A thing well made

TAPESTRY: This tapestry by Erica van Zon imitates a celebrated painting by early New Zealand modernist Toss Woollaston.
AUTE: This work is part of artist Nikau Hindin’s oeuvre in which she is reviving in contemporary form aute, a Maori art form said to have been largely lost after the extinction of the aute plant in New Zealand.

KALEIDOSCOPIC: Contemporary jewellery from the Weeds jewellery collective.

Crafting Aotearoa: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the Wider Moana Oceania is a new history of craft that spans three centuries. Along with exploring the often unappreciated role of handmade objects in New Zealand and the Pacific, the editors and many contributing subject experts approached the book with the understanding that the history of craft is an idea that changes over time.

Co-editors Kolokesa U Mahina-Tuai, Chitham and Skinner see Crafting Aotearoa as a book written about the past, firmly in the present but with one eye on the future.

“We wanted to write it from the perspective of our time,” says Skinner.

“There are many different kinds of craft. It’s a broad church. There is amateur craft, crafts people made in wartime such as rag rugs and chairs made from fruit boxes; stuff men do in their sheds, what we did in woodwork at school.

“Then there’s professional craft — pottery, jewellery, glassware. It’s an interesting category which is one of the reasons we like it. We have a rich culture of making in New Zealand, involving Pakeha, Maori, island nations and immigrants. There’s a wealth of different ideas of who people are, and that is expressed through what they make and use in their homes and daily lives.”

The Western world separates art and craft, says Skinner. The questions “what’s in common and what can’t be translated?” and “have they related to each other, or only sometimes related to each other?” needed to be asked during the making of the book.

Crafting connections

“Things miss each other and sometimes they talk to each other. A gap can be as interesting as a conversation.”

When Chinese gold seekers ventured to California, then to Australia and New Zealand, they had ceramic rice bowls and tea bowls brought in. That is a story that has nothing to do with New Zealand craft ceramics, says Skinner.

But in the 1950s and 60s, after British potter Bernard Leach taught New Zealand potters how to make ceramics with a Japanese aesthetic, the histories of Japanese ceramics and New Zealand ceramics became intertwined.

The parsing of art, craft and world view is especially tricky when considering works created by Maori. Maori art and craft is termed toi Maori in the book. The struggle for Maori and other cultures’ craftwork is to be recognised, not as artisan handiwork but “to become art, and then not art but taonga or toi, because art is not the right term either”, says Skinner.

Traditional Maori art gave visual form and shape to cultural belief systems and expressed spiritual ideas in natural materials such as wood, stone, bone and flax, says an nzhistory webpage.

As part of redefining what craft means in New Zealand and the Pacific, the book’s editors want to do away with the term Pacific. For one thing, it’s a misnomer: the biggest ocean in the world is not the Pacific. This misconception came about in 1521 when Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan encountered favourable winds on reaching the ocean he went on to call Mar Pacífico, “peaceful sea”.

The alternative term, Moana Oceania, encompasses the Pacific islands and the concept of the Pacific as a neighbourhood. Despite its immensity, the ocean (moana) connects the Pacific islands rather than separates them.

“It’s a bit of activism,” says Skinner.

“We’re not saying it’s perfect but we want to take it out for a spin and see what happens.

Meanings and histories

“We pay a lot of attention to terms. You should use the right term if you can. Words carry meanings and histories. An object made by hand can go to places language can’t go. It can cross cultures. It’s very powerful.

“Within Pacific culture, there’s performance, oratory — craft doesn’t have to be an object made by hand. Not all cultures think in those terms.”

In Maori society there is some fluidity around the nuances of handcrafted objects. At the head of a hikoi in 1975 to protest ongoing Maori land alienation, a carved pou whenua was carried, and symbolically was never allowed to touch the ground. When taking part in protests, Maori land-rights campaigner Eva Rickard often carried a tokotoko (carved walking stick).

“Objects like these could be symbols of identity, showing the elegance and richness of cultures when used by an activist,” says Skinner.

Meanwhile, interest in crafts such as knitting, sewing, embroidery and macrame is enjoying a revival.

“It’s cool again,” says Skinner.

“We wanted to capture this amazing moment when the handmade object has been at the heart of history, literally the making of Aotearoa.”

“How can practices of making adapt and change? How can you keep the spirit and essence of what you’re doing and respond to new materials and new mediums and new situations? A made object that carries tradition with it can help these transformations and can help people adapt.”

Crafting Aotearoa is a strange but rich book, says Skinner.

“You see the weirdness in the conjunctions, but that’s what made us excited by the idea of craft.

