Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Te Papa Museum Wellington, New Zealand

Meralda Warren, Keynote Speaker for the Pacific
Te Papa Museum’s Maori and Pacific Textile Symposium
as published in Norfolk on Line Friday 17 June, 2011

Sunday 5 June, three days before Bounty Day, I flew out of Norfolk for Auckland with Margaret Adams to meet up with my ‘Ahu Sistas Jean Clarkson and Meralda Warren who had just arrived from Pitcairn.  It’s hard for us to comprehend the commitment a Pitcairner must have to a project to travel at any time.  As Meralda says with a wink, ‘it only takes a quad ride, a 2 day boat ride aboard a cargo vessel to Mangareva (Gambier Islands), a plane trip from Mangareva to Tahiti and finally another plane from Tahiti to Auckland. 

When Meralda and I were asked to present papers at New Zealand’s national Te Papa Museum for the first Maori and Pacific Textiles Symposium, she had to think long and hard about the travel and the time she would be away from family and her business Maimiti Haven.  She applied for a Commonwealth Connections International Art Residency and received word of her success just hours before her departure from Pitcairn.  Meralda is Pitcairn Island’s first recipient of this coveted award.

It all began last year when I was on my way around the world for my Churchill Scholarship to study barkcloths made by our foremothers, (the Polynesian women of the Bounty) today held in museums.  Te Papa was my first port of call along with New Zealand’s national Turnbull Library.  With Jean Clarkson and Sue Pearson I was lucky to visit the museum’s Pacific curators and their collections.  In passing I mentioned whalebone beaters, and surprise surprise, there was one in their stores, vaguely associated with Fiji.  We have since identified the beater to be from Pitcairn and it is now on public display and attributed to Pitcairn Island.  It is the only Pitcairn whalebone beater on exhibit in the world.

Since then, and with this wonderful discovery under my belt, I continued on my trip and kept in contact with the Te Papa curators.  Unbeknownst to me, they had begun planning a textiles symposium and some months later asked if Meralda and I would like to present a paper.  It was decided Meralda would be the Pacific’s Keynote Speaker and I would follow her up.  How exciting to showcase our history in this context.

Back in Auckland this past week, we were joined by Sue Pearson and celebrated Bounty Day by having a feast at a nearby Foodcourt filled to the brim with exciting and colourful international food stalls and even bumped into Lizzy Tagg’s sister.

Early the next morning we left Auckland and arrived in Wellington just before a ruby sun rose over the horizon.  In the airports and along the road people stopped us exclaiming ‘nice hats!’ as we had been told to bring our national costume, and dressed in our Bounty Day gear we met the other delegates at Te Papa Museum.  The official opening of the Symposium - a beautiful ceremonial ‘Powhiri’ on the museum’s interior marae had us spellbound.  We were then led to the Maori and Pacific stores where we were shown the treasures of the museum. In the Maori section, feather capes hundreds of years old are held in large draws which we were able to view at our leisure, and in the Pacific section huge rolls of enormous bales of tapa, spears and modern  collections of tivaevae were on display.

Pauline Reynolds - speaker for the Pacific
The following day was our big day.  Meralda, as the Keynote speaker for the Pacific, was first up and delivered a wonderful presentation split in two sections – the first devoted to her mum’s weaving practice and the second to Meralda’s speciality – the making of tapa cloth.  She detailed her knowledge of Pitcairn’s unique weaving and gathering of materials, and her hands-on approach to making tapa.  Meralda completely taught herself  and this brought her resounding respect from those knowledgeable people attending the conference.  Next I delivered my own paper called the Forgotten Women of the Bounty and their Material Heritage.  It was a humbling experience to tell these Pacific peoples about our foremothers and the legacy they left for us.  I was absolutely honoured by the appreciation shown to us by the attendees.

Attending events centred on the areas of one’s passion is never a waste of time.  It’s a special opportunity to make contacts with others with similar interests and can often lead to new prospects and projects.

Pauline - speaker for the Pacific
The rest of the symposium was so interesting that one of the speakers sitting next to me later said, ‘It’s like going to university’.  We were treated with talks about the Cook collections of tapa from the Southern Hemisphere, the origins of tapa cloth, the identification of feathers and plant materials in Maori textiles, Micronesian textile traditions, the bilum bags of Papua New Guinea and research and artistic methods. 

That night the Governor of the Pitcairn Islands, her Excellency Vicki Treadell held an event to showcase Pitcairn Island’s art and culture, trade and tourism at Homewood, the British High Commissioner’s Residence.  The occasion was built around Meralda’s presence in Wellington for the.  Long tables lined the rooms of the beautiful building and were loaded with tapa cloth, weaving, beautifully made carvings of longboats, dolphins, turtles, platters and bowls accompanied by coin collections, jewellery and the iconic Pitcairn honey.  Pitcairn dishes such as bread sticks, green plun fritters, coconut bread with pineapple were offered throughout the night.  Many tour operators, interested parties and Pitcairn Islanders living locally came and enjoyed the marvellous hospitality of the new Governor, who in her opening address totally won us all over with her gracious and passionate speech about building a new ‘positive Pitcairn’ and supporting the fragile economy.  There is no doubt that Vicki Treadell appears firmly committed to making this happen, and highlighted the importance of Meralda’s presence.

Saturday was the last day of the Symposium and we were treated to presentations by Maori, Samoan, Fijian and Microneasian weavers, artists, and academics, and papers such as, ‘Textiles as Tellers of Tales’, the ‘Patu of the Pacific and Maori’, wonderful presentations by Te Papa staff on Cook Island Tivaevae and conservation of Maori and Pacific textiles. 

The Symposium was actually part of a bigger festival celebrating the Maori new year called Matariki after the rising of the Pleiades.  We were lucky to witness fashion shows, special exhibitions and Signs of a Nation with a Maori and Pacific Arts and Crafts Market where Leona Hermans had a beautiful display of her superb woven baskets.

The next day I took a plane out of Wellington long before the crack of dawn to Auckland and back home to Norfolk.  After all this, I have realised how important it is to follow our dreams, our passions, no matter how isolated we might find ourselves (or how eccentric others might find us).  Especially so if it is a positive journey not only for ourselves but one which might benefit those around us, especially the younger generation.  I also firmly believe the importance of remembering that we are a Pacific community, and no matter where our future may lead, it is up to each of us as individuals to remember our history and culture.  Each one of us represents our island everytime we travel and are asked, ‘where are you from?’ We can all make a difference  


You may wonder why we called this blog 'Tattoo and Tapa'. Tihoti's passion is design using the ancient symbols used by his tupuna or ancestors. Mine is the same, but applied on a different surface.

The designs used by Tahitians in 'tatau' (tattoo) often crossed over into the designs used in 'ahu (tapa) decoration. Some of the deep symbolism used in tatau today in Tahiti is lost, although Tihoti feels that by using nature as our inspiration we can come to understand these designs again, and from there evolve those designs beyond our misunderstandings. But that understanding has to come from a Polynesian perspective.

I am fascinated by the designs and colours used in the ancient 'ahu - everything was symbolic. Much of this knowledge is forgotten today: but not entirely. For me it has become an exhilarating adventure of rediscovery.