cultural change.

CRAFTING AOTEAROA: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the Wider Moana Oceania, written and edited by Damian Skinner, Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai (Te Papa Press, $85)

This article was first published in the January 11, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.