Ellie Lee-Duncan – 27 August, 2019
Historically, Western art history has a dichotomy of craft versus fine art, and Murphy points out that this means that indigenous creative practices were constantly excluded from the category of fine art. The same can be said for much of the history of women's art practices in the West, which have been dismissed as craft or domestic hobbies. However within the last few years in Aotearoa there is an increasing number of textile art exhibitions, particularly by women artists and people of colour.
Salome Tanuvasa, Serene Timoteo, Natasha Matila-Smith, Deborah Rundle, Arielle Walker
Hear Me Roar
Curated by Maddie Gifford
10 July — 3 August 2019
Hear Me Roar was an exhibition of five women artists working in textile art, with a common theme of incorporating text in their works. Through soft fabrics, each work explicitly conveyed a different message. For me, the title seemed to sit at odds with the works on display — rather than violently roaring, many works drew the viewer in with soft whispers.
Howard Murphy’s book Becoming Art discusses indigenous creative practices and the fact that many are concerned with weaving or painting on a form of textile. Historically, Western art history has a dichotomy of craft versus fine art, and Murphy points out that this means that indigenous creative practices were constantly excluded from the category of fine art (1). The same can be said for much of the history of women’s art practices in the West, which have been dismissed as craft or domestic hobbies. However within the last few years in Aotearoa there is an increasing number of textile art exhibitions, particularly by women artists and people of colour; artists such as Erika van Zon, Maureen Lander, Areez Katki, Annie McKenzie, Donna Campbell, Jae Kang, Rangi Hetet and Erenora Puketapu-Hetet.
Essence, Beauty, and Informal, Salome Tanuvasa’s works, featured the words stitched and seeming to float over backgrounds of calico. For me, these lacked a formal complexity, either of different layers or other visual interest, which would have held me in the intended state of meditation. They seemed vapid compared to the dizzy strokes in black marker on her other works. The marker pen works had an individualised mark-making, and were created in the quiet of the evening while her two children were asleep. The family element continued since Tanuvasa chose calico because it was a constant while she was growing up, when her mother was a seamstress. The strokes indicated an automatic repetition of muscle memory to create her own coded sentiments.
Serene Timoteo’s works particularly stood out from the rest of the exhibition, and were created with bright satin ribbons threaded into plastic woven mats. The woven mats are a symbol of Sāmoan culture, but these ones are sourced from emporiums in Avondale. These mats are no longer hand-made in a traditional manner, but imported and mass-produced. Their plasticity is a reference to the term ‘plastic Sāmoan’; someone who was raised outside of the islands and is distanced from their own heritage, but have assimilated Western culture. Timoteo explores the tension between what constitutes authenticity and identity, with a self-conscious reflexivity.
One of her works states in ribbon rosettes on a woven mat, ‘Clothe your eyes you rude dude’. This statement responds to a poem by Selina Tusitala-Marsh, Two nudes on a Tahitian beach: 1864 which calls out the artist Paul Gauguin and his treatment in art and life of sexualising underage Tahitian girls. Gauguin’s canonical place in art history has meant his actions are often glossed over or ignored. Another poem of Tusitala-Marsh puts it bluntly: Gauguin takes his ‘syphilitic body / downstream to the tropics / to test his artistic hypothesis / about how the uncivilised / ripen like pawpaw / are best slightly raw‘ (2). This paradigm for viewing tagata o le moana young girls as exotic and erotic, and readily available to a white predatory gaze has become entrenched in cultural history, and particularly extant in advertising images of holidays which sell a tropical paradise with attractive and acquiesing women.
Natasha Matila-Smith had two works hung in this exhibition, both using aerosol spray-paint on sateen. A phrase was painted onto each using stencils: I was secretly in love with you; I took more smokos so I could talk to you. Her similar works in black velvet have a luxurious and salacious quality to them which these lack. The shiny sateen seems purposefully cheap and tacky, and suits the off-handed and slightly pathetic nature of these comments. Particularly with the image of someone taking more breaks to get close to someone, they have an endearing yet cringe-worthy quality. But they’re so familiar, so close to home — I think we’ve all had embarrassing secret crushes on our workmates. These works are the most playful and light-hearted in this exhibition, where Matila-Smith seems to relish in casual self-deprecation.
