First off, do you want to explain a little about the project and your motivations behind it?
The focus of my research project has been the revitalisation of beating Māori tapa cloth. Our tupuna once processed the bark of the plant aute (paper mulberry) into cloth, to make kohe (ear ornaments), hair bands, maro (loincloth) and manu aute (kites). When I was studying in Hawai’i, under Kumu Lufi Lutera and Kumu Maile Andrade, I learned the process of beating Hawaiian kapa, the process resonated with me so when I learned that Māori also made tapa, there was an opportunity here to continue this practice back home. I soon realised that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know about beating aute so it then became my mission to spread the word and teach other people how to do it. The revival of traditional practices is my passion. I have been inspired by the Hawaiian waka haurua Hōkūle’a and the subsequent revival of traditional voyaging and navigation in the Pacific. I have also been inspired by my teacher Dante Bonica who teaches traditional methods of making tools and taonga – the likes you see in the museum. Relearning these practices and physically taking part in them help us reconnect with our tupuna and also our land.
I’ve seen you’ve been working on every step of the making – from harvesting the bark to producing the tools. What is the process of making tapa like?
The process of making tapa is transformative… You start with a branch of a tree and end up with cloth. But it takes time and patience. When I came back to Aotearoa I knew the first thing I had to do was make all the tools to process the bark so this meant I had to make all my own patu aute/paoi (tapa beaters). The first beater I made from pohutukawa and I carved it using traditional tools and processes like adzing the wood down, grinding it with sand stone (sanding), scraping the handles with pipi shells and then making the grooves with sharks teeth. It took me ages! Since then I have made six more beaters, but I used modern tools too.
The tapa making process is simple but intricate. You cut a straight branch, peel off the outer bark with a sharp edge (I use pipi shells), make a cut lengthwise and peel off the inner bark. This is then soaked for a period of time to soften the bark and then you beat this softened bark finer on an anvil, gradually spreading out the fibres. It’s a bit like felting. The fibres naturally stick together. I’m still learning about the process, trying to get my cloth to be as fine and soft as possible.
As well as producing this work alongside your Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Fine Arts conjoint at the University of Auckland, you’ve been working with the Auckland Museum. How did this relationship start?
Last year I was fortunate in receiving the inaugural Sir Hugh Kawharu Auckland Museum Scholarship Award which supported my final BFA Honours research project at Elam. I was very grateful for this grant and working relationship with the Museum because I was able to access the collections and see our old Māori patu aute. There are 14 beaters in Aotearoa and these beaters are the only remaining physical evidence that proves that tapa was indeed part of our material culture.
What are some of the challenges you’ve come across (either making or researching)?
Challenges came in the form of having limited resources and limited information. I started with one paper mulberry tree down at Waipapa Marae. I now know of other plants throughout the North Island but initially my main concern was creating a sustainable resource which means that I have to grow my own aute plantation. When I first started taking cuttings they all died! It was a disaster! But I’ve got six plants growing now, which is a relief, as well as people who want to grow and harvest the aute. One of the challenges with the plant I am using is that it is mature and when you use older branches, there is less moisture, so its difficult to strip the bark off. I’ve come to learn that the best branches are young and that’s why it is so important to plant more aute, so I can grow and nurture these plants properly, so in the long run we can produce fine cloth.
I found something you said in a previous interview very striking, about how it isn’t necessarily the product that you manifest, but the process, the discussion that arises, and the preciousness of the history. Does this acknowledgement of tradition and process pervade a lot of your work?
Yes, exactly, I find that the magic happens during the making and especially down at Dante Bonica’s workshop by Waipapa Marae. Our tools are all sourced from the natural environment (pipi shells, rocks, sharks teeth etc), every process is slow and labour intensive and when you work, we are encompassed by the beautiful sounds these tools produce as well as the gossip and laughter of people working. It feels meaningful when you take this time to truly engage with a material, going slowly forces you to examine every curve, fibre or knot. However, it is also more then that, on another level you are aware that these processes are the same as those done by generations of those before you. You come to realise that the accumulative greatness of this art is being expressed through you and that you are just the centre or the tip of a self generating koru that continues to spiral or be pushed by your tupuna.
With your wānanga aute you’ve been successful in bringing people together to learn and revive this material practice. Do you have any intentions of continuing the project beyond this year’s study?
Definitely, it’s funny, people have been asking me if it feels strange to finish my degree but it doesn’t really feel like I’ve finished because I’m still doing exactly the same things as when I was studying, I’m just not getting graded. I’m still trying to reach out to people who have aute plants or want to learn how to beat. I’m from up north so I’m really keen to take this practice up there are teach my whanaunga, I actually just met someone from Te Hiku radio who is trying to grow aute! Also, next month I am doing some workshops with the Urbanlife Summer Programme with the Auckland Museum (ages 15-24) so if anyone is keen to learn to beat aute, I’ll be taking 8 students on and you can apply here. I’m still a student of this process myself but I can’t do it on my own and I don’t want to. The more people who want to learn or are able to contribute to this kete of knowledge the better.
I think the most important thing I’ve learnt is the importance of revitalising traditional knowledge for Māori as a way of decolonising ourselves, expanding our Māori identity and connecting to our tūpuna through physically replicating their movements and practices. And this does’t just apply to beating tapa, engaging yourself with any art form, whether that is carving, playing taonga pūoro, voyaging and speaking the reo. All of these practices nurture our Māori identity, make us feel more at home and accomplished in our own land. I think it’s about making these kinds of things accessible to those who are looking for a more meaningful connection to this land, even if they aren’t Māori.
You can read more about the project and along with photos and videos over on Nikau’s blog Kapa to Tapa.
Interview by Rosa Gubay. Image courtesy of Nikau Hindin.