Friday, June 20, 2008

The famous photo of John Pule

Sofia Tekala-Smith: Savage Island Man with Pure 2003

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.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

If I had more time I would ...

* Make more stuff that I like and think about often like;
  • recycled clothing into soft toys, bags, jewellery, bookcovers and kids clothes;
  • more creative journalling (blogging is limited, I wanna play with other media like paint, crayons, lino printing, and collage);
  • Fill my art workbooks more with all the stuff I collect and see that inspires me including sitting in nature and drawing;
  • make cool baby stuff for Knuckles (due 13 December btw);
  • fill up baking tins and make better dinners;

* Go to more intensives and workshops to get concentrated fixes with talented artists;

* Probably have a tidier house (although that is not a given);

* Go thrifting more, finding secondhand bargains, garage sales, op shops, markets and school galas, and save us money (which I have not had as much time to do in the last two years);

* Learn to sew better and join an embroidery group;

* Finish my projects including a tivaevae;

* Learn Te Reo Maori;

* Sleep in more and not wake up tired and running on empty (which doesn't work at all if you are pregnant!);

* Be more available to my family;

* Be more organised (again no guarantee but dreams are free);

* Travel more;

* Write more

There's a reason why I write this which will soon be revealed. Change has been in the wind for a while. It's all good and all positive. I am tired of being tired. It is time to prioritise some things and GET REAL! for my sake and my family's.

I had to take a week off school this week as I was tired, stressed and feeling really rundown. Couple that with abdominal pains yesterday and last night, two hours sleep and lots of assignments due, I really needed to slow down. And so I did. Sat on the couch, watched "House" my favourite DVD series with Hugh Laurie starring as a Doctor with a brain and wit, drank copious cups of tea and did some light reading. I am starting to feel replenished. I need too. I don't want to be grumpy mum and wife. I am committed to self-care during this pregnancy, need to in fact, for my sanity's sake. It always seem simpler to see how others should live but I need this so much. To live at my own pace, surrounded by supportive and loving family and friends, and avoiding stress. Not hard with a great husband and a couple of kids big enough to fend for themselves with the basics.

How about you? Are you doing what you need to be doing these days? Are you taking care of your essential needs? Do you need to reassess your environments and commitments so that you are living your life FOR YOU AND YOURS? If you had more time .... what would you do?

My favourite singer in the world ...

Is my husband Richard and here is a sample of him singing at a church service a couple of years ago that we found on YouTube. He is the guy in the middle with a white shirt on, the cute one. Ok so they are all cute, but you know what I mean. For those of you with a broadband frequency, this will be easy, but for those without frustrating. Still he's so worth it. Well, I think so anyway, and I would wouldn't I. :)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The coastline and I

My son brings me a heart stone.Bright green leaves and little black seeds. Does anyone know what this plant is?

Tide lines along the shore.
A wee picture drawn in the sand with flotsam.
A foreigner, this plastic green frog is washed up, smooth and worn by the sea.
A nest created by the tide of seaweed, driftwood and debri.
I love the formations of the rocks, the way the tide has created channels and small pockets for the sea to leave behind small offerings.
Like this button. (I now have a big stash of buttons found along my shore waiting for a project brainwave - any ideas?).Sunset from the south end of the beach.
The kids love clambering over the rocks. This is their playground. My quiet son reluctantly stands still for a photo.
As a textile girl, I love the textures I find along the beach and amongst the rocks. These sights and the feelings they evoke, are probably similar to what most people feel when they see their childhood home. This is what I remember of my turangawaewae -my homelands.

A giant heart stone lies nestled in the sand.
My kids are at home here.

At the south end of the beach, at certain tides, and if one is fortunate enough, a petrified forest emerges from the tides. This is the first time I have seen it. Here is a trunk of a what must have been a giant tree.
These two trunks look like partially submerged hippo's.
This trunk is up along the shore line. The colours and textures of it draw me in. It must be like Mother Nature's skirts, all mottled and worn by time and the elements reminding me of Mary Oliver's poem "Sleeping in the Forest" ...
I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts,
her pockets full of lichens and seeds.
I slept as never before,
a stone on the river bed,
nothing between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths
among the branches of the perfect trees.
All night I heard the small kingdoms breathing around me,
the insects,and the birds who do their work in the darkness.
All night I rose and fell, as if in water,
grappling with a luminous doom.
By morning I had vanished at least a dozen times into something better.
And as the tide recedes more of the forest is revealed.
The boatsheds - Titahi Bay.
The view from the top of our street. I have always liked the drape of the power lines, because although intrusive to the spectacular vista of the ocean, they are also a pertinent reminder of man's relationship with his environment.
And now to my latest piece of work. This complex cloth is about 2m wide and 1m deep. It consists of fabrics made from silk, and cotton muslin, all dyed with plants from my environment here in Porirua and hand stitched together to form a type of Pacific cloth influenced by my love of Hiapo and other bark cloths of the Pacific. This is my first attempt at sewing and the hand stitching is taking HOURS. Still this is my second piece of serious work that evolves from my love of my country, my own personal relationship with the coastline and the feelings that evokes as I share that now with my sons.
For ease, I have attached it to a weaving frame that winds around, leaving me with 'a new page' each time to record something. I do love to make things that are evocative of places and memories that are precious to me. This is also the first in a series of works that will be taonga for our future generations, celebrating their unique heritage.