Deborah Rundle’s work Are we not ready? posed the titular question stitched onto a found wool tapestry. The ends of the white wool used to embroider the lettering are left loose to hang down the work, creating an unpolished appearance. Each corner of the tapestry is hung by a thread to the much larger wooden frame, so it seems to float in space.
The quote is from Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist philosopher and Communist politician who critiqued materialism and capitalist society. This piece was previously in a solo exhibition that was reviewed on this site by John Hurrell. The question is stitched onto the rough back side of the tapestry, so the piece is able to be viewed from either side. The rich variations of ochre and rusty brown present the dark silhouettes of trees against a vivid sunset, and seem to indicate it was made in the late 70s - early 80s. This would fit with that time period, where restrictions on other imported fibres meant that weavers and knitters in Aotearoa relied on wool produced here (3).
But I found it difficult to reconcile the immediacy of Gramsci’s political call to action with the medium itself. Stitched onto something that could belong in a grandparent’s sitting room, it made me think of being asked by my grandma if I was ready — in regards to wearing weather-appropriate coat and shoes — rather than the intended call to a socio-political turning point. For me, the unfinished shaggy wooliness seemed inappropriately soft and removed the urgency of the message.
Arielle Walker had three small and one large knitted work in matching colours. The largest was about the size of a lap blanket, and contained the phrase ‘Ka haere au ki te tōwenetanga o te rā’. The phrase was rendered in a serifed font similar to Times New Roman, and was knitted into the work in a rose pink that stood out against a background of teal and aubergine. It was taken from the mythological Māori poem The myth of Taranaki, retold by James Cowan. When Mount Taranaki decides to depart from his home, he says this phrase which translates to ‘I shall go towards the setting place of the sun’. The text is removed several times, from Māori oral story-telling traditions, to being retold by Cowan, and then made visible, knitted knot by knot into this work. The artist allowed visitors to Weasel Gallery to touch the work, something I always relish. It was thick, plush and plump, and deliciously sensuous. The size of this piece, like a small blanket, made me envision her wrapping herself in it, clothed in its warmth and words.
Te Punga Somerville has said that argued that story-telling, both oral and written, can be seen as a form of ‘maintaining ahi kā’ (4). Ahi kā is the concept of keeping the home fires burning. By keeping a fire alive, Māori iwi were able to assert occupation over a section of land, and this was supported by the tracing of heritage or whakapapa, back over generations continuously on an area of earth (5). Somerville continues, stating ‘if language is a form of assertion, a form of fire, then the massive number of Māori who do not reside on their traditional homelands are not necessarily cut out of the equation of asserting a native relationship with place … emphasising the possibility of imaginative occupation through telling stories.’(6) Regardless of the fact that Walker is not using traditional Māori raranga techniques, she is actively weaving the stories of her heritage. In this sense, each of these artists use textiles as a form of story-telling to claim a standing place in Aotearoa, and as a form of decolonising politics.
(1) Howard Murphy, Becoming Art, Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2007.
(2) Selina Tusitala-Marsh, ‘Guys like Gauguin’, in Fast talking PI, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2009.
(3) Jane Ruck-Doyle, ‘Committed passion: handweavers guilds and a new generation of makers in New Zealand,’ The Pantograph Punch, published 5th February 2018.
(4) Indigenous Identity and Resistance, edited by Brendan Hokowhitu, Nathalie Kermoal, Chris Andersen, Anna Petersen, Michael Reilly, Isabel Altamirano-Jiménez, and Poia Rewi, Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2010, 14.
(5) Ahi kā, Te aka online Māori dictionary, accessed 10th August 2019.
(6) Indigenous Identity and Resistance, 14.