We were thrilled to have the incredible Kōwhaiwhai exhibition at Auckland’s Tim Melville gallery as the venue for The Ensemble Edit digital fashion show, a beautiful collision of fashion, art and creativity. Here, the story behind the powerful exhibition which is open until March 12.
Kōwhaiwhai, currently showing at Tim Melville Gallery, comprises the work of 10 Māori artists drawing deeply on knowledge – both practical and spiritual – passed down to them by their ancestors.
The exhibition frames, in many cases quite literally, this knowledge and extends that connection further – right into the lives of contemporary New Zealanders. Gallerist Melville himself read Witi Ihimaera’s Native Son during the first lockdown, and soon became enamoured with the description of swirling spirals of kōwhaiwhai reflecting not only the ways that our ancestors’ lives are intertwined with our own, but the ways that our contemporary lives are intertwined with each other.
Kōwhaiwhai, sometimes defined as Māori abstract painting, is by its very nature intertwining, inclusive, and irrepressibly far-reaching. Europeans spied the tendrilous Māori kōwhaiwhai on the 18th century hoe [waka paddles], the hulls of waka and on the heke [rafters] of wharenui. A history of appropriation and assimilation ensued, and today kōwhaiwhai has come to signify not only New Zealand art but Aotearoa New Zealand itself - a position with its own criticism and controversies.
This new exhibition positions kōwhaiwhai as a taonga, featuring renowned Māori artists creating works across mediums, including Hiria Anderson (Rereahu, Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Apakura), Nigel Borell (Pirirakau, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui, Te Whakatōhea), Russ Flatt (Ngāti Kahungunu), Ra Gossage (Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Manuhiri, Ngāti Ruahine), Maia McDonald (Te Ati Āwa Parihaka, Ngāti Mutunga), Tracey Tawhiao (Ngāi Te Rangi, Te Whakatōhea, Tūwharetoa), Saffronn Te Ratana (Ngāi Tūhoe) and Kura Te Waru Rewiri (Ngāti Pakahi ki Whangaroa, Ngāpuhi Nui Tonu, Ngāti Kauwhata ki Raukawa).
Lissy (Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Kahu) and Rudi Robinson-Cole (Ngāti Paoa, Ngaruahine, Ngāti Makirangi, Ngāti Tu), a highly collaborative creative team, are among those artists celebrated in the exhibition. They work in crochet, but it feels equally correct to say that they work in warmth and joy.
The idea for the delightfully fluorescent Wharenui Harikoa (House of Joy) in the Kōwhaiwhai exhibition predates Covid; lockdowns gave them the time to slowly and meaningfully manifest that idea.
Lissy acknowledges that joy has ebbed for many in the two years since the pandemic hit, in big and small ways. Wharenui Harikoa strives to combat that ebbing through the gentle warmth of its medium and the sheer jubilance of its colour scheme. Loud and proud, one loop at a time, it has the power to move all who lay eyes on it.
The soft medium takes viewers to a soft space within themselves, evoking colourful memories of loved ones long passed. And the fluoro? Well, that’s pure, unadulterated energy – the life force. Softness and energy combine to help heal generational trauma, allowing viewers to make, if not sense, then at least a degree of peace with the human experience in general, and the emotional volatility of the pandemic in particular.
“We’ve [collectively] experienced so much pain and loss,” Lissy says. “Now we want to celebrate life.” Emotions are transformatively recycled in this house of joy.
According to Melville, Kōwhaiwhai represents a way to connect with the natural world – both inner and outer.
“You can see that expressed in all these artists’ work… and it’s quite a sweeping thing to say, but I think it’s true that for Māori, painting, art, whakairo isn’t just a way to illustrate things or ideas, but it’s a way to connect us to our whanau and our whenua.”
Kōwhaiwhai’s artists fearlessly take on all of that.
'Kōwhaiwhai' is on show until March 12 at Tim Melville Gallery, in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.