The artists are part-way through the creation of Wharenui Harikoa (House of Joy), a full-size wharenui they're making as a place to share and connect. Here, they talk about celebrating their work so far at Britomart, what got them started, and how Matariki forms the foundations of their creation.
JEREMY HANSEN How did this project start for you both?
LISSY ROBINSON-COLE (Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Kahu) I'd been in a job doing the nine-to-five and I'd become super-unhappy. And my heart knew that my life needed to be a creative life, 100 percent, seven days a week. I left that job and I spent about a year playing really; I was experimenting and doing all different things. I must have seen something online that caught my eye about crochet, and which drove me to Spotlight to pick up my first hook and give it a go.
Below: Lissy and Rudi with Pōhutukawa, the pou tuarongo that will occupy a central position at the back of Wharenui Harikoa.
JEREMY HANSEN And how did it feel when you started crocheting?
LISSY ROBINSON-COLE Completely amazing, straight away. You can make things quite quickly, and have the true satisfaction and joy of seeing something grow. Then I discovered yarn bombing and what people were doing with crochet in public places around the world, like my bombing idol, London Kaye – when I saw what she did, I connected fully. Her whole style was just really free and joyful and colourful, like giant rainbows and butterflies, and fully public, just on her local fences in LA. She just was out there to spark joy.
Below: Tāwhirimātea, the koruru that will sit at the front of the gable of Wharenui Harikoa when it is complete.
JEREMY HANSEN Where did you come into the picture Rudi?
RUDI ROBINSON-COLE (Ngāti Paoa, Waikato, Ngāruahine, Te Arawa) We’ve been together for eight years and got married in 2017. We realised quickly that we worked well together. We were making all our decorations for our wedding and we were just in that zone and said, this is what we want to be doing full-time. I was working at the time teaching welding and fabrication for a private tertiary provider.
LISSY ROBINSON-COLE We did our very first yarn bomb on the Ōtāhuhu motorway overbridge near our place for Anzac Day, a big poppy and some little poppies. Straight away people were like, "Wow, that's amazing, that's so cool." And so we got a little bit of funding to do some more up in our local hood. We found an unloved vacant lot and put different pieces up. People would walk past and hug us and be like, "Wow, this is so great." And that is when I said to Rudi, “I don't care if you don't want to, but you're going to have to learn how to crochet now." This was the end of 2018.
Below: Hine Turama, one of the amo that will hold up the front of Wharenui Harikoa.
JEREMY HANSEN It’s quite a step up to want to crochet a whole wharenui.
LISSY ROBINSON-COLE We crocheted our car and the response to the car was so amazing, a tsunami of love. The amount of people that would come up to us and say things like, "I was having such a bad day, this car reminded me of my grandmother and now I feel better." And so then we were like, "Oh, this is something." It's a soft medium, and it usually takes people to a memory of someone beloved who's made them something special as a kid, and so immediately they soften inside. So I think I just said, "Hey, I want to crochet the world basically. Imagine a wharenui, fully crocheted, neon pink."
JEREMY HANSEN Why a wharenui in particular?
LISSY ROBINSON-COLE We really started to think about everything that home means, and everything that a wharenui means to us as Māori. Rudi said, "I think that we should design this wharenui based on the story of Matariki”. And then everything just started to flow from that.
RUDI ROBINSON-COLE Lissy said to me, “Can you carve a tekoteko out of polystyrene?” I’m a foundryman and I worked on Māori Tū, a bronze pataka that was fully carved and gifted to the United Nations. One of the aims of that project was to show carving students they didn’t only have to use wood. So in the summer of 2019 I carved our first wheku face out of polystyrene, and we crocheted the face to fit it. Then lockdown happened, but we’d brought everything home and we made these two pou, Pōhutukawa and Hiwa. We looked at them and said “Wow, these are pretty cool. We don’t know anyone else who is doing this in the whole world.”
Below: When Wharenui Harikoa is complete, this figure of Matariki will stand at its centre.
JEREMY HANSEN The pou of the wharenui, when it’s complete, will represent the stars of the Matariki constellation. What made you choose these as the foundational elements for Wharenui Harikoa?
RUDI ROBINSON-COLE I was still learning about Matariki, and I just saw Matariki as being a vehicle of coming together. It was a way for us to progress and learn more ourselves. The wharenui in itself is this place of healing and reclamation, and for us both, a journey that’s involved really connecting deeply with our whanau and healing ourselves first before we actually do this mahi.
LISSY ROBINSON-COLE It's a journey of reclamation for us. Our vision for Wharenui Harikoa is to transform intergenerational trauma into deeply felt joy, one loop at a time, connecting people from all over the world to ignite joy globally.
