Friday, June 20, 2008

Rachelle meets Suzanne

Suzanne Tamaki ( is one of New Zealand's cutting edge Maori women. She is an artist, events co-ordinator and fabulous mentor to yours-truly this past week. I had the opportunity to do a one week intensive with Suzanne, two other visual arts students and four senior dance students. This week is 'Matariki', the Maori New Year when the seven stars are seen just before daybreak. The theme for the workshop was 'New Beginnings'.
I have an interest in Pacific Body Adornment, spending much of this year researching body adornment artifacts at Te Papa and other museum collections; as well as research books including Malo Viti, and Adorned; and the works of Pacific / New Zealand artists Sofia Tekela-Smith ( and John Pule (
Having a mixed media artist like Suzanne who "creates body adornment, costumes and jewellery inspired by legends and mythical creatures in the Pacific, as well as traditional indigenous costuming throughout the world" was a bonus in unlocking my own ability to start working with materials and subject matter that resonates for me on so many levels.
Suzanne demonstrates a weaving technique and below, Carol and I sit patiently weaving our chords.

I have collected shells my whole life and really wanted to create some Pacific inspired pieces. Using a diamond drill bit in the jewellery tool room, I drilled holes into my tropical shells. I then created a eight-cord rope with waxed nylon thread, bound the ends and using coconut and Mother of Pearl shell buttons, created my own shell necklaces, which are very similar to ones I have admired at Te Papa, our national Museum.
Throw some feathers into the mix, and wallah! Feather earrings to the utmost. I love tribal!

My little flax kete (bag) I picked up at Trash Palace last week for $2!!! Handmade, authentic, can you believe it - What a score!
A 'pukana' is a Maori woman's facial expression - it is a warrioior-like challenge and involves wide open eyes, flaring nostrils and a fierce face. Men are supposed to be attracted to our flashing eyes. The men will also have an open mouth with their tongue sticking out in a fiere grimace, often seen at the end of a haka (war dance). There is a photo of John Pule with a shell like this one in his mouth - his dark skin works better than my pale face and I couldn't fit the shell inside my mouth (it's too big, the shell that is!).
The original shell-phone.
So proud of my feather/barkcloth/hemp-bound earrings. I also whipped up a wee sheepskin and Pacific Island seed choker and matching cuff; and, a jute/barkcloth cuff with stitching. I was on a roll.
Yay. My own fabulous jewellery collection.

I created two wearable art pieces this week. This one is called "Kiri" (aka "Skins") and is created using an old jute sack as the foundation cloth. Just like the ones they use for hangi pits. I am sure my great grandfather had a lean-to made from these in the Kauri swamps over 100 years ago, as gumdiggers did. I have attached eco-dyed fabrics (wool, silk, muslin and felt merino/silk tissue) to represent the 'skins' as well as 'Ngatu' or traditional Pacific Island barkcloth (this one is from Tonga)..

This piece represents my understanding of who I am as a Maori woman in Aotearoa today. The foundation (jute sack) is my own 'Maori' culture. However, no culture is pure and my own is one of mixed influences and breeding. I already mentioned my Yugoslav great grandfather (now Croatia) but I am also married to a Niuean/Cook Island/Tahitian man, and my kids are a fusion of our marriage. I also attend a Pakeha institute, live in a Polynesian-saturated city and have lots of wonderful friends from many cultures. Although Maori is my culture of origin, rubbing up against other cultures has a way of influencing the way that I live. This rubbing against other people causes me to have a patchwork-like identity on the outside while the inside is still intact and whole.

This spotty piece is a remnant of silk velvet, shibori-dyed in flax dye.

The strap is made from barkcloth and embellished with small cowrie shells from the Pacific Islands. My handstitching is pretty primitive.
Below, this is the back of the apron-like garment.

A coconut shell buckle on my flax-dyed muslin that I distorted by pulling on the weave and creating these nest-like holes.

The above photo shows my second garment. This 'maro' (loincloth) is created from recycled wool blankets and vinyl I rescued from the recycling depot in Porirua. My source of inspiration came from a book on Pacific Island art where a breast plate is fashioned from Mother of Pearl buttons and barkcloth. Being a Maori-themed week, I played with it a little and realised it could also work as a loin-cloth.

