May 12, 2021

Maori News & Indigenous Views

Manawa wera Defiant chants – weaving meaning within contemporary practice

6 min read

By Nigel Borell:

to sing, recite, repeat, inform, reiterate, impart, provoke, react , respond

All of the above kupu (words) express the ways in which oral traditions can activate meaning and intention through chants or waiata. Whether born of purpose or political struggle such iterations imply a belief and desire to communicate greater teachings and cultural learnings. Likewise, whether motivated by individual ambition or collective aspiration, such practices have the power to elevate and emancipate deeper agendas and positions. This could be said of the pairing of contemporary Maori weavers Ngahina Hohaia and Karl Rangikawhiti Leonard with this exhibition at Objectspace entitled: Manawa wera defiant chants.

However, these artists have chants that prescribe to a different beat and with a diction that is uniquely their own. Framed firmly by the place of weaving and the fibre arts in their upbring, it is no surprise that Ngahina Hohaia and Karl Rangikawhiti Leonard were destined to take their love for the art form to new heights with purpose and conviction.

For Ngahina Hohaia, of Ngati Moeahu and Ngati Haupoto descent, Parihaka is the kainga from which her world view, heritage and rationale are intrinsically shaped. The teachings of the spiritual leaders Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi are implicitly intertwined in how she negotiates the telling of stories, events and tribal narratives.

19th century Parihaka oratory was rich in symbolism, both ancient and contemporary. Symbolism, that expressed the Taranaki peoples struggle of passive resistance that intertwined both ancient Maori and biblical identities into liberation theology [1]

These prophetic teachings are a source of reverence for Hohaia who imbues elements of this thinking within her art making. One example of the Parihaka tradition is poi manu or poi chants. This customary practice was a way of imparting tribal narratives and recalling significant events. Hohaia draws on the concepts and ideas found within these waiata to present her own contemporary poi manu that activate this tradition of ritual narration[2]. The symbols, motifs and illustrations found stitched at the centre of each poi reiterate the stories and their connection to Parihaka. In this exhibition we find an impressive installation of poi manu strategically placed along the gallery wall, echoing designs and forms found in customary weaving patterns. Stretching from one end of the gallery space, virtually to the other, poi manu function as a medium to reaffirm philosophies such as land retention, communal pride and self respect, -some of the very teachings of Te Whiti o Rongomai.

The suspended piece Te kahu o te Karauna, hangs heavy in the gallery space. The title of this work is again inspired by poi manu and comes from an expression found in one of the Parihaka chants. Literally translated to mean The cloak of the Crown, Hohaia discusses the confiscation of Maori land by the settler government and this impact on the natural environment. Forming the collar to this cloak is a reconstituted two-man saw, similar to those used in the clearing of native forests. With the teeth of the saw detailing the neck of the garment, the body is comprised of 160 metres of ungalvanised chain, anchored in three mounds on the gallery floor. The artists intention is to revisit the seat of power, the very throne of authority by reconceptualising this space as one of empowerment and control as opposed to an oppressive colonial event.

In comparison Karl Rangikawhiti Leonard, of Te Arawa, Ngati Awa and Ngati Raukawa descent, opens up a range of innovative weaving approaches and techniques, subtly sitting amongst what one might describe, or perhaps dismiss as, strictly customary mahi raranga and mahi whatu. However, on closer inspection there are many other ideas at work in Leonards pieces that offer development to customary techniques and ways of executing and understanding the art form.

For Leonard the skill and knowledge of weaving was part of the relationship he shared with his grandmother and the kuia of his kainga in Rotorua. Learning such skills wasnt an option- it was universal to our upbringing[3]. The artist also acknowledges being highly influenced by Bubbles Mihinui, Mini Hohepa, Kura Raponi, Homai Balzer, Denny Anaru, Katiroa Tuhakaraina and Emily Schuster from who he learnt the arts of piupiu making, taniko, kete making and tukutuku. These women were important kuia and senior guides of the NZ Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, Whakarewarewa, Rotorua now known as Te Puia.

It was a privilege to have access to knowledge and skills through these kuia. They would all have their own tricks and techniques that were their signature style[4]

A trained carver as well as an experienced weaver, Leonard is constantly pushing to strive for quality and excellence with his work. Indeed Leonard would be one of the more talented weavers of his generation, with a reputation for tackling the more challenging and ambitious weaving techniques and methods. Whether it be mastering carving or weaving, for Leonard, learning and understanding the foundations of each art form is the platform from which one can start to push the parameters of each discipline to create new statements.

In this exhibition Leonard also exemplifies poi; poi taniko are presented with new techniques being explored. These labour intensive, meticulously crafted poi taniko explore the spherical geometry of the poi and push the boundaries of the form to echo organic, diamond-shaped poi taniko. The technical design and patterning are impressive but it is the subtlety with which the artist has considered form, whilst contributing new ideas to customary practice, which really stand out.

Elsewhere, intricately woven pihepihe and graceful kahu muka illustrate the breadth of Leonards weaving knowledge and learning. It is also testament to the legacy of his weaving mentors and the role they have played in his practice. These works are complemented with natural dyes and dying techniques that give the garments a dignity that is not complicated or contrived.

A committed teacher and practitioner of mahi raranga, mahi whatu and is just as candid when surveying the current climate within the wider weaving fraternity. Vocal about the lack of peer critique and the need for this to take place more often within the contemporary Maori weaving movement, Leonard believes this is not helping the art form to grow, with quality and distinction.

Manawa wera defiant chants, holds a beat that implies a steadfast and determined resolve and, for differing reasons, it also describes the positions of both artists. The metaphorical use of chants to poetically describe the commonalities and individual aspirations found within their art practice also tells us something of their personal qualities and beliefs. Whether they are delivered separately or offered in unison both produce work that implicitly speaks to the tensions found within the wider customary and contemporary Maori weaving movement. Whether this is motivated by the stories of Parihaka or a desire to innovate and strive for excellence within the art form, it is the personal convictions of these artists that resonate so loudly with the viewer.

This exhibition will be held at Objectspace, 8 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby and opens on Friday 6 August running till 11 September.

Nigel Borell, 2010

Maori glossary

kupu words

waiata songs, chants

kaainga home

kuia elderly women, grandmother

mahi raranga weaving work

poi a light ball on a string of varying length which is swung or twirled rhythmically to sung accompaniment

whenua land

taainko coloured geometric finger woven pattern: a finger weaving technique

pihepihe shoulder cape with ornamental cylindrical tags

kahu muka fitted shoulder garment with spun muka

muka prepared fibre of the harakeke plant

[1] Ngahina Hohaia, artist statement 2009

[2] Ngahina Hohaia, personal communication; 5th June, 2010

[3] Karl Rangikawhiti Leonard, personal communication; 4th July, 2010

[4] ibid

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