JEREMY HANSEN You’ve mentioned before that as well as this journey of reclamation for you both, Wharenui Harikoa offers a space for Māori, Pākehā and Tauiwi to connect. Can you talk a bit more about your intentions there?
RUDI ROBINSON-COLE Yes. Our first exhibition of work like this was at Corbans Estate, and that was just totally amazing for us. We saw that it had an immediate impact on people of all ages, ethnicities, and abilities. Our neon colourways and soft medium of crochet broke barriers for people to ask more questions about our mahi. Sometimes traditional whakairo can be intimidating for people and they don’t feel as though they can ask questions. But we found our mahi opens up a conversation.
LISSY ROBINSON-COLE Wharenui Harikoa is like a bridge connecting people. It's really easy to become angry about what's happened: when I think about my grandmother who was beaten for speaking Māori, and my mother who was the first generation to not have the reo, I can get angry about it. So obviously we know what's behind us, but with our work, we’re trying to aim our eyes over there to the horizon to see what's beyond grievance. And I guess in doing that, we are transformed. It's healing us; the symbolism of crochet is connecting loops. And it has connected us to those deeper concepts of manaaki, of aroha, of wairua.
Below: Lissy and Rudi with Hiwa-i-te-Rangi, the figure representing the star in the Matariki cluster associated with the promise of a prosperous season.
JEREMY HANSEN You told me a few weeks ago that it's also about this conversation between the Māori and Pākehā parts of yourself. Can you expand on that?
LISSY ROBINSON-COLE The battle of being too white to be brown and too brown to be white has gone on my whole life . So who am I? There was a lot of never quite fitting in either world, and being angry at the white side for all that they've done. But I don't feel like that anymore. Like definitely getting my moko kauae was such a powerfully claiming statement.
JEREMY HANSEN Does the scale of your ambition ever strike you as insane? I kept giggling at how huge everything is at the photoshoot because it’s kind of overwhelming. I would be completely intimidated if I was in your shoes.
LISSY ROBINSON-COLE We said, “We are going to crochet a wharenui,” and then we just started, without realising what it actually entails physically, emotionally and spiritually. It's a complete life of total faith that the next thing will be revealed. When you're on the road at nighttime and you can only see that much ahead of you, you just know that there's more road past what you can see. And so that's how we live our life. We only see that much and there's got to be more road past that.
Below: A detail of Maihi, one of the large barge boards that will form the entrance to Wharenui Harikoa.
JEREMY HANSEN Can we talk about some of the practical aspects? Because I know you paid a lot of attention, for example, to the materials you work with. And how you stop yourselves burning out.
LISSY ROBINSON-COLE We're super fortunate. I just want to say a massive shout out to Deb Moore at Outlaw Yarns in Christchurch who approached us after our Corbans show to ask if we’d like to collaborate with her to create our own line of wool. Yes please! Because of her, we work purely with New Zealand wool with each colour in te reo and representing the kaitiaki of our art practice.
RUDI ROBINSON-COLE And in terms of working, we’re up at 5 o’clock in the morning. We are both early birds.
LISSY ROBINSON-COLE We have definite roles. Rudi designs and carves all of our pieces. Then I come along and I will crochet all of the skin of the pieces. And then Rudi comes along and he crochets and designs all of the patterning that happens on the pieces and attaches it. We collaborate on the colors and the designs. We're really, really fortunate that we work so well together. And thankfully we thrive under the pressure. I think lots of creatives do.
JEREMY HANSEN What does Matariki mean to you both?
RUDI ROBINSON-COLE I think Matariki is a time where we all can come together and share and connect up with our loved ones. It’s also a beautiful time to remember those that have passed away, and to put our intentions for the next year out there into the universe and see if our wishes come back to us.
LISSY ROBINSON-COLE Ten years ago I didn't know about Matariki. The fact that it’s now a public holiday is huge. It's another step forward for us as Māori. And it's another avenue of learning. Wharenui Harikoa is going to be an amazing tool for education where we can share the story of Matariki. We see the wharenui traveling, not just throughout Aotearoa but the world – it’ll be an awesome way to share Māori culture and the story of Matariki.
To celebrate Matariki, Lissy and Rudi are doing a residency at Britomart from July 13-16 in the store in the Atrium on Takutai looking onto Takutai Square. They'll be doing a free talk at 5.30pm on Wednesday 13 July, and offering free lunchtime crochet workshops for beginners and for those with some crochet ability from July 13-16. Registration for all events is essential - please do this at the links provided and we'll see you there! Photographs by Russ Flatt of Wharenui Harikoa are on display on Britomart's Pavilions on Te Ara Tahuhu for the duration of the Matariki Festival 2022.