Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Here is an article from Andrew Paul Wood about Rokahurihia Ngarimu-Cameron’s exhibition of cloaks

Cloaks: Rokahurihia Ngarimu-Cameron - Maumahara / Remember
Canterbury Museum
until 14 March 2010

In European history the Schleswig-Holstein Problem was the famously intractable administrative dispute between Prussia and Denmark over the southern part of the Jutland Peninsula. Lord Palmerston allegedly said of it: “There are only three men who ever understood it: one was Prince Albert, who is dead; the second was a German professor, who became mad. I am the third – and I have forgotten all about it.”

The equivalent in art is the nature of naïf art, craft, indigenous, applied and folk art in relation to the fine arts, design, mass-production and technology – or even whether such categories are even relevant. The whole concept of art pour art may have kicked off with the parvenu artists of the Renaissance courts (who farmed most of the work out to their assistants anyway), but in reality it was little more than an aberration of nineteenth century Romanticism. In most cases when craft or industry has tried to steer the Anschluß – the Bauhaus being the most successful attempt – this has ended in glorious failure. And when art has assimilated craft or design, it has always been on art’s own terms, carefully editing out the pragmatic scaffolding and utility whence the new strategic playthings originated. Don Peebles may have employed a tentmaker in the fabrication of the constructivist canvas sculptures, but those works had nothing to do with keeping the rain out, nor was that anonymous artesian included in any way in the authorship of the work.

Things are further complicated in the postcolonial New Zealand context by the traditions and contemporary practices of Maori as a kulturvolk. The Bauhaus is a useful reference here as well – Indo-Dutch émigré artist Theo Schoon saw an immediate relationship between the minimalist geometric forms and restricted palettes shared by the German design school and Maori practitioners. Occasionally from this rich dolly-mixture of cultural exchange and cross-pollination something quite remarkable appears.

Rokahurihia Ngarimu-Cameron’s exhibition of contemporary Maori kakahu is a stimulating investigation of the possibilities of tradition and innovation, colour, pattern and texture. The only comparable exhibition I can think of was Toi Maori: The Eternal Thread which showed at Christchurch Art Gallery in 2007. Ngarimu-Cameron is a registered artist with the Maori authenticity trademark Toi Iho Maori Made, which is of itself an interesting concept as it applies to the contemporary arts rather than, say, the tourism market – and this is the result of a two-year project undertaken in the Master of Fine Arts Programme with the Textiles Section of the School of Art at Te Kura Matatini ki Otago/Otago Polytechnic.

The traditional vocabulary of hukahuka tassels, ngore pompoms and paheke running threads is there, as is the notion that each cloak goes beyond simply being a ceremonial garment and the product of long and ritualised labour to take on the status of textile multi-media sculpture and taonga, drawing on some particularly South Island cultural interactions. At the same time there are multiple contemporary and Pakeha references – in particular to Scotland, acknowledging Ngarimu-Cameron’s hyphenated ancestry (and as my maternal grandmother was a Cameron, I imagine that must make me whanau of the artist somewhere in the heather-scented whiskey-mist of the Celtic twilight).

The history of Maori and Pakeha interaction in the South Island was less antagonistic and intermarried than the North – the Scots in particular found a natural alliance with Maori in the synchronicity of many shared customs. Ngai Tahu and Ngati Mamoe and their related hapu intermarried and otherwise intermingled with settler families far earlier than in the North, to the point that today some tangata whenua do not even appear to have particularly Polynesian features – red hair and blue eyes are not uncommon. South Island Maori communities – Kaikoura, Tuahiwi, Papaki, Arowhenua, Arahura, Otakou – were seen during the colonial period as more peaceable than their North Island compatriots. The South suddenly also became enormously wealthy when in 1861 gold was discovered at Gabriel's Gully in Central Otago. This sparked a gold rush allowing the South to rapidly outstrip the North in development. Dunedin became the wealthiest city in the country, and many in the South Island began to resent the financing of what many Mainlanders saw as the North Island's war for Maori land.

A weaker version of this nationalist Pakeha narrative existed in the North Island as if, in Lawrence Jones’ words, “the Land Wars were a kind of historic rugby match from which winner and loser emerged with respect for each other”, but it took strongest root in the provincialism of the South. Ngarimu-Cameron seems to acknowledge this and alternate historical interpretations in ceremonial/sculptural hybrids of kilt and cloak using the Cameron and other tartans counterpointed with natural native fibres. Other garments make reference to the mytho-geography of Aotearoa and tributes to the Maori Battalion. I don’t really know whether to call this costume, wearable art (a silly definition, I’ve always thought), applied or textile art, or what – but then art is a house of many mansions.

In Maori culture, weaving /raranga occupies an equivalent position somewhere written record and computer memory – a formal and ordered patterning of information. Distinctions between art, craft and storytelling are churlish in the context of these amazing objects contributing to the achievements of modern Maori weavers as significant as late Dame Rangimarie Hetet, her daughter Diggeress Te Kanawa, the late Emily Schuster, and Erenora Puketapu-Hetet and her whanau.

Knowledge and beauty continue to grow with every successive generation, and with modern and contemporary influences cloaks and kakahu and other types of raranga into formalist sculptural forms as aesthetic and rarity value rival the ceremonial. While knowledge of raranga, according to legend, came to Maori from a patupaiarehe (fairy) woman called Niwareka, who wove the first cloak, but these garments are very much of this world, interacting with Maori, Pakeha, contemporary and historical realms to achieve their impact. In Ngarimu-Cameron’s skilled hands traditional materials like harakeke (Phormium native ‘flax’), other plants and feathers find witty and innovative forms, building on those ancient patterns and motifs as a living, evolving thing.

Ngarimu-Cameron has focused on the practice of loom weaving – an instance of constructive utu/reciprocity between Maori and Pakeha, but without losing the Maori perspective as inspiration. Working from that position, the artist has invented her own technique using individual strands of the harakeke fibre on a loom rather than the traditional continuous threads and includes cured seal skins, wove tartans, prepared kereru pelts, all prepared by the artist, and finally leading up to the use of a computerised loom – an example of the mataora (living face) of toi Maori.

1 comment:

Roka Ngarimu-Cameron said...

Dear Andrew, I am the artist that you profile in your article. Thank you for your outstanding comments. I would have responded sooner, had I known of your article's existence. Fortunately, I stumbled across your article today whilst researching for the purposes of my involvement in the annual Fiji Hibiscus Festival. God Bless Arohanui Roka.