One of the more insidious and damaging hallmarks of colonialism is loss of culture. It serves the invader’s superiority narrative to devalue indigenous wisdom, casting the carriers of native knowledge as primitive Calibans. Manifest destiny is much easier to justify when it’s viewed as civilisation rather than disenfranchisement.
Nikau Hindin (Ngai Tūpoto, Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) has dedicated her career to reclaiming and preserving mātauranga Māori. Kōkōrangi ki Kōkōwai, showing in Hastings City Art Gallery’s main hall until May 22, is the culmination of Hindin’s voyage of inquiry into the traditional wisdoms and practices of her people.
It was a journey that took her across the Pacific as well as learning from her lineage, her whānau. She investigated the past, mastered her craft, and transmuted it into something new, breathing life into old scholarship that otherwise might have died from lack of use. In her subject matter she is the Kōkōrangi, the astronomer, using the earth, the reddish volcanic pigment of the Kōkōwai amongst her tools. Earth and Sky. Past and Present. Near and Far. And at the centre of it all, Hindin’s diligent practice, producing cultural artifacts of profound significance.
Almost a decade ago, Hindin received knowledge of the growth, harvesting and preparation of aute, the Paper Mulberry. It’s an arduous process by which she produced much of her materials, documented in a short film by Seb Charles, on display as part of the exhibit. Her inks too come from the earth, the eponymous ochre of kōkōwai and the burned black soot of ngārahu contrasting against the off white aute, scraped bare with a scallop shell. They are the colours of the Tino Rangatiratanga rendered in earthen tones, painstakingly created with absolute authenticity.
Her forms too are rooted in tradition with a novel bent. Having delved into the ancestral secrets of the earth for her material, for her subject matter she looks to the stars. Without a rich history of celestial navigation, Māori could never have reached these shores. Hindin dived into kauae runga, plotting the movement of the heavens and noting their implications on earth. She created a codex using forms familiar to us from the marae – the lattice patterns of the tukutuku, the stepped triangles of the tāniko. These she has imbued with fresh meaning to create celestial maps, charting the skies above us, the cosmic dance of moon, planets and stars.
Alongside these is displayed some older work, paintings on portions of sail that have actually traversed the Pacific. In contrast to this backdrop of the past, are the towering spectres of Maro I and Maro II. Showing the etherial form of the aute cloth in its raw beauty, these suspended pieces offer us a window into the nature of the material. They are also works in progress, so to speak. They will reach their final form when worn round the waists of Hindin’s male whānau. Past and future each are given space.
It is this profound balance that characterises the exhibit, that and its utter authenticity. When we come to an understanding of the artist’s depth of learning, wholehearted commitment to her cause, only then can we truly feel the impact of this important body of work.
Hindin truly holds the seeds of civilisation as taonga. She is not only keeping her culture alive, but she is allowing it to flourish and grow, standing on the shoulders of giants. With her feet firmly planted in the earth, connected to the roots of her tīpuna, she lets her work grow wings and fly all the way to the stars.
Photo: Putaanga Waitoa