Wrapping everyone in a blanket of love, whakapapa and mauri for Matariki is the brave, exuberant and generous fabric art of Maungarongo Te Kawa, writes Amanda Thompson.
E te Atua
Nau enei rau harakeke he taonga
Tukuna ki a matou
Kia tika o matou mahi
Ko Papatuanuku e takoto nei
Kia tina, tina
‘Karakia mo Hine Te Iwaiwa’, prayer to acknowledge Hine Te Iwaiwa for the Corners of the Heart exhibition.
Buried deep within a 1991 issue of Craft New Zealand magazine are a few prim words describing the first exhibition of a young Maungarongo (Ron) Te Kawa of Ngāti Porou. Part of the 1990 Body Adornment series showing at The Dowse in Lower Hutt, his contribution was summed up: “Ron Te Kawa produced a small exhibition of clothes discussing a variety of personal concerns, including camp sensibility, cultural appropriation and environmental concerns”.
There are no photos, I’m sad to report. Floating up from a sea of black and white adverts for pure silk scarves or potter’s clay, it’s easy to assume a slight air of disapproval in this sentence from a review of the show that apparently featured an enormous, “overwhelming” dress sewn from drift-netting entitled Wall of Death.
But that was thirty years ago, and Te Kawa describes his work as having come full circle since then. “Back then we just wanted to be little punks, running around the streets,” he laughs. “I wanted people to get angry. Now I want to wrap everyone up in a blanket of love and whakapapa and mauri, to awhi them and make them warm.”
That doesn’t mean all political commentary on “camp sensibility, cultural appropriation and environmental concerns” has been banished. Far from it. His latest exhibition Corners of the Heart, designed by curator Sarah Hudson and currently showing at Whakatane’s Te Kōputu a te whanga a Toi, bursts with welcome, joy and spirituality. But central quilter pieces like ‘The Natives Must be in Awe’ (2020) are quick to show that Te Kawa still has, well, some personal concerns.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard Wallace Chapman – I think it was – on Radio New Zealand saying how the natives must have been in absolute awe when they saw the Endeavour sailing over the horizon. I know people from all around Gisborne and in their way of telling it, they were not in awe.”
Te Kawa swiftly turned his incredulity into a tongue in cheek depiction of “the natives” responding to the colonial explorers with poi, song and bared buttocks. “In my stories, it’s always tangata whenua who are the heroes.”
Tales from his tipuna and his early years are depicted with a flourish in many of the quilts and dresses in Corner of the Heart. He strives to pay homage to the women from his past who’ve played a role in his artistic career – the teachers, atua, and others. Although he first picked up sewing from his dad, Te Kawa is quick to acknowledge women like Nancy Seaton who helped him out when he first arrived in Wellington at the tender age of 16 as “a little punk kid.”
“Nancy made sure I made it through correspondence school. She had a little costume shop and she just took me under her wing there.” He lists off other teachers who kept him creating: Katherine Morrison, Kaia Hawkins, Paula Rigby, his mum, and his sister Margaret. He speaks of them variously as friends, goddesses, mentors, sisters, and protectors.
A sober reminder of his young Wellington years survives in The Gatekeepers series (2020), two quilts flanking the main door to the gallery. “These are for Chrissy Wihonga and Mary Baycroft, some of the women who watched out for us kids on the streets back then. They were the gatekeepers, like social workers, I guess. Their doors were always open and they were tough as old boots. Everyone was too scared to go to the police for stuff. Of course we should have, but you knew you’d just get the crap bashed out of you. So these men and women would keep an eye on us, just out of aroha.”
Whānau is honoured in Grandparents (2020) and Great Grandparent (2020). Again and again, the theme of Matariki is explored. The sometimes nine, sometimes seven stars of the famous cluster are featured as sister goddesses in several ways across several works. Two quilts feature Hine Te Iwaiwa, atua wahine of birth, weaving, fabric artists and poets. In his quilt Thoughts Forming in the Void (2018) she’s depicted in a radical departure from her usual representation of serene and holy mother. Instead, she bursts forth in virulent purple, harnessing the raw power of birth and motherhood and burning through the sky like a comet.