This piece is called "Fine Print" and is my response to the Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty of Waitangi is the founding document between Maori (indigenous peoples of Aotearoa) and the British Government who wanted to settle here over 150 years ago.

My own understanding is that culture is not about colour per se, rather it is about our own personal values, beliefs and understanding. For instance, when the Treaty was signed , it was between two peoples who had two very different cultures. They may have said the same thing but each meant something different.

Hence the title "Fine Print". We all have our own fine print, the part where unless one is aware, one can miss reading between the lines. I have embroidered with white silk onto the 'maro' but you can miss that, because it is subtle, just like 'fine print' often is.

I used 'X's" because our language of origin Te Reo Maori is not a written one, so many chief's signed the Treaty with a 'X'. Wool blankets, guns and liqour were also traded for land hence my use of a secondhand blanket.

Finally the 'red, white and black' colour scheme is a departure from my usual earthy colours, however they are colours traditionally used in Maori art and, here they represent the Pakeha/Maori conflict, the red being the battles fought (and still are) between the two cultures.

Below is how I envisage a woman wearing this as a 'breast cloth'.

Detail of wool blanket, vinyl buttons, and silk handstitching. It took me ages to cut out these vinyl buttons and handstitch them.

I made a matching choker and arm cuff too.
Finally Suzanne choreographed a show involving all our work for the faculty. I found it difficult to speak in this setting, feeling quite vulnerable due to the nature of my work and having to speak about it in a public setting. Plus I felt that I was resolving this piece in myself. I was not yet confident with where it sat for me, and felt it a little premature to put out there. However the school commanded that it be done, so I did it.

However I will be more careful next time with my work, not committing to anything until it is resolved in my own heart. Call me precious, but it got a bit much when people were photographing my work before it was even completed without even asking. Now I know the kaupapa (protocol, professionalism, respect) for other artists work is to ask permission however it seems that because I am a student, that didn't count. I felt a bit used and that annoys me. And although I am not usually shy in coming forward, it was a difficult situation to speak up about without sounding pissy. That is my one bug bear of the week.

The rest was fantastic. The other students all created fantastic works too. I loved working with the dancers and can't wait to attend their performances before they head off to Italy next month for a tour. Suzanne was helpful in that everytime I hit a wall, she showed me the next step and off I went again. So not once did I slow down, lose my flow or get stuck. Zero frustration there. Creativity just flowed like a river and all my detritus that I have collected got used. I came to realise just how much I love using raw materials. I was offered a swan's skull and am looking forward to working that into a chest piece. If you have any cool bones lying around that you aren't using, contact me. I will pay for postage and what have you. Also if you know of a 'bones' person in New Zealand, let me know. Except for human bones that is. Ew! But skulls of small animals, birds, etc would be welcome.

Suzanne will also be running a workshop through Whitireia Summer School programme - January 2009, so if you are interested, look out for that later on in the year. I will be there ready create and maybe even perform next time. If you wanna come play with us, book in.


ArtPropelled said...

Great post as usual, Rachelle. I am loving learning about your culture.Your two outfits are brilliant, my favourite being "Kiri". You look so relaxed and I love the photo of you with Carol.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic! My favourite is "Kiri" too.

Corrine said...

What a wonderful week you've had. Isn't it awesome when creativity flows easily... and you have the time and space to let it.

india flint said...

it's fabulous to see you blooming happily...xxindie

Lavinia said...

Nature in all its shell-y glory....I love the tones and hues of these shells and your creations....

You are looking glowing!

Jackie said...

What a fascinating post. I really enjoyed reading about your pieces and why you did what you did. I feel like I just knock things out for sales in quick succession with no real thought going in once I have the first idea. Part of me likes that I get to make hundreds of littel 'samples' but I need time to make a meaningful piece. But hey this isn't about me! Fabulous work, You!

ArtPropelled said...

I've come back for another look. It's such a brilliant post!

Unknown said...

Kiri is just stunning!!

juliaD said...

Hi Rachelle, just found your blog while looking for yugoslavian embroidery. Am amazed to find you a complete circle, my daughter's name is RAchel, I am part yugoslavian, and part kiwi...left NZ when I was 17, live in Melbourne, belong to a mixed media and textile group. and have just started eco dying and more embroidery and stitch work after years of letting it go for paper art. Wow!!!...absolutely love your work!...the stitching, dying and design all wonderful....will be back to see more...xx..julia