So I figured if I was gonna stitch, then I better learn some embroidery stitches. Self taught from a book at the library, this little sampler took me a night to muddle through.


Ever since I was a small child, I have lived near a coastline. The few times I didn't I felt it. Pined for it in fact. Much as I love nature, the forest, rivers, lakes and countryside just don't move me quite as much as being at the beach. It is my spiritual place. I feel close to God here. And recently I started to think a bit more deeply about why this is so, and about the shoreline itself.

The coastline calls to me, it beckons one down to investigate it's shoreline and see what treasures the latest tide has surrendered. Driftwood, shells, smooth worn bits of glass and plastic, a forgotten shoe, bits of nets, hooks, lines and other flotsam. Seaweed, jellyfish, crabshells all wait patiently for their ride back home when the tide turns.

Ever notice how the tide is constantly changing the coastline. Wild storms cleanse the beach, sweep it clean and change the direction of the streams that feed onto the beach. Stone banks will suddenly disappear only to appear again at the south end of the beach. Full moon low tides create a wide sand path, sand bars appear, while high tides leave a sliver of sand for the keen to tread.

I do not wish to be on the sea. Boat rides leave me queasy and unsettled as I sit upon the huge force of the ocean. But the relationship between the land and sea intrigues me. I like to observe the sea from the safety of land. See how the sea influences my beloved place, carving it out intricate patterns then replenishing it anew.

It reminds me of the push and pull of the cultures in this land where I live - Maori and Pakeha. Of how each is unique, strong in it's own way. Each needs the other, yet constantly fears being overwhelmed by the other. Like strong siblings. At times one will assert itself only to be reminded of it's place by the other. My own sense of being Maori has always been infringed upon by the superior culture in this country which feels it has a right to let me know my place - from denying me the right to study Te Reo Maori as a high school student, to even know feeling that I am being used as a political weapon in places where I currently walk.

People talk of equality but again even that is often defined by someone else. If you walk around my part of town, you will see that generations of oppression have taken their toll. My mothers generation were not taught their language and culture for fear of disadvantaging their children. So she didn't get it, and I had no chance as a kid. Then I put my kids into the state system because the Maori schools looked disorganised and were seen as the 'illigetimate' system. There, but not taken seriously.

Still at home, I speak every Maori word I know, I sing waiata and when they were little I taught my sons how to haka (war dance). My oldest has spent much time with his fathers' Pacific Island nanny and uncles, and so he sees himself as a Pacific Islander more than Maori. My youngest is keen on anything Maori. It will be interesting to see how number three turns out.
Culture is key for me. It is what makes us all interesting. It defines what we believe, value and live. It is not everything. I am not saying we should be exclusive because that's just ridiculous. I just love my country and my own unique flavour within it.
Porirua, this city I live in is wonderful. Everywhere I walk for the first time in my life, there are lots of people who look like me and talk like I do. We eat the same food, listen to the same music and live whakawhanaungatanga. That's about family, a 'we' not 'I' mentality. Where the good of the community is as vital as individuality. And that is important to me. I respect not everyone wants this, but I sure do.
Everytime I think of moving, I realise my sons don't feel 'different' here. Here they are normal. Not 'coons'. Not made to feel inferior. I do remember trying to put talcum powder on my face to make me paler when I was at high school. Making sure I didn't look different from the other girls who all had new things all the time.
My life is balanced here. We have a reasonable standard of living because the rent is low. The markets are a gathering place on Saturday mornings of sights and smells and sounds of Polynesia. Gang members come down to get their kai moana for breakfast hang overs, the mama's sell donuts, the fishmongers display the morning catch, the asian section with fruit and veg, the music stalls pump out the sounds of Pacific reggae.
I had the pleasure of taking a friend Trisha on a tour of my Porirua last Friday. She met the Vaine tini ladies in Cannons Creek and learned a new stitch as well. We then went to Trash Palace and down to Pataka, our local art gallery for a coffee. A quick stroll along the shore here in Titahi Bay ended a very long but wonderful day together.
I am proud of this place. It has a bad reputation elsewhere but you can only see it's beauty if you live here and live amongst the people. It's hidden, concealed and like the shoreline's treasures, will only reveal itself upon closer investigation..