“The history of craft is a history of different ways of thinking and collaborating and missing each other. If you don’t close it down but keep it open, amazing things can happen.”

Crafting Aotearoa: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the Wider Moana Oceania, edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Mahina-Tuai and Damian Skinner and published by Te Papa Press.

Crafting Aotearoa: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the Wider Moana Oceania is a new history of craft that spans three centuries. Along with exploring the often unappreciated role of handmade objects in New Zealand and the Pacific, the editors and many contributing subject experts approached the book with the understanding that the history of craft is an idea that changes over time.

Co-editors Kolokesa U Mahina-Tuai, Chitham and Skinner see Crafting Aotearoa as a book written about the past, firmly in the present but with one eye on the future.

“We wanted to write it from the perspective of our time,” says Skinner.

“There are many different kinds of craft. It’s a broad church. There is amateur craft, crafts people made in wartime such as rag rugs and chairs made from fruit boxes; stuff men do in their sheds, what we did in woodwork at school.

“Then there’s professional craft — pottery, jewellery, glassware. It’s an interesting category which is one of the reasons we like it. We have a rich culture of making in New Zealand, involving Pakeha, Maori, island nations and immigrants. There’s a wealth of different ideas of who people are, and that is expressed through what they make and use in their homes and daily lives.”

The Western world separates art and craft, says Skinner. The questions “what’s in common and what can’t be translated?” and “have they related to each other, or only sometimes related to each other?” needed to be asked during the making of the book.

Crafting connections

“Things miss each other and sometimes they talk to each other. A gap can be as interesting as a conversation.”

When Chinese gold seekers ventured to California, then to Australia and New Zealand, they had ceramic rice bowls and tea bowls brought in. That is a story that has nothing to do with New Zealand craft ceramics, says Skinner.

But in the 1950s and 60s, after British potter Bernard Leach taught New Zealand potters how to make ceramics with a Japanese aesthetic, the histories of Japanese ceramics and New Zealand ceramics became intertwined.

The parsing of art, craft and world view is especially tricky when considering works created by Maori. Maori art and craft is termed toi Maori in the book. The struggle for Maori and other cultures’ craftwork is to be recognised, not as artisan handiwork but “to become art, and then not art but taonga or toi, because art is not the right term either”, says Skinner.

Traditional Maori art gave visual form and shape to cultural belief systems and expressed spiritual ideas in natural materials such as wood, stone, bone and flax, says an nzhistory webpage.

As part of redefining what craft means in New Zealand and the Pacific, the book’s editors want to do away with the term Pacific. For one thing, it’s a misnomer: the biggest ocean in the world is not the Pacific. This misconception came about in 1521 when Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan encountered favourable winds on reaching the ocean he went on to call Mar Pacífico, “peaceful sea”.

The alternative term, Moana Oceania, encompasses the Pacific islands and the concept of the Pacific as a neighbourhood. Despite its immensity, the ocean (moana) connects the Pacific islands rather than separates them.

“It’s a bit of activism,” says Skinner.

“We’re not saying it’s perfect but we want to take it out for a spin and see what happens.

Meanings and histories

“We pay a lot of attention to terms. You should use the right term if you can. Words carry meanings and histories. An object made by hand can go to places language can’t go. It can cross cultures. It’s very powerful.

“Within Pacific culture, there’s performance, oratory — craft doesn’t have to be an object made by hand. Not all cultures think in those terms.”

In Maori society there is some fluidity around the nuances of handcrafted objects. At the head of a hikoi in 1975 to protest ongoing Maori land alienation, a carved pou whenua was carried, and symbolically was never allowed to touch the ground. When taking part in protests, Maori land-rights campaigner Eva Rickard often carried a tokotoko (carved walking stick).

“Objects like these could be symbols of identity, showing the elegance and richness of cultures when used by an activist,” says Skinner.

Meanwhile, interest in crafts such as knitting, sewing, embroidery and macrame is enjoying a revival.

“It’s cool again,” says Skinner.

“We wanted to capture this amazing moment when the handmade object has been at the heart of history, literally the making of Aotearoa.”

“How can practices of making adapt and change? How can you keep the spirit and essence of what you’re doing and respond to new materials and new mediums and new situations? A made object that carries tradition with it can help these transformations and can help people adapt.”

Crafting Aotearoa is a strange but rich book, says Skinner.

“You see the weirdness in the conjunctions, but that’s what made us excited by the idea of craft.

“The history of craft is a history of different ways of thinking and collaborating and missing each other. If you don’t close it down but keep it open, amazing things can happen.”

Crafting Aotearoa: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the Wider Moana Oceania, edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Mahina-Tuai and Damian Skinner and published by Te Papa Press.

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