Māori’s Weaving Baskets

There are tensions inherent in working with found images of Māori.  Many contemporary Māori view historical photographs as Māori taonga (cultural treasures)[1] and are important aspects of cultural life, regardless of the original context in which they were created (i.e. as military propaganda, tourist images or to record a so-called, dying race). Since the 1890’s photographs have been used as an important part of the tangi (funeral ceremonies). Photographs of the deceased, and of other ancestors are displayed, addressed, lamented over and touched. The rendered image of an ancestor, whether carved or photographed is considered to be a living presence through which the wairua (spirituality or everlasting spirit) of the person can be transferred [2]. An important consideration in working with found images is the reality that those portrayed are likely to have living relatives who must be acknowledged, it is these descendants whose cultural taonga needs to be handled with the utmost care and respect [3].

The ethnical implications that surround the appropriation of images, symbols and designs of Māori taonga, are a primary concern in my arts practice. In order to navigate through this complex ground, I have used Māori conceptual frameworks such as Te Whare Pora (The House of Weaving or Weaving School), and Whakapapa (genealogy, lineage; to lay one on another[4]), and Māori patterns  (such as, kete whakario/ finest class of Māori basket) that act as signifiers of cultural pride and skill. The found images I have used in this project show Māori women weaving. I bought these images as part of a set of tourist photographs entitled, “Real Photographs For your Snapshot Album: Māori” dated between 1950-59[5]. Taken in Rotoura, these pre-packaged tourist photographs show a staged, idealized image of Māoridom[6]. These images are complex; Māori have actively played a role in cultural tourism for over 150 years. The women shown in these images may have actively contributed to the construction of these photographs. What I find appealing in these photographs is the irreverence in the attitude of the sitters; many ignore the camera, or confrontingly, stare directly at it. Instead of being “passive” they are actively engaged in the process of weaving. Moreover, while they are not named, they still show their individuality by modifying their traditional costumes (by wearing everyday clothing like jumpers and cardigans over the top of flax skirts). Finally, while the village life shown in the photographs may be faux, the weaving shown is real and continues to be highly valued culturally to this day.

My intention is to reclaim these images from an outsider viewpoint; instead of voyeuristically looking upon Māori culture through the photographic surface, the photograph itself is now made into a Māori object (woven)[8]. According to Māori mythology, all of the knowledge in the world was brought to earth in three kete. The three Kete of Knowledge were kete araonui (the basket of light), kete tūātea (the basket of darkness) and kete tūāuri (the basket of pursuit)[9]. The final three resolved photo-weaves reference these baskets of knowledge.

I have had a sense of collaboration in working with these photographs, in the tradition of Te Whare Pora (The Weaving house/School). Te Whare Pora is not simply a “place” or building but rather a “state of being” [10], a raised level of consciousness to receive knowledge achieved through prayers and initiation ceremonies. Among many contemporary weavers, the state of extreme concentration performed while weaving is affectionately known as “getting your weave on”. The very tactile and time-consuming nature of weaving has meant that I have spent a lot of time with these images  (for example, some of the photo weaves took over 10 days to construct). This sense of repetition, continuation and customary cultural practice evident in the production of these woven photographs (repeating the actions and techniques of the women depicted) connects me to the women in these images.

This connectedness between generations is akin to the Maori concept of whakapapa. More than simply a family tree, Whakapapa is a line of descent from ancestors (and Gods/deities) down to the present day; linking people and all things back to the origins of creation.  From a Māori perspective, it is this unbroken line which gives mana (importance) and value. As Rāwiri Taonui. explains:

“Whakapapa is a taxonomic framework that links all animate and inanimate, known and unknown phenomena in the terrestrial and spiritual worlds. Whakapapa therefore binds all things. It maps relationships so that mythology, legend, history, knowledge, tikanga (custom), philosophies and spiritualties are organised, preserved and transmitted from one generation to the next. Whakapapa is the core of traditional mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge).”[11]

My very tactile process of physically handling images of Māori women from previous generations reflects my own attempt of creating a bridge of knowledge and connection from one generation of Māori weaver to another. As I was born in 1972, these images are of the age and type from my family’s photo albums. My mother is not dissimilar in age to some of the younger women shown in these photographs. In essence, even though the women in these photographs are unknown (to me), there is still a sense of the familiar; they signify the first link backwards in a long line of connected tissue of whakapapa. For me, to work with contemporary representations (i.e. photographs or postcards) of Māori women would not reflect this connected line as coherently.

[1] Dudding, J, 2003, “Photographs of Maori as Cultural Artefacts and their Positioning within the Museum”, Journal of Museum Ethnography, 15, pp.8 – 18, p. 8.

[2]Brown, D, 2008,  “Ko to ringa ki nga rakau a te ”- Virtual Taonga Maori and Museums, Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, 24:1, 59-75, p. 63, viewed 11th May 2013, <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01973760801892266>

[3] In 2001, an Auckland auction of rare Māori photographs was blocked by Māori activists calling for the return of the images of their ancestors. These photographs were considered as taonga (cultural treasures). Subsequently, these photographs (worth NZ $150,000) were returned to the iwi (tribe) of Whanganui and are now being restored in the Whanganui museum. I Am the River (2010: TVNZ), 51min, Directors Luigi Cutore, Mark McNeill, Producer Mark McNeill (NITV), viewed 7 October 2013.

[4]Biggs, B, 1990, English-Maori: Maori-English Dictionary, Auckland University Press, Auckland, NZ., p. 149.

[5] This date is taken from a record I found of the same set of Photographs held in the National Library in New Zealand, <http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/22329646?search[path]=items&search[text]=National+Public ity+Studio+Photos%2C+Rotorua>, viewed August 7 2012.

[6] This type of cultural tourism continues today, for example;  Bugeja, C, 2013, “Hanging out for a hangi: Cathetine Bugeja experiences authentic customs and delicious dinner in a traditional Maori village”, The Age, June 15, 2013, p. 9.

[8] Fiona MacDonald also weaves historically and archival material together to comment upon Australia’s colonial identity. For example, in her series Universally Respected (1993).

[9] Te Ara, the Encyclopedia  of New Zealand, <http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/ranginui-the-sky/page-2> ,viewed on March 3 2013.

[10]Howells, P and Williams, M, 2013 : “Mahi Tahi: Te Whare Pore and the Space of Collaboration”, Erena Baker, Sarah Hudson, Birdget Rewet, Terri Te Tau,  P 2013,  Te Whare Pora,  exhibition catalogue, 17 January-9 February 2013, Enjoy Public Art Gallery, Wellington, N.Z., pp 1 – 8, p. 2. , viewed 28 May 2013, <http://www.enjoy.org.nz/files/Mahi%20Tahi%20-%20Te%20Whare%20Pora%20and%20the%20Space%20of%20Collaboration.pdf>

[11] Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, <http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/whakapapa-genealogy/page-1> viewed 3 March 2013.