Te Kawa says the insight for this last piece comes from considering Hine Te Iwaiwa and her relationship to Te Kore, the mysterious void of unlimited potential. “I see Te Kore as a pond where everything good, everything that ever has existed or will exist is waiting to be passed down through this river of whakapapa. Everything you want, everything you need. All you have to do is turn up and be open to the inspiration. You have to believe that your ancestors, and it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from – all those people, they just existed to bring you here.”
Te Kawa is insistent, persuasive. This is not what he thinks, this what is he knows. No longer kicking out, but gathering in, he tries to pass on this belief system in his workshops and quilting classes. In 2019 he was named the Adult Community and Education Aotearoa Māori Educator of the Year.
“If I’m running my workshops, and there’s someone with a block – no confidence at all – I ask them to go that river of whakapapa. Too many people think they need to follow lots of rules to quilt, to do all these straight lines and use rulers. I ban rulers. You don’t need them. For me, it’s not actually even about making a quilt, it’s the space and the feeling and the letting go of fear, the accepting and the turning up to yourself.”
Te Kawa frets that there’s little in the way of encouragement for the next generation of fabric and weaving artists. “Back in the day if a little kid was going to be a weaver, the whole hapū would build them a little house called Te Wharepora. We don’t have that anymore so we have to create those spaces for ourselves. We have to carry Te Wharepora inside ourselves.”
Each of the works in Corners of the Heart show Te Kawa’s fascination with belief, with stories, and with history. He loves a good story. Mana Wahine of Aotearoa (2014), a dress on loan from a private collection, is closely appliqued with portraits of strong New Zealand women, including Katherine Mansfield, Jacinda Adern, Whina Cooper, Jean Batten, Phoolan Devi and the owner of Mana Wahine herself, Katherine Morrison.
Te Kawa has a long and entertaining explanation full of apocrypha for why he included each wahine. “She saved a ship, now she’s one of those Goldie paintings with a bad haircut. Someone should have told Goldie not to do hair like that,” he says. “This one melted her jewellery to make a cannon and used it to fight the British … and here’s Naomi Lange in a pink cardi, I love Naomi Lange.”
Words flow from Te Kawa in an entertaining flood. He moves endlessly, restlessly, with the words. He lists off the music he listens to when he sews and explains how dance inspires him. It’s all part of the river Te Kawa turns up for, opens himself fully towards.
Corners of the Heart is all about the words, the stories, the colours, the song and the cloth. So integral to his work, some of the words that inform the artworks have been displayed on the walls in coloured vinyl. In a prescient twist, a quote coolly wishes us all “a year with shark tails, fish bones and taniwha teeth”. It accompanies a quilt called How Does it Feel to Swim Toward Danger? (2020), a complex swirl of glittering threads and gathered satin.
In How does it feel to swim towards danger?, Te Kawa retells the tale of Kahe Te Rau-o-te-rangi and her epic seven-mile swim from Kapiti Island to the mainland, intent on warning whānau of an approaching enemy, her infant daughter Rīpeka tied to her back. In his version, Kahe did not hesitate to leap in the waves, Baby Rīpkea’s face is calm and her gaze serene in the midst of a howling confusion of waves. She knows she is safe with a mother who can lay claim to her own power. The work reminds us that acting with courage to protect our whānau is something we teach our rangatahi through our own actions.
Seeing this quilt laid out in the midst of the most terrifying time in recent world history is a queasy experience. It’s difficult to respond to the questions it poses without a gut-wrenching sense of familiarity. We’re no longer in the innocent position of imagining what we would do if we saw a hostile force coming for our vulnerable – now, we all know what we did, or didn’t. Rīpeka’s limpid gaze and Kahe’s determined frown want to know: did you hesitate? When you were needed, did you show up? What did you teach your children about courage?
Te Kawa has no time for those who would ask for a quiet life. You don’t learn anything from being given things too easily, he tells me.
“I wish us all the whirlpools in our puku that make us inhale and dive off the deep end and swim away from our comfort zones. That’s life, real life. A gift to be grateful for.”
Corners of the Heart, Maungarongo Te Kawa 29 May – 11 October 2020, Te Kōputu a te whanga a Toi, Whakatāne
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.