This summer, Britomart is filled with images of beautiful Māori and Pacific woven taonga that are held by Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland Museum. Through the museum's innovative fibre and textile research centre Te Aho Mutunga Kore, which opened earlier this year, communities in Aotearoa and the Pacific are enabled to spend time with cultural pieces from the museum's substantial collection, learning and sharing histories that the museum hopes will help keep weaving skills, knowledge and culture alive into the future. We spoke to Kahutoi Te Kanawa, the Pou Arahi Curator Māori at the Museum and co-director of the centre alongside Fuli Pereira (Curator Pacific) and Chantal Knowles (Head of Human Histories) about Te Aho Mutunga Kore's work.
MELINDA WILLIAMS Kahutoi, could we start by having you introduce yourself and your role at Te Aho Mutunga Kore?
KAHUTOI TE KANAWA Yes. Kia ora, my name is Kahutoi Te Kanawa. I'm the Pou Arahi Curator Māori and one of the three co-directors for Te Aho Mutunga Kore. I come from a weaving background. That legacy has continued on for a very long time. My mum is Dr Diggeress Te Kanawa. My grandmother's named Rangimārie Hetet. Back in 2017 to 2019, my sister Rangi and I were asked to be part of the Te Awa group to come in and look at the fibre textiles and to review them, to have a look at them, to add more of the story, the purakau, to that collection. That meant looking at all the whāriki, all the kete whakairo, the tāniko, all the kākahu that were in storage and a lot of other contemporary works as well.
When the job for Associate Curator Māori was advertised in the beginning of 2020, I applied as an associate curator to Chanel Clarke, who was here. I got the job and within 12 months, Chanel Clarke moved on, and I continued on with my job. I remember, in my interview, one of the questions asked was, "What do you think this museum is missing?" And I just said, "The woman's voice." The woman's voice because the textiles were never, ever really talked about in-depth. As an example, in the Te Māori exhibition [a landmark exhibition that toured the United States in 1984-86], there was no weaving in it. That was a classic example of how the woman's work wasn't considered in the same genre as the carvings.
Don't get me wrong, I think the carvings are absolutely brilliant. The intellect, the art and skills of deep knowledge, entrenched in such exquisite examples of our tupuna’s toi whakairo. But so too with raranga, whatu and tukutuku. Therefore, one of the reasons for calling this Fibre and Textiles Research Centre Te Aho Mutunga Kore, is that it literally means the eternal thread. Mutunga Kore, the everlasting thread, the eternal thread that will never cease. Because there's much to learn about the artifacts from the weaving textiles we hold onto. It's about purakau, those stories of our revered kairaranga, skills and technical application of Pacific and Māori artistic excellence and stories that relate to the artifacts for the uri or descendants to see, feel, touch.
MELINDA How large is the collection of fibre and textile pieces here within the museum?
KAHU Well, we've got over 400 cloaks. As a start. I wouldn't know how many kete, kete whakairo. And that's not including the Pacific Collections.
MELINDA So it's quite an enormous resource.
KAHU Oh, absolutely it is. And what better place to start Te Aho Mutunga Kore as a research centre for fibre and textiles for Māori and Pacific indigenous people's work, namely the women's work. I see this as the catalyst for many other institutions, regional or even our national museum, to consider having a centre such as this.
MELINDA How do you work with these pieces and the communities they've originally come from or that they relate to?
KAHU It's about the engagement with the communities. Once you get to know the community, then we can bring some of the pieces up into Te Aho Mutunga Kore’s viewing room for them to have a close look. People can see some pieces that are already on display, but that's not even 1% of what we hold in the basement. We want the communities to have access to these collections and not be limited to a certain time for viewing them. So we organise that in accordance to their availability and what we can do for them. It's important for them to get up close, up front, like I said before, touch, feel. What that does, is it conjures up stories and memories, especially from a lot of the elders when they come in and see this. That is the richness of what comes out through viewing these taonga.
MELINDA Has it been difficult connecting with these communities, finding all the different active communities?
KAHU No. We had the PCAP project, which looked at all the Pacific artifacts, so the museum had already had an ongoing relationship with some of them. And we were able to call on our networks through that programme. Fuli Pereira, who is the Curator Pasifika, she's had a long association with some of the Pacific people and myself through my weaving networks. With different weaving communities, I've been able to touch base with a few to work through weaving projects that involve viewing the taonga and learning more from them.
MELINDA How many different communities are you working with presently?
KAHU We've got five pilot groups to start off with. If this continues on, it will build up over time. But the good thing about what we've also added on and through our community navigator, Jasmine Tuiā and Justine Treadwell, our collections technician, we have been able to introduce the language weeks where the taonga have been brought up that relates to that language. People have been able to come in and view the taonga that is relative to the specific language, and you get to learn more about their language, through the terminology used in making and processes. So that's indirectly building up another network.
MELINDA How did the exhibition project at Britomart come about and how did you choose the people and taonga to be represented?
KAHU It was a suggestion from Chantal Knowles, and we had a discussion about it, that we could look at the taonga. Justine and Jasmine they took up the challenge, doing a wonderful job, and started setting it all up. They asked different staff if they would like to have photographs with certain taonga. Staff were very willing to come to be photographed with these taonga. Then we looked at the different communities that we were working with and they came in too and got photographed, and talked about how they felt about the taonga that they were photographed with.
MELINDA With the individual pieces, there's a range of connections between the people and the items they’re holding isn't there? Some very personal, ancestral connections and others that are more inspirational?
KAHU Some of the staff photographed, they've worked here for quite a few years. Their personal connection to what they've chosen is because they obviously have an affinity and whakapapa connection to the taonga. They tell their story. So the narratives that go with their story – I'm not going to speak on their behalf at all – but they just wanted that opportunity to be able to hold these taonga. One of the guys, it's just placed on his shoulder. For him, that is a great honour. So there lies the difference between viewing and having absolute accessibility. To be able to touch, to hold and to caress these taonga is a big difference.
MELINDA You've been photographed as part of the exhibition; could you tell us why you chose the piece that you did?
KAHU The tāniko shoes that I chose, it was because I know the intricacy involved in preparing the fibres, tāniko fibres, the dying is done naturally. Tāniko is the coloured weaving that you usually find on the kaitaka paepaeroa or kākahu korowai, that's the border. The synchronicity of how those work together, those patterns, they tell a story. So to see that on shoes, it brings about another story in how it's used. That's what tāniko is, the tāniko are visual narratives.
But to be able to do the tāniko and then shape them around shoes is a fashion statement, but an introduction of an old way coming into a new way of working. And understanding the complexity and skills around that. I was very intrigued by it. When I first saw them, I thought, wow. Some people tend to think, oh, it's very, very sacred, very tapu, then you see tāniko on shoes. To me, yeah, that made a statement about our growth and evolving.
MELINDA What's your hope for what people will take away from the exhibition?
KAHU Well, that will be ever-evolving. The pieces that are chosen bring out the enormity of skills and tasks that tūpuna have left with us to learn from, accentuates a time period to now in the currency of this time, and how we have a lot of respect for these taonga and connection. I hope that people, when they view them, that they feel well connected to them in that way.